Ferial Haffajee

Democracy only works for some

2010-06-01 08:30

If I were made to go to an outside toilet with rough corrugated iron walls, I too would, in all likelihood, take a panga to it.

When I tweeted this about toilets last week, after seeing the ANC Youth League members in Makhaza, Khayelitsha knocking down toilets, a couple of people who read it thought I’d been hacked. This is probably because I am a loud supporter of the rule of law in a Constitutional state. What then was this talk of pangas?

The images we published in City Press some months ago of Khayelitsha's residents going to the toilet in the open were the worst images of failed delivery we've seen since 1994.

They symbolised, so shittily, how democracy has only worked for a few of us; that the road to dignity for too many is still one without paving or a closed toilet of your own.

At this point, people usually say, “well, a corrugated iron toilet is better than nothing” or as one tweeter said: “what’s the sudden beef with corrugated iron”?

Inevitably they are people who have always had their own bathrooms and certainly never lived with communal corrugated iron wall toilets. Their only knowledge of such things is from hiking trails or camping trips where you choose to rough it.

Perhaps I am impassioned about this because I grew up on one.

My gran lived in Doornfontein, the other side of the railway line from the Ellis Park stadium. I loved her home with its shiny red stoep, Maltabella porridge and family suppers around a coal stove.

But I feared the outside toilet. In summer the corrugated walls hosted buzzing green flies; in winter the wind whistled through the sheets. The rough iron sheets inevitably cut little fingers, the cheap wooden seat splintered your bum and pulling the chain involved hanging by it to get it to flush.

When we moved to a flat in Bosmont, a coloured area in the west of the city, as the Group Areas Act pushed us out of town, the inside flushing toilet with a light was the height of luxury.

Freedom worked for me; I benefited from affirmative action laws and the opportunities that democracies prized open for black people.  I now have two bathrooms with proper walls.

So, I am an enthusiastic supporter of the rule of law and the Constitution. If were still in Doornfontein using that toilet, I wouldn’t give two hoots about lofty concepts.

Like the apartheid government’s toilets in the veld displayed the heartless intent of homeland policies and planning, these toilets in the open displayed the failure of democracy.

It didn’t matter that the community, it was said, had decided they wanted flushing toilets and would therefore build enclosures themselves. Why can’t they have flushing toilets and walls, I wondered, contemplating our high tax rates and fattened municipal rates bills? Who’s eating the money?

You can’t rationalise such awful things, especially in a city (and a country) where a short drive later, you can go to homes where there is a toilet for each member of the family with calibrated flushing.

Our country cannot much longer fail to see the moral failing and the inherent danger in this difference between effluence and affluence.

- Ferial Haffajee is editor of City Press.

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