The commodification of crap and South Africa’s toilet apartheid

By Patrick Bond, Durban

December 5, 2012 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- The December 3-6, 2012, World Toilet Summit offers an opportunity to contemplate how we curate our crap. Increasingly the calculus seems to be cash, generating contradictions ranging from local to global scales, across race, gender, generation and geography. Nowhere are they more evident than in the host city, my hometown of Durban. We’ve suffered an 18-year era of neoliberal-nationalist malgovernance including toilet apartheid, in the wake of more than 150 years of colonialism and straight racial-apartheid.

In central Durban, the mafia of the global water and sanitation sector – its corporate, NGO and state-bureaucratic elite – have gathered at the International Convention Centre, just a few blocks west of the Indian Ocean, into which far too much of our excrement already flows. They’re at the same scene of the crime as, exactly a year ago, negotiators dithered at the United Nations COP17 “Conference of Polluters” summit.

Recall that the COP17 rebuffed anyone who fancifully hoped global elites might address the planet’s main 21st century crisis. The 1%ers inside ignored outsider demands for climate justice: make airtight commitments to 50 percent emissions cuts by 2020; drop the “privatisation of the air” strategy known as carbon trading and offsets; and cough up “climate debt” payments from rich to poor countries.

Instead, that conference ended with a “Durban Platform” that re-emphasised capitalist strategies, pleasing Washington especially. The COP17 deal eroded differences in responsibility between global North and South, and moreover, as lead Bank of America Merrill Lynch carbon dealer Abyd Karmali told the Financial Times, the Durban Platform was “like a Viagra shot for the flailing carbon markets”. True, a tiny carbon price erection followed, but the effect soon wore off; the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme has been flaccid throughout 2012.

What the dog’s-breakfast Durban Platform confirms, then, was global-elite backslapping generosity to each other, simultaneous with rank incompetence and utter disregard for the poor and environment, all of which are again on display this week at the COP18 in Doha, Qatar. Precedents matter, for lowering standards.

Commodification of crap

The World Toilet Organisation’s battlecry, “Scaling up – dignity for all!”, appears as a creative talk-left but turn-the-tap-right (i.e. off) strategy. The water mafia has long struggled to gain legitimacy for neoliberal cost-cutting strategies, and now does so by invoking dignity (and they also have tried colonising the “water rights” discourse) – but naturally not genuine equal access and consumer affordability, neither of which are possible under neoliberalism.

Another version of this is micro-scale privatisation, where NGOs and community organisations are encouraged to build local toilets and charge poor people for their use, to cover construction, cleaning, maintenance, the water bill and a tiny salary.

Last month in Nairobi’s Kibera and Huruma slums, I spent a day dodging the “flying toilets” (plastic bags filled with faeces), thankfully guided in walkabouts by two admirable popular organisations whose young people – often drawn from ex-gang members – construct these toilets after fighting the small-scale local water capitalists who physically sabotage state suppliers. These systems of desperation-commodification, priced at US$0.10 per use (including one piece of loo paper), are vast improvements on the flying-toilet status quo.

This travesty is the result of a more general neoliberal dogma that hit slums like Nairobi’s over the past quarter century: cutbacks in state-subsidised water. The strong residue – both in World Bank techie talk and in populist-neoliberal micro-privatisation mode – is just as evident at the Durban Toilet Summit as it was at the World Water Forum in Marseilles nine months ago. That event reconfirmed the water-empire expansion of Paris mega-privatisers like Veolia and Suez, along with the likes of liquid-barons Coke and Nestle, all backed by the multilateral development banks.

Although for a dozen years, fierce anti-privatisation struggles have been waged in Cochabamba, Johannesburg, Accra, Argentina, Atlanta, Jakarta, Manila and many other urban water battlegrounds, it seems that recent US and European municipal fiscal crises offer a new opportunity for the water profiteers.

At the Durban summit, even more clever neoliberal stunts are being rehearsed. “Community-Led Total Sanitation” (CLTS), popularised by NGOer Kamal Kar and academic Robert Chambers in Bangladesh, passes yet more responsibilities for public hygiene downwards to poor people. The goal is to wean the lumpens off reliance upon state subsidies through social shaming.

