Toilet talk

Mar 28, 11 Toilet talk

This morning on Talk Radio 702 Redi Tlhabi interviewed DA leader Helen Zille. Amongst other things, they talked about the dreaded open toilet fiasco. The issue has been talked about a lot, so I just want to make a quick comment. HZ took the opportunity to lay out her version of what happened in an attempt to explain why the DA doesn’t regret their actions. Her explanation was roughly this:

National guidelines for upgrading informal settlements demand one toilet per five houses (she said “closed toilet” but I refuse to allow a term into my vocabulary which implies that “toilet” does not automatically entail “closed”). The DA carried out this obligation. Following this, the residents of Makhaza went to the local government and said they weren’t happy with that ratio of toilets to houses and wanted a toilet per family. The DA’s response is crucial: HZ stated that, while they didn’t have the resources to build more toilets they proposed simply setting up the bare infrastructure (pipes, toilet pan, cistern), on the assumption that the residents would construct shelters. The residents agreed. HZ stated that she believed it was an “ideal solution”.

For HZ to act surprised that some families were unable to build shelters for their toilets is simply disingenuous.

She was at pains to point out that some large percentage (I think it was over 90%) of residents had succeeded in enclosing the toilets but that others (about 50) “could not or would not”. Once the issue came to light, the DA moved in to construct shelters for the toilets which had not been closed. Things then got messy when some ANCYL loons decided the solution was to destroy the shelters to keep the toilets open and the political points rolling in.

There are two points I want to make.

The first is that certain agreements are unconscionable and this is one of them. A choice is unconscionable when it is so obviously inadequate that to enforce the contract would be grossly unfair to one party. The reason this is an example of such a choice is because the battered, abandoned and disenfranchised residents of Makhaza were very likely to accept whatever they could get. This position of vulnerability means that the responsible agent (here: Zille’s government) needed to take a broader view than just budgetary efficiency. All service provision is a trade-off between resource availability and quality of service. It is the government’s duty to ensure basic standards. That is the purpose of the national norms Zille so derides. It is the local government’s duty to actually provide services of that basic quality. Bargaining with incredibly poor, vulnerable people by offering widespread provision of half a service is, to me, obviously morally wrong.

The fact that HZ believed this was an “ideal” solution shows a crucial lack on her part. It is clear that there was an assumption that the population of the informal settlement would themselves complete the infrastructure related to this service. It is evident that in many cases they succeeded. However, it is equally clear that some people were always going to be unable to do so. This is a squatter camp. The vast majority of people are unemployed and every bit of scrap material they can scavenge goes into basic shelter over their heads. That is definitional of an informal settlement. For HZ to act surprised that some families were unable to build shelters for their toilets is simply disingenuous. Moreover, the fact that it was a surprise, as opposed to something the DA government was carefully monitoring, is indicative of carelessness. For HZ to then imply that perhaps people just didn’t want to cover their toilets is nothing short of insulting.

Secondly, HZ later stated that in response to this the DA would never go beyond the national guidelines again. This is just petty. If the DA is truly committed to better service delivery then they should learn the lesson of this putrid affair: being a caring, responsible government sometimes means saying no. If you only have money for one toilet per five families, then that’s what you have money for. Compromising service quality in an attempt to one-up the ruling party will only hurt the people you are trying to help.

Image by the Democratic Alliance

  • Toilet Talk —— @DA_SA @helenzille

  • What I find most unconscionable in this is the statement that “If you only have money for one toilet per five families, then that’s what you have money for.” The fact that I find that an unconscionable is entirely subjective and I won’t digress in attempting to substantiate it.

    Apparently, following the initial roll out phase, local government did come by more funds but when they did their breakage calculation they were left with a choice – Roll out less toilets at higher quality or more toilets by ‘other means’.

    I find your article fails to inspect the matter in the correct depth or in a critical fashion. No mention is made of the operational manner in which local government attempted to roll out the raw utilities infrastructure sans the outhouse. Was the piping trenched, the ‘head unit’ installed and the water switched on at the same time? Were any attempts to organise community actors and stake holders to erect the outhouse concurrently while not costing the outhouse to local government’s balance sheet? – how was the project managed? Possibly the project manager failed here rather than it being about not restricting available funding in favour of including an out house with reading material and lavender scents.

