The Design Observer Group


Posted 11.18.10


Barbara Penner

Flush with Inequality: Sanitation in South Africa


Remains of long-drop lavatories built for the "closer settlement camp" of Frankfort, Eastern Cape. The 5,000 members of the black farming community of Mgwali were to have been forcibly removed and resettled here after their land was declared a "black spot" by the apartheid government in 1983. However, the people of Mgwali resisted strongly and in 1986 the removal scheme was dropped. The lavatories were gradually stripped of their usable building materials by people in the area and all that is left now are concrete bases over some 1500 anatomically shaped holes in the veld. 22 February 2006. [by David Goldblatt]

Before I went to South Africa, I had a particular image fixed in my mind. A color photograph by David Goldblatt from 2006, showing a grassy green veld dotted with concrete platforms, each punctuated by a hole. These holes, once long drop lavatories, are all that remain of the Frankfort resettlement camp, built in 1983 as part of the apartheid government’s plan to forcibly re-house black people in Bantustans, or homelands — a plan that failed in this instance because of local resistance.

The Frankfort resettlement site clearly resonates for Goldblatt, who has photographed it on at least three occasions over the last two decades. Each photograph is radically different. The first, dating from the year of construction, depicts a raw, striated landscape in black-and-white; in the far distance, 1,500 new toilet structures stand, sentinel-like, in the cleared grid. Seven years later, and again in black-and-white, Goldblatt brings viewers up close to one of these same toilets, now in an overgrown veld, and largely denuded of structure and fittings. [1] The 2006 color photograph is almost elegiac by contrast and depicts a softer, peopled landscape, the scattered dwellings in the background conspicuously unlike the regimented ones that stood two decades before.

Rather than conveying any definitive message about contemporary South Africa, the three photographs together serve another purpose: they witness how government policies and structures have accrued in the landscape over time. Landscape appears here in its broadest sense, as a space fundamentally shaped by human activity, where seemingly ordinary details (lavatories, shacks, grass) are traces of often brutal political processes. Above all, the photographs are reminders that racial politics in South Africa continue to seep everywhere and into everything, even into the ruins of an old long drop lavatory.


Frankfort Resettlement Camp with lavatories. Ciskei. 12 July 1983. [by David Goldblatt]

Goldblatt’s photographs serve as a relevant point of departure for this reflection on things sanitary, in honor of World Toilet Day 2010. World Toilet Day aims to publicize the plight of the estimated 2.6 billion people who lack access to basic sanitation, which results in 5,000 children dying every day of diarrheal diseases. The prospect of this situation improving in the immediate future is bleak: at the recent summit on the Millennium Development Goals in New York, the United Nations announced that it would not meet its target of halving the number of people without sanitation by 2015. [2] Indeed, of all the MDG targets, improved sanitation appears to be the most off-track and furthest out of reach.

Now more than ever, it seems crucial to ask why. Although the failure of individual projects is usually blamed on technology, scarce funding, and lack of demand (or some combination of the three), the problem often goes deeper. In highly polarized societies like South Africa seeking to reverse the inequities of colonialism or, in this case, apartheid, sanitation provision has a symbolic resonance that transcends its practical function. Under apartheid, as Goldblatt reminds us, infrastructure was an integral part of the apparatus of state control and was central to its attempts at social engineering. Post-apartheid, infrastructure remains vital, but now serves the African National Congress's plan to redress the social injustices created by segregation. In this new political landscape, toilets have become potent symbols of human dignity and equal rights. But do sanitation policies always sufficiently acknowledge these meanings and the cultural sensitivities that result?

South Africa’s Toilet Wars
I had cause to recall Goldblatt’s photographs this summer, when I participated in a workshop on urine diversion toilets in Durban, South Africa. [3] Having researched public toilets for the last 15 years in the context of Western cities, I wanted to learn about the implementation of toilets in other cultures. South Africa’s second largest city, Durban, was an ideal place to begin. eThekwini Water and Sanitation, the unit that delivers Durban’s water and sanitation services, has gained international recognition for its progressive approach. And the workshop’s specific focus — eThekwini Water’s ambitious rollout of 90,000 UD toilets in the rural and peri-urban areas beyond its sewage system — seemed especially pertinent, given global concerns about water scarcity. UD toilets are dry and self-contained sanitation systems; they divert urine into a separate compartment from feces, so that the latter dries out more quickly and can be more easily disposed of on-site. 


