Hivos International

Walls between citizens and government

By Siebe Anbeek

The inhabitants of Khayelitsha were outraged when the toilets they had been promised were built without walls. Using the toilet was already dangerous enough in this township,  with rapes and robberies a normal occurrence. Hivos partner Social Justice Coalition decided to act, but not by building the walls, “because that is the task of the government."

Khayelitsha in Cape Town, South Africa, is home to about 700,000 people. Work is scarce, there are few schools and basic facilities are in short supply, leading to with disease, crime and violence as a result. This is nowhere more evident than in and around sanitary facilities. People often have to walk long distances and then wait in line just to fetch water or use the toilet. On top of that, water taps and toilets are not only breeding grounds for disease, but also places where rapists and thieves find their victims. The dangers are especially real for women. It was against this backdrop that the government went and built toilets without walls in 2010. For Social Justice Coalition (SJC), this was a perfect example of the Cape council’s incompetence and detachment.

Social Justice Coalition was founded in response to a wave of violence that engulfed South Africa in 2008. The founders saw the enormous gap between rich and poor as the root cause of the violence, as well as the frustration amongst poor people at the continued lack of progress.  They attributed responsibility for the unrest to the failure of the government, but also to a lack of citizenship. "Many people have no idea what the (local) government is doing; transparency and communication are practically non-existent,” said Joel Bregman, researcher at SJC. “But people also don’t know how to get through to authorities or what kinds of processes they can actually set in motion.”

The organisation is trying to tackle both of these problems. SJC encourages citizens to stand up for their rights and teaches them how, and gets communities to unite around shared interests. SJC also employs researchers and policy specialists who monitor the government, provide insight into the municipality’s decisions and check if policy documents conform to the law. If the government makes (or covers up) mistakes, SJC sounds the alarm so both average citizens and the media can swiftly call officials to order.

South African law requires that consultations be held when new public infrastructure is built, so after the toilets appeared without walls, SJC asked the municipality for clarification. The municipality claimed public consultations had been held and that the residents of Khayelitsha themselves had chosen these toilets. When the residents denied this, SJC asked the municipality to make its policy documents public. Seeing the municipality drag its feet, SJC launched a lawsuit and organised protests in the district. Eventually, the authorities bowed to Khayelitsha’s demands and the toilets were enclosed. But for SJC, this was not enough.  Now, the construction of new toilets has been fast-tracked and a maintenance service has been set up to keep water taps and toilets clean and working.

The toilets-without-walls incident appeals to the imagination and ends with a concrete result. SJC has booked many such results at the end of similar stories, but their ambition aims further. Ultimately, the organisation wants every South African citizen to know exactly what they can demand of the government and how to do so. They are working to achieve that goal through campaigns, research, publications, protests and success stories. While a toilet is supposed to have walls around it, none should stand between a government and its citizens.