    As no mentioned is made of the operations surround implementation one must assumed no attempt was made on your part to inspect this dynamic. Nor is any mention made of how they calculated breakage or came by the decision they did. No mentioned is made of how they assessed the viability of their decision. I am not suggesting that I understand this specific case in depth, however I certainly have not been enlightened further on what I consider to be critical aspects by your article.

    I don’t think there is any doubt that this situation failed to achieve it’s aims and therefore whatever local government did, they got it wrong. Equally so good Sir, I feel you have failed to get it right with this article. It maintains an academic distance from the actual operations of deploying utilities namely sewage infrastructure and facilities. In doing so it should at very least make an attempt to inspect the key variable of a this matter with some academic standard, lest this article relegate itself to nothing more than an opinion piece.

    It seems that in your opinion – if local government only had enough money for 100 more ‘half-formed’ toilets then they should uphold standards and not issue any toilets at all, making no attempt to form them fully by alternative means. By the same thinking would it not be equitable to say that if you have only enough inquiry for a ‘half-formed’ article (opinion piece) you shouldn’t write one at all?

    • Joe Roussos

      Hi Russell,

      Thanks for the comment. Sadly, you have missed the point spectacularly. You have a lot to say about “critical aspects” which are missing from my article, but not all writing is M&G-style in-depth exposé. This isn’t an audit of the open toilets issue. It isn’t an attempt to examine the facts in detail, or compare sides, or assess how every decision was made. It is, simply, a response to a comment made in a radio interview this morning.

      It is all very well for you to speculate about lots of potential problems which would mitigate the blame I laid on the DA. If they existed, then it would have been well within Ms Zille’s rights to mention them this morning. She might have blamed the project manager. She could have explained about pipe trenching and head units. I’d have particularly enjoyed hearing about a monitoring system the DA set up to see if the outhouses were constructed. She didn’t. She simply restated something she has said before: that she feels it was an excellent idea to bargain with poor people about service delivery. In so doing, she undertook to complete all the complicated technical stuff you magisterially–if rather vaguely–hint at, but not to construct shelters for them.

      Incidentally, the line you took exception to (about having money for only X number of toilets) was born of this thought: being in government is difficult. It is much more difficult than being the opposition. It requires, amongst other things, realising what you cannot do. It requires that you recognise that you are in a position of power and that therefore you need to be careful what bargains you offer people. The point is this: you are uniquely well placed to brush aside people’s dignity in an otherwise well-meaning attempt to give them what they want. If the DA wants to govern, and govern successfully, they need to recognise that and to be honest about it. What I took exception to more than anything else was Zille’s complete refusal to acknowledge that the bargain may not have been a fair one.

      I recognise that mathematics is not everybody’s strong point, but I do need to point out that your attempted parting witticism fails at even basic coherence. It is patently absurd to conclude from my article that if one cannot construct 100 half-formed toilets, one should construct none. Rather it seems clear one should construct fifty whole ones, which is what I suggest. I would recommend this logic to you, my good sir: if one cannot deliver half an argument in an incredibly verbose comment such as yours, one should try for something shorter, and hopefully more complete.

  • I don’t presume to speak for Joe, but based on what he’s written, I think it’s safe to say he took his lead from Helen Zille’s own admissions. If the leader of the party is incapable of explaining the underlying logistics of toilet-placement, that merely reinforces some of what Joe’s argument is pointing out.

    Put simply, the ownace is on Helen Zille to understand and explain/communicate the difficulties behind these toilets, if any even existed, not Joe. Regardless, the result we have is Helen Zille acting under misguided principles, which make her and her party seem morally wrong. They make presumptions in an informal settlement that do not meet basic requimrents.

    • I wish to place a disclaimer: My opinions on this are non partisan. I have an interest in utilities delivery rather than mitigating DA blame. Crap implementation is just that.

