Knowledge is the new black.
30 July 2014 08:52 (South Africa)
Opinionista Jacques Rousseau

Of unenclosed toilets and enclosed ballot booths

  • Jacques Rousseau
Were it not so serious in the longer term, the Makhaza judgment could be pooh-poohed as a tempest in a toilet bowl. But the issue has splayed open the perils of fictions-spun-as-facts. Smelly stuff is flung in all directions with the irresponsible abandon of a political food-fight and informed decision-making is clouded even more for voters. Thus, if you’ll excuse a little unenclosed editorial licence: Caveat elector.

The Erasmus judgment in the Makhaza toilet case, handed down on Friday, makes for depressing reading, as would the details of the lives and conditions of most poor South Africans. The judgment itself contains a hint of this where (in section 136), an affidavit related to the City of Cape Town’s counter-application is excerpted, in which Thembisa Princess Sokabo tells us that: “The toilets we have in Nkanini (i.e. the one to five households toilets) are generally in an appalling state, notwithstanding the City's attempt to maintain same, to the extent that members of the community generally do not use them. They are always blocked and filthy, and are not appropriate for human use. Due to the fact that they are communally owned, people do not take responsibility and personal pride in them. Not only are the toilets filthy and unsafe, but they are a health hazard to people in general and to children in particular as they have burst pipes which are overflowing with faeces.”

Despite the fact that many South Africans are forced to live in sub-optimal, unhygienic and sometimes even degrading conditions, Makhaza has become one of the focal points of debate around service delivery in the Cape. By extension, Erasmus’s Makhaza judgment has rapidly become the stick with which the ANC’s mayoral candidate, Tony Ehrenreich, is beating the DA on issues affecting the poor.

This could well be true, although we should remember the ANC has already had a chance to champion the interests of the poor in the Cape. But while the ANC’s return of 45% of the vote in 2004, along with the 11% of votes garnered by its partners (the New National Party) in that election, brought them to power in the province, their support dwindled to 32% in the 2009 election. If we are to take the notion of democracy seriously, this indicates voters wanted to give someone else a chance to govern and exercised their right to vote correspondingly.

That was, of course, a different time, and the fact that the ANC lost control of the Cape can’t demonstrate that an ANC government in 2011, and Ehrenreich as mayor of Cape Town, wouldn’t do better than previous incumbents. The chaotic nature of ANC politics in Western Cape, along with floor-crossing and the death (and now, “zombified” re-animation) of the NNP – not to mention the short history of democracy in South Africa – make trends difficult to pin down.

None of these complications should, however, obscure the fact that there is a difference between fact and fiction – and in particular the kind of fiction that emerges in the run-up to elections, when selective factual details are plucked out of context and presented as damning evidence for a fiction. In this case, the fiction in question is that the DA government in Western Cape is somehow at war with the poor, based on the “fact” that they constructed unenclosed toilets in Makhaza.

Except, they didn’t – or at least didn’t intend to. What they did try to do was to collaborate with the residents of Silvertown to ensure they all had enclosed toilets, by spending the budget on providing the toilets and plumbing connections, while trusting the assurances of the community that they would build their own enclosures where necessary. This plan failed, and cynics could argue it was always likely to fail, or that the demands of dignity for the residents required this detail not be left in the residents’ hands in the first instance.

Of course, we can never know whether the residents would have built their own enclosures, because the City of Cape Town eventually resolved to provide these for the 3% of residents who had not built them for themselves. And then, as we should also remember, they were prevented from doing so by the repeated destruction of the enclosures by the ANC Youth League.

You could argue the DA has been somewhat naïve in its approach to this issue, as it undoubtedly was in the case involving the “delisting” of Sowetan journalist, Anna Majavu. There is evidence of such naïveté, in that this was a relatively predictable PR disaster.

In the context of the South African sensitivity to class divisions and poverty, an approach which involved a relative absence of paternalism (here, in which services are provided in partnership with the community) was clearly risky. Any failure at any link in the chain leading to enclosed toilets for all would always have been spun as a failure on the part of the DA, with the roles of other agents ignored or elided. Worse yet, any protestations of goodwill on the part of the DA can immediately be spun as further evidence of callous neglect.

Sadly, the safest strategy may well be to do the bare minimum and to do it in a way which minimises the chances of failure, by swooping in and delivering from on high rather than by attempting to involve communities in their own upliftment. If this is the lesson Ehrenreich or the ANC want the DA to learn, they might well have succeeded.

But in doing so, they could have simultaneously cut a rod for their own backs, because the inflamed rhetoric surrounding the Makhaza judgment makes it appear no less than a capital crime to leave toilets unenclosed, regardless of the circumstances leading to that eventuality. According to Jackson Mthembu, the unenclosed toilets show a “total disrespect for black dignity” and demonstrate the DA “is a racist political party”. In fact, the “Makhaza judgment remains a chilling reminder showing on whose side Zille and his [sic] bunch of racist lackeys are on[sic]”.

In light of this strong reaction, as well as the claim from cooperative governance and traditional affairs minister Sicelo Shiceka that unenclosed toilets would never be tolerated under ANC governance, what are we to make of the unenclosed toilets in the informal settlement of Rammulotsi in the ANC-run Moqhaka municipality – some of which have been unenclosed since 2001? Or those in Kwadabeka, outside Pinetown in the eThekwini municipality, where the ANC garnered 67.52% of the vote in 2009?

Perhaps the real lesson here is the reminder that in politics – and especially, in the weeks running up to  an election – facts sometimes simply cease to matter. But perhaps it doesn’t need to be this way, and perhaps increasing numbers of citizens are starting to realise the truth doesn’t always correspond to the claims made in political speeches, especially when those speeches concern the actions of competing political parties.

Let’s hope so, because, as with all decisions, those made while voting should be informed by the facts, rather than by faith. And Makhaza is one settlement, in one province, in one (mostly poor) country. We should ideally cast our votes for the candidate or party we think will do the best for that country in the long-term, and not based simply on caricature or misrepresentation of those facts. DM

  • Jacques Rousseau
jacques rousseau 02

Rousseau is a voluntary exile from professional philosophy, where having to talk metaphysics eventually became unbearably irritating. He now spends his time trying to arrest the rapid decline in common sense exhibited by his species, both through teaching critical thinking and business ethics at the University of Cape Town, and through activities aimed at eliminating the influence of religious ideology in public policy.

When not being absurdly serious, he’s one of those left-wing sorts who enjoys red wine, and he is alleged to be able to cook a mean Bistecca Fiorentine.

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