Urine diversion toilet. [by E. Muench via Flickr]

At first glance, the UD toilets appeared to me to be a relatively straightforward solution to the problem of providing basic sanitation to water-stressed regions. Shortly before I arrived in South Africa, however, I had a foretaste of how complex and politically charged any discussion of sanitation was likely to be. Just weeks before the World Cup began, Cape Town’s Khayelitsha township was rocked by the so-called “toilet wars.” The ANC’s Youth League destroyed 51 toilets, which had been temporarily enclosed by the city’s ruling Democratic Alliance party, on the grounds that the corrugated iron enclosures were substandard and racist. The DA had provided these after a number of residents failed to provide enclosures themselves, as previously agreed; the ANC Youth League justified the destruction with the argument — supported by the South African Human Rights Commission — that the enclosures should be of brick and mortar, not corrugated iron.

Bemused journalists, local and international, struggled to untangle the occasionally surreal events building up to the destruction, which involved a complicated web of charges, counter-charges and incitements to protest from the two political parties. The ANC Youth League repeatedly called on residents to destroy infrastructure and make the city “ungovernable,” while Dan Plato, the DA Mayor of Cape Town, urged them to “burn tires” to oppose Youth League “thuggery.” Thirty-two people were reportedly arrested in the clashes that resulted. After attempting to summarize the saga, The Christian Science Monitor concluded: “The notion that toilets would become a matter of a rather violent struggle between two parties that fought on the same side against apartheid shows that politics in South Africa has taken a turn for the worse.” [4]

Yet should we find it so surprising that toilets can trigger such conflict? History shows time and again that toilets often act as catalysts for territorial and political struggles, not least in the United States. Bathrooms and locker rooms, for instance, reliably proved to be the main obstacle to desegregation at many workplaces throughout the 1950s and '60s. And in the 1970s, the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was not ratified in part because the right wing claimed it would mandate unisex bathrooms, leading Gore Vidal to include ladies’ rooms, along with pornography and abortion, in his list of “tried-and-true hot buttons” in the conservative arsenal. [5] Far from being banal or of second-order importance, toilets are arenas where social distinctions like race, class, sex, and, increasingly, religion are inscribed, maintained and contested in the built environment. [6]


Communal lavatory, Protea South, informal settlement in Soweto, Gauteng. [All photos by the author, except as noted.]

It is for this reason that toilets are most usefully spoken about as spaces of representation. Speaking of them in this way helps clarify why they are so often places where marginalized or disadvantaged social groups assert their right to equality and social justice. Women, the disabled and many others have mounted high-profile campaigns for provision and access in recent decades, reminding us that toilets are a powerful symbol of inclusion. To acknowledge their symbolic nature is not to discount the logistical, technical and financial problems of toilet provision, but rather to explain why the success or failure of such projects rarely rests on these issues alone. Ironically, while the symbolic importance of toilets is fully understood by those who are denied them, it remains insufficiently appreciated by those in charge.

Some progress has been made in the past decade. Even if the global community will not meet its sanitation target (a failure blamed on chronically low levels of funding), the Millennium Development Goals have at least increased awareness of the links between toilets, public health and human dignity. And since coming to power in South Africa in 1994, the African National Congress has acknowledged the importance of improving sanitation as part of its larger program of widening access to basic services. When it emerged that 42 percent of the South African population still did not have access to basic sanitation at the start of the noughties, the government initiated a series of high-profile voter-pleasing policies to tackle the problem: in 2000 it declared that it would provide free basic service to all residents, and in 2006 it promised (optimistically) to eradicate the hated bucket system by 2007. [7] In line with national policies, eThekwini municipality has pledged, and more critically eThekwini Water is now delivering on the pledge, to provide basic water and sanitation to all in its jurisdiction. [8]

Yet the recipients of these basic systems, not to mention civil society organizations, often regard them as inadequate regardless of whether or not they meet government targets, which emphasizes the degree to which the reception of these projects is shaped by politics. In South Africa the racial legacy of apartheid — and the acknowledged role of services in redressing it — has dramatically amplified the situation: the more sanitation is treated as an index of equality, the greater the sensitivity of residents (and of politicians competing for their votes) to double or triple standards of provision. As the toilet wars showed, the issue is not only whether or not sanitation is provided; the debate also hinges on the standard of that provision. In Cape Town, the initial indignity was that toilets were unenclosed, requiring people to use them openly or under the cover of blankets; this was then compounded when the toilets were enclosed with structures made of “inferior” materials. At the root of such contests lie difficult questions: When is provision good enough, dignified enough? And who decides?



