For many of us, the toilet isa space where we reflect and gather our thoughts. Those fleeting minutes ofshort-lived privacy are a mirror where we face ourselves – our inner person. Wemake decisions about the next big or small thing, laugh at an inappropriatejoke (not me) or cry from being home-sick (also not me). In the space of a fewminutes we’re afforded ephemeral vulnerability, regardless of the location. Arguably,these are not mere facilities of relief, they are, literally andmetaphorically, spheres of dignity.
I may or may not have been on a toilet seatwhen I began contemplating this piece of writing. Historically, toilets have symbolisedstrong political standpoints both globally and in the South African context. Asdocumented in the colonial and apartheid legacy, toilets, among otherfacilities, were used to enforce racial and social segregation by whitesupremacist governments. Whites and Coloureds/Bantu (black Africans) wereallocated separate toilets in line with white supremacist values. Toiletsallocated to black citizens, parallel to housing and other basic services, wereindisputably of exceedingly poor quality, to match their supposed inferiority.
Consequently, in a recentscandal wherein an employee of a certain organization recently posted on socialmedia: “I just resigned from my workplace because of the racism there, where we used separate toilets for whitesand blacks @ **** PTA”, it was called for that citizens express firmoutrage. The South African toilet space is undoubtedly tied to very potentpolitical connotations. As with other socio-economicchallenges facing the country, toilet issues across race and class did not suddenlydematerialize at the ‘demise’ of the apartheid system. In the contemporaryclimate, as it were pre-1994, toilets are still symbolic of the inequality gap betweenaffluent areas (and those who inhabit them) and impoverished ones.
Theydelicately divide the haves from the have-nots so vividly that one must tryquite hard to negate the visible persistence of the apartheid system in thisrespect. A recent study by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC)revealed that approximately 11% of formal and informal South African householdslack proper toilet systems. The study further highlighted that these werepredominantly rural households in KwaZulu-Natal, North West and the EasternCape. Furthermore, in Cape Town, about 112 000 people mainly located inthe townships are without adequate toilets. Corroborating this is thefamous saga when Khayelitsha’s unenclosed toilets made national headlines. Thesubstandard toilets built for residents required that they use blankets ascover when relieving themselves. Upon complaints and protests, the HRC investigatedthe matter and found that the city had breached human rights in providing suchtoilets and, subsequently, the Western Cape High Court ordered the city toenclose the substandard toilets.
According to Independent Media (2012), onecommunity member was quoted saying “There is a big gap between the city and thecommunity, communities have no choice”. Needless to say, residents in Camps Bayand Milnerton have not faced such undignifying incidents. Evidently, toilets aresymbolic of social and economic inclusion. The need to provide adequate toiletsystems for all South African citizens is as urgent as ever.
However, given thecountry’s looming water crisis, there needs to be a mental shift in what weview as a ‘good toilet’. Flushing, as we are conditioned to associate asuitable toilet with, simply falls short as a solution. The persistent dryconditions experienced by the country demand that we devise new innovativeapproaches to handling human waste. Numerous high quality technologies which dependon minimal water usage have been developed and tested across the innovationlandscape. To urgently address the toilet dilemma, these technologies have to befiercely supported by relevant stakeholders in the innovation ecosystem forsuccessful transfer to the South African society – because all South African citizensdeserve to experience the safety and dignity of a toilet.
Disclaimer: This article waswritten in a personal capacity. The views expressed are solely of the author.