Portable toilets are big business in local government.
An amaBhungane investigation has revealed that the Ekurhuleni metro spent a staggering R1.9-billion on chemical toilets over three financial years from 2017 to 2019.
The three-year tender to provide toilets to informal settlements was meant to replace the inhumane bucket system, but while this project is a relief to some, other residents regard it as a curse.
Critics suggest that the project, where toilets were sourced from 16 small suppliers, was a get-rich-quick scheme for some underperforming contractors that left many beneficiaries with dirty and broken toilets.
The project was highlighted in an open letter titled Large Scale Looting at the City of Ekurhuleni, circulated on social media and addressed to media, government and law enforcement agencies in March 2019.
The letter, which appeared well-informed, purported to be written by “concerned ANC members, employees and citizens of the City of Ekurhuleni”.
It labelled the toilet project a black hole and a cash cow and alleged that companies involved in the project were linked to officials and politicians, including executive mayor Mzwandile Masina and other senior management figures in the city.
But the city has hit back by arresting three police officers in “an intelligence-driven joint operation between SAPS and Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Police Department (EMPD)” — allegedly for attempting to extort money from mayoral committee member Lesiba Mpya.
Municipal spokesperson Themba Gadebe linked the investigation to the claims made in the open letter.
“It was found that the messages were being used as an attempt to intimidate Masina and MMC for Human Settlement, Mpya,” Gabede said.
If the allegations against the policemen are correct, it appears they chose an issue with real potential to cause discomfort among Ekurhuleni barons.
amaBhungane’s investigation has confirmed that the Ekurhuleni chemical toilet tender suffered from a serious lack of municipal oversight that saw some companies allegedly taking advantage of contract loopholes at the expense of the poor.
At the start of the project in 2016, the municipality provided 16,098 toilets and increased the number the following year to 30,795. For the 2018/19 financial year the city provided 39,112 chemical toilets.
Answers provided by the municipality show spending increased from R379-million in 2016/17 to R828-million in 2017/18 and R758-million in 2018/19.
According to a senior municipal official, who did not want to be identified as he is not authorised to speak to the media:
“This is one of the most sought-after contracts in the city… [in 2016] about 250 companies submitted bids. The contract doesn’t require much, just provide chemical toilets and service them. Even if you don’t own a single toilet you can hire them and charge whatever you want.”
The official said the municipality was invoiced between R1,500 and R3,500 per toilet per month, which was supposed to include being serviced twice a week.
Depending on the number of toilets, companies made between R10-million and R42-million a year with little and “sometimes no oversight at all from the municipality”, said the official.
What went wrong?
The senior municipal official said the problem started when it was decided that instead of one or two service providers, as many as 16 companies would be given the contract.
“There was no proper plan in place, starting from the design of this tender, one can even see from the broad tender specification… the instruction to us [officials] was that there was a need for diversification.”
Municipal sources claimed the project was designed to benefit politicians who were secret shareholders in the awarded companies, a claim disputed by the contractors and municipality.
According to the 2016 tender documents, the work to be executed under the contract comprised mainly the hiring, delivery and maintenance of chemical toilets within Ekurhuleni on an “as and when required” basis.
Observers have questioned the criteria used to choose the companies.
The tender specification required contractors to provide their own transport, labour, tools, equipment, security and all other resources to fully execute the contract. The vehicles and equipment of successful bidders were to be inspected prior to the commencement of the contract.
However, another source privy to the adjudication process in 2016 said most companies chosen did not properly qualify:
“They didn’t have the financial muscle to pull this off, no equipment and most definitely no experience,” said the source.
He said a chemical toilet costs between R9,000 and R20,000 per unit – and then there is the cost of the specialised waste truck and the chemicals.
“In the beginning of this contract it was chaos… there was a shortage of toilets; only one or two companies had supply and the rest had to hire,” said one source.
Contractors taking advantage of the loopholes
“These companies went to the big suppliers of chemical toilets to hire. The very same big companies had tenders but lost out to smaller companies, but they ended up hiring out their chemical toilets. This meant the prices went up,” said the source.
Because of the high prices, the official believes that contractors then cut corners by buying cheap chemicals, not regularly servicing the toilets and underpaying workers.
Another contentious issue was the physical verification of the toilets. Some companies made millions by invoicing for non-existent toilets, the official said.
“At the beginning of the contract the municipality never went to physically verify toilets, they solely relied on the contractors. The issue was addressed last year when the municipality instructed each supplier to physically mark the toilet with a number.”
Also, in order to ascertain that the toilets were serviced twice a week, the municipality relied on community liaison officers hired by the contractors.
“The community liaison officer is the one that signs time sheets for the cleaning schedule and submits it at the depot,” said a contractor. This was problematic because they were paid by the contractor and knew “if time sheets are not completed then the municipality will not pay”.
Community fingers several contractors
There are 16 companies on the contract and several whose names kept coming up in complaints during interviews conducted by amaBhungane in informal settlements.
In Wolf informal settlement in Vosloorus, residents complained about the quality of toilets from Selby Construction and from Ntships Construction and Projects.
Selby chief executive Selby Manthata did not respond to amaBhungane’s emailed query.
Manthata was once close to Julius Malema and former Limpopo premier Cassel Mathale.
Manthata was charged with corruption related to the investigation of On Point Engineering, the firm in which Malema’s trust had a stake — but the case was thrown out for lack of evidence.
Ntships director Masiko Maphutha said as far as he is aware all his areas were fine and refused to answer specific questions.