      Hi Joe,

      I am please that my belligerence has elicited an impassioned response.

      I’d suggest that the communities who wanted more toilets were impassioned in their views. They were more interested in getting the government to roll out infrastructure, infrastructure the communities could not possibly deploy themselves such that they could then concern themselves with the outhouses for which there did exist a possibly for communities to deploy those independently.

      You said, “What I took exception to more than anything else was Zille’s complete refusal to acknowledge that the bargain may not have been a fair one.”

      I think it’s a great idea. I think it’s very fair. Local government burnt their fingers and they cocked up the execution but the premise of their plan is sound. It’s a model used considerably in utilities and to great success. The internet connection between you and I is a product of the same model. It’s called unbundling.

      ….I don’t actually think there is anything wrong with what local government was attempting here which was to supply infrastructure and let communities, after having consulted with them and received their agreement, construct their own outhouses / enclose their own toilets.

      You however do – Why do you think your should have preferential rights to the “poor”? Should the “poor” be forced to swallow regulation that you are not, and have their right clipped in a way yours are not? Is it acceptable that you are provided with sewage infrastructure and allowed to facilitate your own outhouse when you feel the same choice should not be offered universally to other South African citizens because they ‘know not what they do’? This is the “bargain” you have with the government. When you build your dwelling your council gives their approval on the basis that you have agreed to appropriately enclose your toilet as per your submitted plans. You or you by way of your architect / builder and the council agree to an over the counter contract that you will uphold the agreement to enclose your toilet. The communities in question being very well acquainted with their means and abilities agreed to enclose their toilets and 90% of those users did so.

      …Had Zille flug her project manager before us, I would have had many things to say about her inadequacies as a manager.

      “It is patently absurd to conclude from my article that if one cannot construct 100 half-formed toilets, one should construct none” – your original statement was, “If you only have money for one toilet per five families, then that’s what you have money for.” That’s exactly what local government did if I read your piece correctly. However they were petitioned for additional infrastructure. Communities wanted 1:1 contention not 1:5. So this takes us on to a second project with it’s own economics. I hear and concur with you that good management requires saying no but I would suggest that it also includes not loosing site of what the primary aim and mandate is. This is to supply waterborne sewage infrastructure and ensure the premise in enclosed. Once again government is extending the same agreement to these communities that you enjoy and their mandate is actually the same for their township as yours.

      I feel you also might be suggesting that communities should not be involved in their own services provision at certain levels because they might be their own worst enemies. But this is a dangerous line is it not? This is the eternal regulatory debate between liberalisation and state control.

      Further you say, “In so doing, she undertook to complete all the complicated technical stuff you magisterially–if rather vaguely–hint at, but not to construct shelters for them.” Right so again I don’t see what the problem with this is. Local government didn’t fail to do this. They failed to execute in ensuring that 100% of those participating in the unbundling arrangement completed the erection of outhouses.

      Another thing – “For HZ to then imply that perhaps people just didn’t want to cover their toilets is nothing short of insulting.” If you take this stance I’d suggest you are overlooking the widely accepted use of the term “could not or would not”. If not, you are then ignoring it to your own ends.

      Basically Joe, What I think this boils down to is that you disagree with unbundling as a model for the provision of basic utlities. It seems apparent apparent that you do not have a proper understanding of unbundling or how and when it is highly successful in delivering service to the poor. This is not to say local government do – as said, they cocked it up. Failed execution however does not make unbundling and unconscionable or flawed model as a result. Thus I don’t see why it’s an issue that local government feel unbundling as a model isn’t ideal. I also think you’ve glossed over the fundamental role of breakage here because you are unfamiliar with it.

      This is just my opinion. I espouse it a fair amount because opinions are held to lower standard than many other things.

    • Hi John,

      Look, I agree, if local government doesn’t understand what they are trying to do then we have a big problem. We’ve got a lot of such problems.

      I don’t agree with you that Joe is absolved of responsibility in understanding and explaining/communicating the difficulties here. This is because Joe is taking an oppositional stance to the fundamental model / theory involved.