Left: Dudu Khumalo in front of male urine diverting attachment, Mzinyathi, eThekwini. Right: Traditional long drop lavatory in Lower Maphephetheni, eThekwini.

Flush with Inequality
Governments, NGOs and the UN are crucial in setting standards, but other forces shape perceptions too. In The Economist’s pre-World Cup special report on South Africa, for instance, “flush lavatories” were used as a prime indicator of improved living conditions, a move that sheds light on the problem facing sanitation providers. [9] It is a small but perfect example of “unintentional neo-colonialism,” which E.F. Schumacher, in his classic critique of development, Small is Beautiful, described as the tendency of Western onlookers to impose Western criteria of success — e.g. Western standards of consumption, value systems, behavior patterns — onto countries operating within very different conditions and constraints. Schumacher’s warning is worth recalling: “Unintentional neo-colonialism is far more insidious and infinitely more difficult to combat than neo-colonialism intentionally pursued. It results from the mere drift of things, supported by the best intentions.” [10]

In this case, using flush lavatories as a measure of progress betrays the assumption that the developed world’s waterborne model of sanitation, with its reliance on “big system” infrastructure, remains a universal gold standard. Like many other African ex-colonies, much of South Africa’s sewage infrastructure is a British colonial legacy. [11] Yet even in countries where there was no significant colonial presence, Western-style public lavatories have become a powerful symbol of modernity, signifying friendliness to international business and tourism: think of the push to build so-called “throne-style” toilets instead of Asian squat toilets in advance of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Indeed, the West’s public health engineering model, as well as its sanitary wares, should be recognized as one of its most successful and enduring exports (not by coincidence was one popular early toilet model called “Empire”). It has led to a global preference for waterborne sanitation, complete with Western flush toilets, even where these are not economically or ecologically viable or even culturally appropriate.

There is an irony here. Throughout the 19th century, in major cities like London and Paris, dry systems of human waste disposal were developed alongside water systems — and it was by no means obvious until late in the century that water would prevail. Consider, for instance, the best-known British proponent of the earth closet, the Reverend Henry Moule, whose designs were driven by his horror of how water closets polluted rivers and wasted the God-given nutrients in human manure. Moule’s anxiety about wasting waste was widely shared at a time when there was still a working organic economy. Even the modernizer of Paris, Baron Haussmann, strongly opposed the use of his newly built sewer system for anything other than storm water because undiluted human waste from cesspits was required for fertilizer and saltpeter (an ingredient in gunpowder). [12] When water systems eventually triumphed — due to the triple blow of cheap fertilizer (guano) imports, the popularity of water closets and the acceptance of the microbiological theory of disease — Karl Marx was moved to lament: “In London they can find no better use for the excretion of four and a half million human beings than to contaminate the Thames with it at heavy expense.” [13]


Left: Hygiene instruction chart, Lower Maphephetheni, eThekwini. Right: “Wash your hands” sign outside a restaurant toilet's window in Durban.

With the global focus on sanitation and sustainability, the dream of making productive use of waste is enjoying a revival today; a notable early success is the implementation of biogas plants across rural China (serving fifteen million households and counting). The goal of composting human waste is also central to the Swedish-led ecological sanitation movement (ecosan), which has inspired many dry toilet projects in Africa. As water expert Jon Lane recently argued, “Human faeces (properly composted) should also be recognised as an economic commodity and not a waste product.” [14] But the most cutting-edge research today concentrates not on feces but on urine, exploring how best to harvest it for phosphorus, nitrogen and potassium. Supported by a Gates Foundation grant, EWS is collaborating on one such project that proposes paying for sanitation with the proceeds of urine-based fertilizer, a seemingly win-win scenario: users receive a direct benefit from using their UD toilets correctly (i.e. faithfully separating their urine from their feces), while the depleted global supply of phosphorus is replenished. And if the idea of a urine market seems to come straight from the pages of a bad sci-fi novel, recall that urine collection was done in ancient Rome for use in the tanning and laundry industries; it was even subject to its own tax, the vectigal urinae.

