Somewhere over the Makhaza Toilets

South Africa is in desperate need for a viable opposition party.  The ANC has not bathed itself in glory and it has not delivered to the people who stood under the banner of the black, green and gold at the worst of times.  The Congress of the People bubble has officially burst.  With the embarrassing infighting, public spats, and nauseating clichés about divorce papers being thrown about, it has become abundantly clear that COPE is exactly the evil that it was trying to escape from in the ANC.

The Democratic Alliance (DA) has been the official opposition since 1999.  During this time, it has managed to consistently grow its share of voters in various elections, and is now governing the Western Cape.  This is a major success.  However, the DA has not managed to cross the threshold and become a serious threat in the other provinces and in the race for the presidency.  Let’s face it, we have yet to hear a speech from Luthuli House beginning with the words “Comrades, the revolution is under serious threat from the opposition.”

I do not need to mention the dangers of a democracy where the ruling party’s national elective conferences are more determinative of the direction which government will take than the elections themselves. 

South Africa desperately needs the DA to come to terms with the fact that a bad ANC is not necessarily a good DA.

To avoid this, South Africa needs the DA to stand up and take its position as a viable opponent to the ANC.  The only way it can succeed in this is by actively pandering for the ANC’s constituency – the majority of the country: the lower and middle class black people.  It has not done this.  I do not claim to represent any of these constituencies, but the Makhaza Toilets issue shows some key reasons why I will never vote for the DA.

A brief background for those of you who do not know what happened.  In 2007, the City of Cape Town (which is run by the DA) started a project to build one toilet for each household.  This was done on the basis that the City would build the toilets and the community would build the enclosures around them.  The community was informed of this and 1316 toilets were installed.  I pause here to point out that Makhaza is a poor informal settlement, where the members of the community are largely unemployed and the average household income is low.  There is no “extra money” floating around Makhaza.  The City asked this community to take its meagre discretionary income and invest this in enclosing the toilets.  With this in mind, the community managed to enclose 1265 toilets and 51 remained unenclosed.

The ANC Youth League (ANCYL) laid a complaint to the Human Rights Commission (HRC).  After widespread media reports, the City attempted to cover the toilets with corrugated iron sheets.  The ANCYL members in the area tore these structures down and the DA complained that the ANCYL was a part of the problem.  The HRC recently ruled that the toilets were in violation of the community’s rights to privacy and human dignity.

The DA has come out of this episode smelling like, well, a Makhaza toilet.  This episode illustrates several reasons why the majority of black people remain hesitant to vote for the DA. Firstly, the DA is not sensitive to the plight of the poor in South Africa.  The DA’s approach to socio-economic redress has a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” feel about it.  It seems illogical to ask the poorest of South African citizens to pay for their own toilet enclosures.  The very least the DA could have done was to consult the community adequately (which the HRC report found it hadn’t done).  Such consultations would have shown that the constituents did not have the requisite disposable income to participate adequately in the DA’s noble plan.  Creative solutions could have been sought to equip the community to do this.

I had no problem with the fact that the DA attempted to put up enclosures after the HRC process had begun.  What was problematic was that the enclosures were made of corrugated iron…in an informal settlement.  Even if the ANCYL had not intervened to destroy the structures, it would have been a matter of time before they were used for building material.  More importantly, corrugated iron enclosures are not good enough.  Undoubtedly it was a temporary solution, but it was one which made the DA seem only more insensitive to the rights and dignity of the Makhaza residents.  .

The DA’s reaction to the criticism it faced showed a lack of leadership.  When the DA lost, it pointed at the HRC accusing it of being a part of a plan by the ANC to take over the Chapter 9 institutions and undermine the opposition.  Hellen Zille wrote a letter to the Mail and Guardian setting out an outrageous conspiracy theory that would have made David Ike weep with pride.  The essence of the theory was that the ANC has deployed cadres into the HRC and other Chapter 9 institutions to do its bidding.  Zille named several ANC members who were “deployed” into the HRC.  However, Zille failed to give particulars of her sources or the conspiracy.

I detest the implication that all, ANC members and supporters are unable to remove their ANC hats when they take public office, ergo their decisions cannot be trusted.  This may hold true for a Menzi Simelane, but to suggest that the same applies the HRC panellists is simply tasteless.  Several prominent constitutional scholars have since come to the defence of the HRC.  This brings me to my second point: the DA seems to have this need to criticise the ANC at every opportunity, sometimes unreasonably.  This was one such example.

South Africa desperately needs the DA to come to terms with the fact that a bad ANC is not necessarily a good DA.  People already know what a poor job the ANC government is apparently doing – they have said as much during service delivery strikes.  What they don’t know is how the DA provides a viable alternative to the ANC.  This is what the DA needs to focus on.