Explains Petra Bongartz from Sussex University, “Through the tools employed by CLTS, a community comes to self-realization that their acts of open defecation are disgusting. In disgust, I have seen some people spit, others turn away from the direction of shit. Still others have vomited at the sight of shit. Disgust is one of the key elements of a CLTS trigger. Disgust is ignited by the unpleasant sight of shit, more so when the shit is still in its fresh and wet state.”

State funds to supply sanitation services are invariably in short supply, so such gimmicks allow smirking Finance Ministry technocrats in many countries to both decentralize the state and shrink it, and in the process, shift duties to municipalities and vulnerable people, in a process sometimes called ‘unfunded mandates’.

Durban’s dirty water

In this context, Durban residents like myself are having a hard time separating good from bad arguments when it comes to water quality and sanitation. First is the rumour, fed by media hysteria, that drinking Durban’s increasingly grey water is bad for us. As the city begins to mix recycled city sewage with river supply from the mercury-contaminated Inanda Dam (where signs warn local fisherfolk against eating their catch) and other E.coli-infected streams, will we end up as ill and thirsty as several unfortunate neighbouring Mpumalanga Province towns’ citizens?

In many little dorpies stretching from Johannesburg east through Mpumalanga to the Mozambique border at Kruger Park, acid mine drainage and related toxic effluent from coal mining corporations flow prolifically. The national environment ministry turns a blind eye. Between worsening climate change, declining air quality and widespread water pollution, it is terrible but true – as even the African National Congress (ANC) government admits in obscure reports – that apartheid’s ecology was better than freedom’s.

To illustrate, at the very tip of the ANC government’s free-market, fast-melting iceberg, Cyril Ramaphosa’s coal company was let off the prosecutorial hook last month for operating without a water license. Ramaphosa’s political clout was simply overwhelming, according to a leading Pretoria bureaucrat cited by the Mail&Guardian. Indeed it is likely Ramaphosa will become the country’s second-most senior leader at an ANC conference in a fortnight’s time, notwithstanding his smoking-email role in the Marikana mineworkers massacre, carried out by police in August 2012 at the behest of the multinational corporation Lonmin, for which Ramaphosa serves as local frontperson.

As for Durban’s tap-water quality, no, I don’t think there’s any worry, and still have no qualms about ordering my restaurant water straight from the tap. Much worse is the rise of plastic bottles – see for gory details – which clog landfills and whose petroleum inputs soil the air in South Durban, Africa’s largest refinery site.

There, children in the mainly Indian suburb of Merebank suffer the world’s worst recorded asthma rate. The Malaysian-owned Engen refinery and BP/Shell’s Sapref complex act like a massive pollution pincer on the kids’ young lungs. Last week, even the slobs at the US Environmental Protection Agency deemed BP – “Beyond Petroleum” (hah) – such a filthy rogue that it may no longer bid for new oil leases there.

Durban’s dirty water policy

Other gossip making the rounds here concerns the world-famous water manager who runs Durban’s municipal system, Neil Macleod. Billionaire philanthropist and Microsoft founder Bill Gates blogged two years ago that Macleod “has been a leader in thinking through how to improve sanitation for the poor in Durban”. But last month Macleod was charged with corruption by his subordinates (whom he was investigating for the same crime).

This came just at the moment that former Durban city manager Mike Sutcliffe apparently intimidated his successor S’bu Sithole into out-of-court-settlement talks over corruption libel that may leave taxpayers shelling out as much as a million dollars to featherbed Sutcliffe’s supposedly injured “reputation”. Although the Manase Report into city corruption – from which Sithole made his claims that Sutcliffe should be jailed – remains a state secret, in both the Macleod and Sutcliffe cases, I’m convinced that they are being unfairly maligned.

How, then, might we more fairly malign these men, not personally of course, but for the society-corrupting, health-threatening, ecologically-destructive sanitation policies on their watch?

