For Consequently, in a recent scandal wherein an employee

For many of us, the toilet is
a space where we reflect and gather our thoughts. Those fleeting minutes of
short-lived privacy are a mirror where we face ourselves – our inner person. We
make decisions about the next big or small thing, laugh at an inappropriate
joke (not me) or cry from being home-sick (also not me). In the space of a few
minutes we’re afforded ephemeral vulnerability, regardless of the location. Arguably,
these are not mere facilities of relief, they are, literally and
metaphorically, spheres of dignity. I may or may not have been on a toilet seat
when I began contemplating this piece of writing.

Historically, toilets have symbolised
strong political standpoints both globally and in the South African context. As
documented in the colonial and apartheid legacy, toilets, among other
facilities, were used to enforce racial and social segregation by white
supremacist governments. Whites and Coloureds/Bantu (black Africans) were
allocated separate toilets in line with white supremacist values. Toilets
allocated to black citizens, parallel to housing and other basic services, were
indisputably of exceedingly poor quality, to match their supposed inferiority.  

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Consequently, in a recent
scandal wherein an employee of a certain organization recently posted on social
media: “I just resigned from my work
place because of the racism there, where we used separate toilets for whites
and blacks @ **** PTA”, it was called for that citizens express firm
outrage. The South African toilet space is undoubtedly tied to very potent
political connotations.

As with other socio-economic
challenges facing the country, toilet issues across race and class did not suddenly
dematerialize at the ‘demise’ of the apartheid system. In the contemporary
climate, as it were pre-1994, toilets are still symbolic of the inequality gap between
affluent areas (and those who inhabit them) and impoverished ones. They
delicately divide the haves from the have-nots so vividly that one must try
quite hard to negate the visible persistence of the apartheid system in this
respect. A recent study by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC)
revealed that approximately 11% of formal and informal South African households
lack proper toilet systems. The study further highlighted that these were
predominantly rural households in KwaZulu-Natal, North West and the Eastern
Cape. Furthermore, in Cape Town, about 112 000 people mainly located in
the townships are without adequate toilets.

Corroborating this is the
famous saga when Khayelitsha’s unenclosed toilets made national headlines. The
substandard toilets built for residents required that they use blankets as
cover when relieving themselves. Upon complaints and protests, the HRC investigated
the matter and found that the city had breached human rights in providing such
toilets and, subsequently, the Western Cape High Court ordered the city to
enclose the substandard toilets. According to Independent Media (2012), one
community member was quoted saying “There is a big gap between the city and the
community, communities have no choice”. Needless to say, residents in Camps Bay
and Milnerton have not faced such undignifying incidents.

Evidently, toilets are
symbolic of social and economic inclusion. The need to provide adequate toilet
systems for all South African citizens is as urgent as ever. However, given the
country’s looming water crisis, there needs to be a mental shift in what we
view as a ‘good toilet’. Flushing, as we are conditioned to associate a
suitable toilet with, simply falls short as a solution. The persistent dry
conditions experienced by the country demand that we devise new innovative
approaches to handling human waste. Numerous high quality technologies which depend
on minimal water usage have been developed and tested across the innovation
landscape. To urgently address the toilet dilemma, these technologies have to be
fiercely supported by relevant stakeholders in the innovation ecosystem for
successful transfer to the South African society – because all South African citizens
deserve to experience the safety and dignity of a toilet.

Disclaimer: This article was
written in a personal capacity. The views expressed are solely of the author.