I had a strange sense of de ja vu when reading Zille’s letter.  It took me back to a time where umshini wam’ was a cool ringtone, the “100% Zulu” t-shirt was fashionable and President Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma was called Umsholozi and his name was often prefixed with “the Accused”.  During this time, the DA was genuinely afraid of a threat to the judiciary from the ANC.  This was justified, because there was talk at the time from the ANC of “counter-revolutionary elements” within the judiciary.  Now, the DA has lost one decision in the HRC, out of several which it won and there is suddenly a “plot” to invade the HRC by the ANC.  Zille crossed the line.  This is exactly the politics which people do not expect or need from the opposition party.  There is nothing wrong with criticising the judiciary or the HRC’s decisions; however this must be done with a degree of reason and logic.

South Africa’s political landscape needs a proper opposition.  The DA is the only viable option at the moment.  However the DA faces a mammoth challenge in that the ANC is a liberation movement and the perception of the DA is that of a party which panders to the white minority.  This is a unique position, which requires innovative policies and political strategy.  The DA doesn’t seem to appreciate this.  The DA needs to change its approach and appeal to more black people in its image and in its policies.  Should it fail to do this, it will never govern and rightly so!

  • Candace Natasha Hennessy

    A well-written and astute commentary on a dire political situation. It is saddening how South African politics has eroded to merely a continuous barrage of childish mud-slinging and outrageous scandals, such as the Makhaza toilets ordeal. One does not truly expect politicians to be dignified, but one does expect them to at least keep up the facade in public.

    No democracy truly exists where there is a decided lack of a meaningful opposition party. Until South Africa achieves this goal, for all important purposes, it essentially remains a one-party state. The ANC has indeed failed its people in many respects, but regretfully, so has the DA, as is undoubtedly illustrated by this sad event.

    It is not surprising that the DA requested the impoverished Makhaza community to fund the missing toilet enclosures themselves. It seems common practice for political parties across the board to rely on the pockets of their trusting followers for their own inability to institute of proper planning with regard to service delivery. The DA has aligned itself with the ANC in action, if not in principle.

    The disgusting lack of true leadership in any South African political party has left the South African public to fend for themselves in a rotting corpse of service delivery structures headed by corrupt politicians, who are more interested in proving personal points and hatching outlandish conspiracy theories than owning up for their mistakes and delivering on their promises.

    Sadly, until South African politicians recognise themselves as leaders and not tabloid icons, until they recognise that leadership centres around service delivery and not half-baked, melodramatic publicity stunts (which metamorphosize into public embarrassments), the South African people will continue to suffer the decay of the very system that is intended to serve and protect them.

  • Chris

    The DA needs to operate much more cleverly. The toilet issue was a mistake and the DA should not ever allow such an easy opportunity for the ANC to occur, even when it only means to do well.
    The DA can also expect a lot more fowl tactics from the ANC and should pre-empt this and ensure pro-active steps be taken.
    The DA’s biggest problem is the public perception that it is a white party. The ANC has control over a great part of the media and will make sure that the DA never gets it’s multi-cultural message across.
    The DA needs to go on a program of actively marketing its black leadership to the public.

  • Faald

    The DA makes ONE mistake (if indeed it did) in its limited period of governance and one never hears the end of it…………. how many mistakes does the ANC make in one month?

    • JF

      ANC makes mistakes but eatleast I live in an RDP house and faece in the fully installed flushy brick toilet,because I am not living where the DA rules and I,m going to show this to the people of my area so that ANC can recruit more members from DA fans.

  • Should we perhaps start talking about the travel-allowance corruption amongst DA (and ID) staff as well? How much incompetence is enough?

    The point of it all is to show, quite simply, that the DA is not perfect and that, when they do stuff up, they cover it up just as desperately as the ANC. I’m afraid double-standards do not apply when a party is caught in the wrong.

  • Lauren Stuart

    e-TV did nothing to help the ANCYL’s image. They were portrayed as rabble rousers, with pants down, defecating into buckets on the side of the road. So whatever their motives- why does it seem to be a recurring theme in SA politics that when one has the moral high ground- why cant they keep it? Perhaps their wild behaviour, or “e-tv perceived wild behaviour’, was exactly what Zille seized upon when trying to justify her stance?

  • Mtho

    You are quite right, in order for the DA to be a worthy opponent of the ANC they need to one, focus on their own priorities and not bad mouth all the mistakes the ANC has done. And secondly they need to look at the faults of the ANC and learn from them and better whatever they have done because frankly to say the reason why I think the ANC is still in power is because of the great thing Mandela has done for the black community…those are my thoughts…

  • Mthokozisi

    I just wanted to bring this to your attention‎ :1620 toilets(more than the 1316 the DA built in Cape Town) have been left without enclosure for the past 8years in the ANC-run Moqhaka municipality in the Free State province.

  • Mabasa Sibanda

    Mthokozisi,

    Your last comment misses the point. The fact that the ANC has done it, does not vindicate what the DA did. A bad ANC is not a good DA! In my view, a comparison between the mistakes made by the ANC and the DA in “toilet-gate” is futile.

    The sad truth is that the ANC can make mistakes like this without losing the majority vote. The ANC is not trying to break into a new breed of voters previously alien to it (the black poor vote). Its relatively secure in this regard. The DA is not. If they want to obtain this “market of voters”, then this is not the manner to go about doing it.

    A precursory perusal of the results on May 18 might prove my point.