The most obvious evidence is the city’s repeated embarrassment at reports of high E.coli and toxin levels in the rivers feeding the ocean, especially after rains, leading to the loss of international “Blue Flag” status at 10 Durban beaches four years ago. This month is vital for attracting Johannesburg tourists, so the excessive recent storms make it doubly hard for our hospitality industry, given last week’s reports about unsafe beaches.

So why do long stretches of Durban’s beaches become unswimmable after rain? The primary cause is Macleod’s persistent failure to address the vast sanitation backlog in more than 100 shack settlements across the city. Here, Sutcliffe long refused to authorise standard municipal services – such as water mains and bulk sewage – because of their informal property-rights status, especially those near the traditionally white and Indian areas subject to forced-displacement pressure.

Most shack settlements, in which around a third of Durban’s 3.5 million people live, have only a few poorly (or un-)maintained toilets, notwithstanding heroic efforts by their main social movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo – most notably at the Kennedy Road shack settlement of 4000 residents and eight toilets (until ANC thuggery forced them out) – to raise the profile of the problem.

As a result of loose excrement, E.coli flows into our streams at a rate far higher than the recommended “safe” level of 100 parts per 100ml. The 2010 State of the Rivers Report found the E.coli count in the “uMngeni River at Kennedy Road up to 1,080,000. Cause: Informal Community on the banks of the Palmiet River.”

Power politics and toilet apartheid

Five years ago, Macleod predicted to Science magazine that by 2010 “everyone [would have] access to a proper toilet”, while in reality, hundreds of thousands do not, today.

Neoliberal sanitation experts visiting Durban for the Toilet Summit may rebut that the world cannot afford 12-litre flushes for everyone, and that we must embrace some version of low-water toilets here. (I agree that low-flush bio-gas digesters could be a fine compromise, supplying cooking gas to nearby houses.)

Yet community critics regularly tell us that Durban’s water-less “ventilated improved pit latrine” (VIP) and “urinary diversion” (UD – or “UnDignified”) strategies are failing. If the municipality possessed a genuinely green consciousness, then middle- and upper-class areas would have such pilot projects – not just tens of thousands provided in the city’s low-income periphery.

I flush a few times each day and pay a small premium: more than Durban’s poor can afford, but still not enough for the sake of equity. Many South African readers of this article could easily cross-subsidise their low-income fellow residents, by paying more for the privileges of filling swimming pools and bathtubs, watering gardens, running washing machines and all the other liquid luxuries we enjoy. This is, after all, the world’s most unequal major country, and it’s far worse now than even during apartheid.

If those of us above the 80th percentile paid more to deter our hedonistic water consumption, and if Macleod adjusted tariffs downwards accordingly for poor people, then Durban would not be South Africa’s second stingiest city for water, according to the University of the Witwatersrand Centre for Applied Legal Studies. (The worst is nearby Pietermaritzburg – both reflective of durable old-style Natal white settler-colonial mentality and latter-day Zulu managerial conservatism.)

If such logical reforms were made to water and sanitation prices, then better health and gender equity would result, and more funds could be raised for installing decent toilets across the city, as well as to repair sewage pipes whose cracks regularly infect our rivers and harbour.

After enormous herds of white-elephant infrastructure – underutilised stadiums, a fast train linking Pretoria and Johannesburg and Durban’s new airport – were built across South Africa for the 2010 soccer World Cup, no one in power can claim that construction capability or subsidised funding are lacking. What’s missing is a more favourable politics of and by the poor, and so what will continue to result is toilet apartheid.

[Patrick Bond directs the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society. He is author of Politics of Climate Justice, UKZN Press]


December 9 2012 at 04:19pm

Sunday Tribune

Inside one of the bucket system toilets. Photo: Boxer Ngwenya

KwaZulu-Natal - The eThekwini Municipality faces a fresh scandal – the Sunday Tribune has uncovered that the city has spent more than R500 million on a new “humiliating” apartheid-era bucket toilet system.

The new toilets have infuriated residents of Inanda, where over 100 have been built. They see them as inhumane, among other things.

The new toilets force residents to use buckets to physically empty their shallow toilet vaults.