      “The first is that certain agreements are unconscionable and this is one of them.” “Bargaining with incredibly poor, vulnerable people by offering widespread provision of half a service is, to me, obviously morally wrong.”

      Local government is attempting to implement unbundling, a model / theory / approach.

      Saying Joe should not be expected to understand the implication of this is like suggesting that I can say Realism or Utilitarianism is morally wrong and unconscionable and then hide behind the notion that it’s not my responsibility to understand it. I feel one has a responsibility to understand a theory, model or approach if one plans to take a position on it.

      I’m not defending the DA, Zille etc. I actually don’t care who they are – they are local government. The matter is public utilities and the politics and partisanship of this case are being overstressed – across the board – not just by Joe.

  • I would liken it more to saying realism is morally wrong based on statements by proponents thereof, rather than trying to understand what led to their thought processes (which can include a number of verbose, speculative rubbish).

    The same applies here. If there was a major fault in the implementation phase, Zille should have mentioned it and is thus doubly at fault. But she didn’t. She portrayed it much like westerners approaching filthy unwashed native Americans, with all the advantages of negotiation on their side, and simply exploited an unequal situation in order to “deliver service.”

    • I don’t know about that John.

      I think we’re all here are more than capable of constructing a decent argument for just about anything regardless of our personal affiliation. However to be taken seriously, and to not take one’s own self too seriously surely one should at least acquaint ones self with the fundamental one is criticizing. Doing otherwise erodes the credibility of the argument if it is apparent a fundamental understanding of the concept is missing.

      I’m not suggesting we bother to understand if Zille was well meaning etc etc but the position taken in Joe’s article is that service unblundling is unconscionable when he clearly doesn’t understand the first thing about service unbundling. In this article we’re just saying we don’t like the taste of something and thus the apple is rotten, when we don’t even know what we’re tasting. This would be fine for a pure preference test but the piece doesn’t take that approach, it concludes all apples (the unbundling model itself) are rotten, in fact that it’s unconscionable that anyone might be offered apples at all while we still haven’t even actually recognised it as an apple. The credibility of that is dubious. But I feel we risk turning in circles here because there are two polarised view points. I think local government’s plan was ideal, Joes does not – on a fundamental level.

  • Claire Hawkridge

    Joe, why is it unconscionable to give people what they ask for?

    How do we know that the residents of Makhaza are “battered, abandoned and disenfranchised”? Because they’re poor? Because they’re disadvantaged? They actively got together and approached the local government to ask for something over and above the general minimum. That doesn’t sound disenfranchised or coerced. It doesn’t sound like they were “likely to accept whatever they could get”. Why are they poor, passive, victimized ‘residents of Makhaza’? Why aren’t they allowed to be citizens, even a civil society collective, with agency and voice in this story?

    Point two: A common implicit assumption here is that the choice isn’t valid because people were choosing the indignity of open toilets and obviously that no-one would choose that, so it can’t have been a real choice. Yet the majority of Makhaza citizens quickly enclosed their new toilets. They clearly weren’t choosing the indignity of open toilets. They were making an entirely different assessment: over the indignity of sharing a toilet with five other households, they were choosing the dignity of private toilets, enclosed by themselves. Sounds like a rational choice.

    Point three: what you recount of HZ’s take and what I’ve heard previously suggest that all of this took place over and above, and (crucially) after the initial service-delivery roll out of one toilet per five households. Not everyone was able to enclose the new toilets. Those remaining households still had the delivery of the initial one toilet per five households. They did not have to use the open toilets, because they had access to the national standard (which is in itself problematic but remains the national benchmark). Tax-payer money had already been spent on the national benchmark service roll out. Does the fact that 50 households were reduced to the national standard of service delivery while others were able to use private resources to obtain a better solution/opportunity mean that the deal was immoral? And isn’t that the same as private healthcare and education?

    If we’re shocked that five households in some parts of Makhaza have to share toilets (or face the indignity open toilets), why isn’t that the debate? If we’re shocked that some richer members of a (poor) community were able to use their resources to get a better deal than other members of the same community, why is the discussion restricted to Makhaza or any other poor community?