“Ask the municipality, they are the one that hired us. How can I rate myself?” said Maphutha.
In Mayfield, two residents complained about Leloba Bright Trading toilets not closing properly but the company’s sole director, Molebogeng Mashishi, did not respond to amaBhungane’s emailed query.
In informal settlements in Tembisa, three residents complained about the quality of toilets provided by Red Ants Security, but the company refused to comment and directed amaBhungane to the municipality.
The municipality insisted that all service providers were chosen according to supply chain management processes that are “highly regulated and transparent”.
The city did not address amaBhungane’s questions on the criteria used to select the winning companies and what monitoring mechanisms were in place to check the city received value for money.
amaBhungane had asked the municipality whether it exercised its oversight role and checked whether the chemicals were approved by the South African Bureau of Standards; how each company was allocated an area and number of toilets; how each company was monitored to ensure workers were fairly paid and suppliers adhered to standard labour practices.
The current situation
A visit by amaBhungane to informal settlements around Ekurhuleni corroborated residents’ complaints.
Interviews and site visits found the contractors in some areas did not adhere to the tender specifications such as:
- Zinc toilets in some areas were not serviced;
- Toilets could not be locked inside;
- Toilets did not have enough light and ventilation;
- Shaky toilets were not mounted properly;
- Toilets were positioned on a public road along the periphery of the informal settlement.
On the main road along the edge of Winnie Mandela informal settlement in Tembisa, about 10 red chemical toilets are located next to each other.
This is because the shacks are so close to each other there are no spaces between them, but the set-up is a safety risk, according to some residents.
“At night and on weekends, we don’t use these toilets, it is not safe,” said one.
Residents complained the toilets were not cleaned regularly.
“There is not enough ventilation inside these toilets, especially in summer… To make matter worse they are cleaned once in a while… we want flushable toilets,” a resident said.
As you enter Wattville (Harry Gwala squatter camp) in Benoni, colourful chemical toilets are visible next to the shacks, sometimes on one street.
Residents explained the different colours mean different service providers.
“This means that on one street… there could be four service providers,” a resident who has been living there for eight years said.
“So, on Monday I could have my toilet cleaned and my neighbour’s toilet could be cleaned on Wednesday and my other neighbour’s might not be cleaned at all for a week depending on the service provider… this creates a lot of confusion – especially if you want to report a problem, you don’t know who to go to.”
In Wolf, a squatter camp on the outskirts of Vosloorus, the residents are not happy with the quality of chemical toilets.
“When the municipality first brought these toilets here, we protested and burnt them because we were not impressed with them… they brought in a better quality but we are still not happy about the servicing.”
amaBhungane spoke to cleaners of the toilets, some of whom complained about salary discrepancies and poor working conditions.
“It depends which contractor you work for; some of us are paid R1,500 a month for working two days and some are paid R3,500. Why are we not paid the same? This job is coming to an end soon, but after three years we found out we are not even registered at the labour department,” said one.
Although residents were willing to talk to amaBhungane freely, they were reluctant to give their names or have their pictures taken, fearing they could be identified by community liaison officers hired by the contractors.
“If you talk too much, they won’t call you for projects or put your name in the housing list. During community meetings, people voice their anger but that comes with a price,” a woman in Mayfield said.
Social Audit Report
Residents’ complaints are supported by a detailed social audit year conducted by consultants in Ekurhuleni in 2018.
The audit confirmed that the poor delivery of outsourced basic services in informal settlements was due to:
- Non-compliance with contract specifications by service providers;
- Insufficient monitoring of the delivery of the service by the responsible municipality, including inspection by officials;
- No community complaint/fault reporting mechanism;
- Vague bid specifications;
- Lack of community participation and communication; and
- Inadequate needs assessment.
The audit noted: “In some instances, the same specification appears to be violated in all 10 informal settlements. For example, in all areas, very few of the toilets inspected had a steel frame built in to ensure stability — as required by the contract. In addition, when all the different aspects related to the cleaning of the toilets were considered (including who is responsible for cleaning, and the frequency and thoroughness of cleaning), it was found that this aspect of the contract is not fully complied with in any of the areas.”
The focus on the Ekurhuleni contract comes amid growing calls for the government to provide proper sanitation.
According to a study published last May titled Informal Settlements and Human Rights in South Africa, sanitation continues to be a concern in informal settlements, which lack infrastructure for waste disposal and sewerage.
The research by the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (Seri) stated that as a result of the acute shortage of sanitation services in informal settlements, many municipalities have resorted to using short-term measures by providing access to chemical toilets.
However, the study reveals that chemical latrines are ill-suited to long-term use as they deposit waste into small tanks that are treated with chemicals to ensure greater hygiene and reduce odour.
These tanks must be serviced and emptied regularly to remain usable, the study states.
According to Seri, municipalities have struggled to ensure these facilities are serviced with the necessary frequency.
The research states that in most cases, municipalities outsource these functions to service providers and struggle to hold the companies accountable.
A new contract
The Ekurhuleni municipality is expected to make an announcement soon on the new contractors taking over the project.
The contract will run until 30 June 2022 and the city has included bid specifications intended to improve the quality of the service.
On paper the criteria are stringent but it remains to be seen whether the municipality will adhere to them and not repeat the mistakes of the past. DM
The amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism, an independent non-profit, produced this story. Like it? Be an amaB Supporter to help us do more. Sign up for our newsletter and WhatsApp alerts to get more.