But the city’s head of water and sanitation Neil Macleod says while the council has a constitutional obligation to provide basic sanitation, no one is forced to use the toilets.

Recipients of the so-called urine diversion toilets – 80 000 of which have already been built in rural parts of eThekwini – are given buckets, cups, spades, rakes and rubber gloves and pamphlets teaching them how to use the toilets and how to remove remnants of human waste material.

Each time they use the toilets they have to use a cup to pour soil over the excrement.

“When the toilets are full, we are expected to put the waste into the bucket and go and dispose of it just like in the old apartheid days. It is humiliating. It is unbelievable, actually,” said Muzi Sithole, a resident of Mzinyathi in Inanda, north of Durban, whose toilet was completed this week.

“We already have running water. The government must just build toilets that we can flush. But clearly this is how they bluff us. It is not acceptable.”

Sithole, who moved into the area two years ago and had already built his own toilet with a septic tank, said he had tried to complain to one of the installers about the toilet system.

“He tried to tell me these are free toilets and we shouldn’t be complaining. I told him he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. There’s no such thing as free, this is taxpayers’ money. It’s our money. Other people get flush toilets but not us. What I’d like to know is what makes them think they can do this to us. We’re really unhappy.”

Fidelis Hlongwa, 75, said the toilets reminded him of the bad old days of apartheid.

“This whole thing doesn’t sound right. It is hard to believe that in this day, when we have a black government, we are expected to handle human waste ourselves. It was understandable when it happened during apartheid, but to have this today?”

Dudu Gcabashe, a field researcher for NGO Umphile Wamanzi, said random interviews had been done with residents in Inanda, Kwa Nyuswa and Hammarsdale, where the toilets were being installed.

While some said they were happy to have them, others simply didn’t use them, preferring to use the self-built pit toilets they already had.

“In my opinion, the municipality is taking us backwards.

“When we ask people whether they can empty the toilets themselves, many say they can’t.

“They’re unwilling to do it, especially the men.

“The problem seems to be with our officials. They have a tendency to take decisions without consulting people. As a result, some people are converting these toilets and installing septic tanks.”

According to the 2011 census, about 9.9 percent of households in KwaZulu-Natal had no toilets, while a further 1.7 percent still used the dreaded apartheid-era bucket toilet system. Up to a million people have no proper sanitation in the province of 10.2 million people.

The census also revealed that 88.3 percent of households in KwaZulu-Natal have access to flush toilets.

Human Settlements deputy minister Zoliswa Kota-Fredericks this week told the world toilet summit that an estimated 1.4 million of 14 million households were without proper sanitation. The government would need to invest about R44.5 billion to fix the problem.

Macleod said the city had already spent R533.7 million on building the urine-diversion toilets and up to 12 000 more such toilets would be built in the next year.

These toilets were a recognised eco-friendly solution, whose technology originates in Europe, Macleod said.

“Our constitution requires that we provide basic sanitation as a right. Any higher level of sanitation is for the cost of the household.”

An on-site flushing toilet with a septic tank required a plot size of 800 square metres to safely dispose of the waste water. Its installation could cost the home owner about R20 000, Macleod said.

“Sanitation is provided in rural areas using UD toilets as an alternative to ventilated improved pit (VIP) type toilets provided by most other municipalities. VIP toilets smell and are expensive and difficult to empty – it costs over R1 200 to empty a VIP toilet. Piped sanitation is not an option as it would be extremely expensive in these areas,” he said.

A UD toilet can be built for less than R8 000 whereas piped sanitation in a rural area would cost over R100 000 per house to install excluding the cost of the toilet itself, he said.

When told some residents were unhappy with the toilets, Macleod said. “Our research does not agree with your findings. The acceptance rate is above 80%, according to independent research. The alternatives of open defecation or using a pit toilet that also has to be emptied are not favoured by most households.”

Macleod said if UD toilets were used correctly the material removed after two years would be dry and odour-free.

He was aware of contractors who can empty the toilets for less than R100.

Research was in progress to find out if the dry waste could be turned into fertiliser. If so, the city would advertise a contract to recover and process it.