Open toilets 'symbolise lack of delivery'
Fienie Grobler and Molaole Montsho
Johannesburg - The so-called "cabriolet" toilets have become a powerful symbol of failed service delivery ahead of local government elections next week, a political analyst said on Friday.
"There is nothing more powerful than the image of a woman sitting on a toilet without an enclosure," said Judith February, head of the political information and monitoring service at the Idasa democracy institute.
"Those are very powerful images and they show the lack of compassion there is when politicians are simply not listening to people. It's a graphic description of local government failure."
The unenclosed or open toilets have been named cabriolets on social networking sites, not only because it is an open top car, but also, as the Mail&Guardian newspaper pointed out in its editorial on Friday, it reminds one of "the fashionable convertible cars some of our politicians own".
'The toilet elections'
February said it was too simplistic to describe this year's local government elections as "the toilet elections", but added that the saga had exposed the root of voters' discontent with service delivery.
"People are suffering indignity largely because of corruption and inefficiency at local government level."
To make matters worse, Co-operative Governance Minister Sicelo Shiceka, who was facing allegations of state funds abuse, was on sick leave.
"We have a local government minister that is not behind his desk... the message that government is sending to voters is that we are not really concerned about your needs," said February.
It was difficult to gauge how much damage the toilet scandals have caused to both the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and the Democratic Alliance (DA), she said.
The open toilets re-emerged in the news in February when the Western Cape High Court ruled against the DA in the Makhaza case. The court found the DA-led City of Cape Town had violated the dignity of residents there and ordered the city to enclose 1 000 toilets in Khayelitsha.
ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema was at court when the verdict was handed down, and told supporters outside the building: "Spread the message. We are here today to bring down Helen Zille. Convince everybody here to vote for the ANC."
A few weeks later, the ANC finds itself on the receiving end of a similar situation.
ANC 'didn't know about open toilets'
Sunday newspapers reported there were 1 600 unenclosed toilets in the ANC-led Moqhaka municipality in the Free State. The Star reported this week that the tender for the construction of the toilets had been won by ANC councillor-turned-mayor Mantebu Mokgosi.
ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe claimed the national ANC "didn't know". Malema visited the area, vowing "heads would roll".
Since then, the Inkatha Freedom Party has claimed it has spotted open toilets in Khutsong in the North West's Merafong municipality, while the Congress of the People in Bloemfontein "exposed" continued use of the bucket system in the Free State.
The ANC's mayor of the West Rand district municipality, Mpho Nawa, visited Khutsong this week and told Sapa there were no unenclosed toilets. He said he could only find communal toilets, of which some had no doors, in Ward 1 in Khutsong.
Nawa said the doors were stolen by people building their own houses and that residents had told him there was no point in trying to replace the doors, because they would just be stolen again.
"I was there in Khutsong and could find nothing like that [unenclosed toilets]. The IFP is telling a blatant lie."
IFP Gauteng chairperson Petros Sithole begged to differ, insisting there were about 50 unenclosed toilets in Ward 3 in Khutsong.
"They [the ANC] are just trying to hide this and deny it because they know this is bad for them," said Sithole.
A Sapa reporter who visited the area this week could not find any sign of open toilets in Khutsong. He also spoke to several residents in the area, who could not point him to any open toilets either. Most informal settlements in the area had enclosed communal toilets, the reporter said.
Don't underestimate voters
Either way, February said the open toilet wars should teach politicians not to underestimate voters just because they were poor.
"There is a perception that because you are poor, you don't understand what the government is meant to be doing for you. But people know what the realities of their lives are and they know when the wool is being pulled over their eyes."
Service delivery protests were not only about basic services, but also about people complaining that they were not being heard, and that their locally elected councillors were living in a different reality.
She said that was what protesters in both Ficksburg in the Free State and Zandspruit in Honeydew, north west of Johannesburg, complained about.
A local government data and intelligence service, Municipal IQ, which measures the number of service delivery protests in municipalities countrywide, said so far there had been fewer protests this year compared to the same period last year.
From January to April this year there had been 23 service delivery protests, compared to 111 in that period last year.
Municipal IQ managing director Kevin Allan said this suggested voters were now waiting to see if promises made in the run-up to the elections would he kept.
"The apparent lull in activity may come as a surprise before elections, given contested candidates' lists and exposes around unenclosed toilets and municipal finance, but should be read positively as a possible sign of communities waiting to use elections rather than protests, and may also suggest the positive impact that politicians' visits have on communities.
"The latter must, however, be sustained, and promises implemented if protests are to be contained over the rest of 2011," said Allan.
February said one of the few ways to measure the real depth of ANC supporters' discontent with the government would be to wait for voter turnout figures.
"The lower the turnout, the worst for the ANC and the greater the indictment on the ruling party," said February.