Because of the wealth that circulates throughout Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban and Pretoria, South Africa is technically classified as an upper-middle income nation. However, the very cities that contain much of the country’s money are also surrounded by its most extreme examples of poverty.
The townships scattered around the edges of these cities are home to millions of people (the overwhelming majority of whom are “black Africans”) living in overcrowded shelters with little to no sanitation. It’s a recipe for disease, but some are saying that hasty solutions to the problem are not helping – in fact, the chemical toilets installed in townships outside of Cape Town have been explicitly described as human rights violations.
The city of Cape Town has provided chemical toilets – the type of toilet found inside Porta-Potties – to its townships for over a year. An investigation conducted by the Human Rights Commission has found that not only does the city fail to communicate with each township individually to cater to its specific sanitation needs, but it also equips its townships with the bare minimum sanitation services according to a set of “emergency housing guidelines.” The problem? For the people who live in townships, improper sanitation is no one-time emergency. It is their everyday reality.
Accordingly, the Human Rights Commission recommends that the city of Cape Town implement a new approach to sanitation in informal settlements, one that better serves the “rights to equality, dignity, privacy, basic sanitation, and a healthy environment.” To fulfill these expectations, Cape Town must provide its townships with chemical toilets that can service the needs of their entire populations, undergo periodic maintenance, are sufficiently cleaned on a regular basis – measures that are currently not being taken.
If Cape Town follows through with these recommendations and commits to providing proper sanitation, the residents of its townships will experience reduced risk of contracting the diseases and conditions associated with open sewage systems, including diarrhea, parasites and bacterial infection. In a country of nearly 60 million people, successful public health interventions can be difficult. However, Cape Town has its work laid out for it as far as sanitation goes.
Perhaps future sanitation successes in Cape Town’s townships will inspire further steps to improve the quality of life for South Africa’s poor. Townships, which are largely the result of the forced relocation of millions of black and “coloured” people during South Africa’s infamous period of apartheid, typically lack not just sanitation but also food security, safety and educational outlets. Giving people in informal settlements the sanitation measures necessary to prevent disease and protect human dignity is the first step to giving them a hand up and out of poverty.
– Elise L. Riley