Users, however, do not generally share the development sector’s enthusiasm for dry projects — and The Economist’s rather unthinking use of “flush lavatories” reminds us why. In many countries, dry systems continue to be regarded as second rate. And in South Africa, a middle-income country where developed and developing-world standards exist side-by-side, the recipients of dry systems need only look to the country’s still predominantly white privileged class — whose members benefit from full services and are not expected to use UD toilets — for proof that the distribution of sanitation options largely follows existing race and class lines. The UD toilet is unquestionably an “improved” form of sanitation if compared to a bucket, pit latrine or communal porta potty; but when set against the en-suite facilities, plumbed-in water and greedy flush toilets of the middle and elite classes (which still use nine to thirteen liters per flush), recipients feel cheated, establishing a negative cycle that can be nearly impossible to break.

The Slippery Sanitation Ladder
This problem was evident over the course of our UD toilet workshop. In our site visits around Durban, residents’ strong preference for flush toilets came through, as it does in articles criticizing eThekwini Water’s UD toilet program. “Why can’t we have flushing toilets like in neighbouring townships?” residents of KwaNqetho asked. [15] This preference is not driven by aspiration alone. Residents object to handling their own feces and burying it in holes they dig on site, a physically demanding job that reportedly falls to women. When used and maintained properly, the contents of UD toilets are in theory odourless and easily disposed of. Contractors train residents for the task, and the municipality throws in a rake and gloves for their use. But even when all goes as planned — the training takes place; the UD facility is maintained; the recommended number of people correctly use it; it is properly sealed up, producing, after two years, a neutral “humus” for disposal — it remains a culturally unacceptable option for many.

South African society is notably fecal-phobic, an attitude encouraged by educational initiatives that seek to end open defecation by stressing the link between feces and disease. Moreover, because of the high pathogen levels of the average UD toilet users’ waste, eThekwini Water now advises against using it as compost, thus sending to citizens a contradictory message: that their shit is at once dangerous and yet safely disposable. The message seems confused especially when set against the public health disaster that justified the UD toilet program in the first place — an outbreak of cholera in 2002. If the main aim of the government is to improve public health, then is it wise to make householders responsible for moving potentially infectious matter? Rather than making public health paramount, this closed system, which puts users in charge of maintaining their own infrastructure and disposing of their own feces, transfers labor and risk from public bodies to individual householders, who tend to be blamed for incorrectly using their toilets if problems arise.


Urine diversion toilets, eThekwini.

Against these criticisms, we need to set the daunting logistical challenges eThekwini Water faced in 2003 at the start of its program, and continues to face today. Public health crises, political pressures, migration, and service backlogs mean that the program must deliver results on constantly shifting fronts. Affordability was key to the choice of UD toilets, not only because implementation costs could largely be met by the state subsidy but also because they were deemed the best option in terms of user and maintenance costs. [16] According to eThekwini Water, even if sewage systems were in place to support flush toilets, households could not afford to pay the associated water rates; and the unit wanted to avoid the prohibitive emptying expenses of its other dry option, Ventilated Improved Pit toilets (less fondly known as “full-ups”). By eThekwini Water’s own criteria, the UD program is a success: it is cost efficient, low maintenance, keeps feces out of the water supply, and, according to its own research, reduces diarrheal diseases (important in a country where children continue to die from diarrhea). [17] Another one of eThekwini Water’s commissioned studies apparently reports good rates of satisfaction among UD toilet users.

But beyond the immediate context of eThekwini Water’s decision-making, its preference for self-contained sanitation options is also clearly consistent with a more troubling pattern in the world's water and sanitation community, where costs and maintenance responsibilities are being shifted onto users as a matter of (neoliberal) policy.This self-contained model contrasts sharply with that in full service areas where householders do not maintain pipes beyond their property line and are able to “flush and forget” their waste. Perhaps even more worryingly, the already pronounced difference in service standards risks becoming permanent: eThekwini Water has drawn a line beyond which it says sewage infrastructure will not be extended due to water scarcity, topography and cost. [18] This “waterborne edge” legitimates the separatism of sanitation by fixing two distinct service levels for rural/peri-urban and urban communities, and alters the so-called “sanitation ladder”: the principle that, as resources become available, users can upgrade from basic dry systems to full pressure water ones. [19] Limiting the upgrade options for certain areas seems to confirm civil society organizer Patrick Bond’s charge that, far from being temporary, basic sanitation risks becoming permanent for poor black communities as infrastructure gets cemented in “at the lowest levels.” [20]

