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