Cape Town’s toilets that are too hazardous to use

The pota-potas have in the past been used as a symbol to show disdain for poor sanitation services offered to informal settlements. Archive photo by Mzi Velapi

Residents of Khayelitsha’s informal settlements have to contend with communal toilets that do not flush or portable toilets they have to clean out themselves.

As the rest of the world celebrated World Toilet Day on the 19th of November, women living in informal settlements of Khayelitsha raised concerns over the safety, cleanliness, access to, and maintenance of communal toilets. World Toilet Day is a United Nation observance day to inspire action to tackle the lack of sanitation services globally.

Residents living in the informal parts of Khayelitsha such as eNdlovini and Taiwan have been exposed to the health hazards of communal toilets for many years. While access to proper sanitation is a basic human right, residents of eNdlovini and Taiwan do not enjoy this right.

The Elitsha team went to eNdlovini and Taiwan to speak to residents about toilets. Zolani Louw who lives with his mother, is a resident at eNdlovini where their home is located near the main road. Though the communal flush toilets are right in front of their home, he said they no longer use them: “There is a key system created in order for people to access the toilets which is an inconvenience because sometimes you need to use the toilet as soon as possible,” said Zolani.

In addition, the toilets are a danger to their health. Zolani said they decided to build their own toilet because it was starting to become a problem for his mother. The communal toilets are not maintained regularly and with broken pipes, the pungent smell of waste is especially bad. “The last time these toilets were maintained was in 2019 when they came to fix the doors,” recalls Zolani.

Residents of eNdlovini informal settlement say they have been using buckets to flush the communal toilets for the past 10 years.

Thandeka Handi who is also a resident of eNdlovini said the communal flush toilets are dirty because everyone uses them. “As a woman, I may get infected by something because I don’t know who cleans those toilets. Those toilets are also not safe to use because they are far from where I live,” said Thandeka.

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The communal flush toilets are located on the boundary of the informal settlement and are not close to many people’s homes. Thandeka built her own toilet two years ago. She called on the city to build the residents of eNdlovini proper toilets, “We are people even if we live in shacks and the government needs to build us flushable toilets to make our lives easier as well. We do not want portable toilets,” Thandeka said.

Thandeka’s neighbour, Vuyokazi Sindaphi first built a pit latrine and after a few years built a flushable one near to her home. “I had to build a toilet outside my house because the public ones are always locked and people keep the keys to themselves,” she said.

Residents in eNdlovini opt to build their own flushable toilets because the communal toilets are not easily accessible as the residents lock them.

Residents in Site C, Taiwan informal settlement, received imishengu toilets (chemical toilets) three weeks ago. Prior to this development, they used portable toilets (pota-pota) and have been forced to accept the new imishengu toilets.

“We prefer the pota-pota as it is shared by two households, my house and my neighbour,” said Sinazo Gqadushe, a mother of 4 in Taiwan. Even though they had grown to accept the Pota Pota toilets, they did not allow their children to use them for health reasons. 

According to Sinazo there are nine people who shared the Pota Pota toilet. When the portable toilet tanks were full, they were obliged to clean them and take out the tanks for the municipal workers to pick up. “I use pine gel, dishwasher and madubula (disinfectant) to clean the toilets, because sometimes it is not thoroughly cleaned,” said Sinazo. 

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Taiwan residents recently received ‘chemical’ or imishengu toilets

The City of Cape Town says it budgets about R36-million per financial year to put infrastructure in place to provide basic water and sanitation services to registered informal settlements. The city claims that the toilets are cleaned daily and are serviced four times a week, which residents deny. Residents who cannot afford to build their own toilets are subjected to waste surging up when they flush. “I can only remember the one time the municipality came to drain the waste but never to maintain the pipes so we can flush. We have to carry a bucket of water to flush the toilet,” said Noluthando Sithole.

Over the past ten years, eNdlovini residents have had to make peace with fetching water to flush their waste in what were meant to be flushable toilets.  

The mayoral committee member for finance and acting MEC for water and sanitation, Siseko Mbandezi, said that full flush toilets can be installed in certain parts of an informal settlement where there is space for laying of pipes and for the construction of toilet blocks. “They just need to be connected to the sewer network. The city maintains a database of settlements across the metro which is used to guide the interventions around the installation of toilets,” he said.

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