No doubt Bond and other civil society activists would also dispute eThekwini Water’s claim that water scarcity justifies the creation of a waterborne edge. [21] But if we accept that full pressure systems are no longer on the menu in some areas, then it seems critical that UD toilets do more to actively meet the needs and desires of users. As with most sanitation projects, eThekwini Water's UD toilets were the product of an engineering process, not a design process, into which aesthetics and user preferences did not factor. However well built, the resulting toilets bear an unfortunate resemblance to the former settlement structures Goldblatt documented — undifferentiated concrete monoliths hulking on windswept sites at some distance from the homes they serve. And since the toilets are sited on top of the above-ground composting chambers, they must be accessed via stairs too steep for some elderly or disabled users; meanwhile, women and small children find diverting their urine into the holes physically challenging. (Men are better served with wall-
mounted funnels.) This user non-friendliness might help account for the apparent lack of interest on the part of many owners in maintaining, let alone improving or customizing their structures. The sole improvement we saw on our site visits, in fact, was an illegal conversion of a UD to a flush toilet.


Urine diversion toilet near Durban. [Sustainable Sanitation Alliance via Flickr]

What might help communities develop a sense of ownership, even of pride, in their facilities? Since the 1980s, sanitation experts have posed this question, as project after project has showed that people often don’t adopt free toilets provided for them by the state or by NGOs. The growing consensus is that it is not enough to supply toilets: users must also want them and, if they don’t, should be persuaded to want them, using hygiene education, incentives, and techniques from business to stimulate demand. [22] Drawing on a common analogy, Jon Lane says toilets should be comparable to mobile phones, with attention paid to the qualities that ensure “everyone will want one.” [23] This stance has been endorsed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has thrown its considerable weight behind the sanitation cause. As Melinda Gates recently told an audience, “You take the toilet and you reposition it as a modern, trendy device,” arguing that Coca-Cola, which has penetrated remote areas through aspirational marketing, can serve as a model for how this perceptual shift can be achieved. [24]

The Gates Foundation’s entry into a field that has struggled to attract big funders is to be celebrated. Yet the present gusto for market-inspired fixes should give us pause. Are market mechanisms, business models and local entrepreneurs really the best solution to the problems typified by large-scale sanitation rollouts? Will it really take urine markets and cash incentives to reconcile users to their UD toilets? It’s hard to deny the need for more blue-sky experimentation, decentralized approaches and attractive products, yet it can be dangerous to overlook how much conventional sanitation providers can do to improve projects here and now. Simple tactics include involving design professionals and communities in the planning stages of projects, making designs more responsive to different social groups, and following up and modifying programs in response to user feedback. This, of course, requires that suppliers commit fully to a user-centered participatory design paradigm and turn away from the technocratic approach that still prevails in much engineering discourse: no small task, but one that promises tangible results.

Even more important, however, is that we consider what is lost in the move to rebrand users as consumers and to think of toilets as a product like any other. It is obvious why these ideas appeal: they conjure up a frictionless future in which the current refrain of toilet complaints are replaced by a chorus of eager toilet consumers, voices raised in praise of the latest sanitary wares. That bathrooms are desirable consumer goods is clear from even a cursory scan of product catalogues. But as we have seen, in highly polarized societies like South Africa, toilets convey more than one’s status as a consumer; they convey one’s status as a citizen. And a central reason why improvement projects stumble is not indifference to sanitation, but rather the perception and, crucially, the reality of asymmetrical provision and resource allocation.

Seen in this light, the question that emerges is not, “how can we best sell this product?,” but rather, “how can we address the structural inequalities of sanitation provision?” The answer does not lie in more cleverly inducing consumer demand, but rather in reforming or even dismantling the existing sanitation ladder so that it becomes more fluid and less hierarchical, with a range of options that are not determined solely by social standing. If the effort to achieve social justice and to conserve resources is to be credible, then the behavior, habits and expectations of full-service users must be reformed alongside those on the bottom rung (who, let us not forget, consume the least). Given that dry, micro-flush and low-flush toilet options for urban situations already exist, why should they not be treated as real options for everyone? Persuading rich people, along with poor ones, to give up waterborne sanitation might prove the hardest — but most essential — sell of all.