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Menings | Opinion > SeminaarKamer | Seminar Room > English > Essays

People first: shortage of public toilets, the cholera epidemic and other stories

Jameson Maluleke - 2009-01-28

Most rural towns and some of those attaining city status, particularly in Limpopo, are developing at an alarming rate. Vast spaces of the meadowlands, once a paradise for grazing cattle, are now cluttered with high-rise buildings and motorways heaving with different makes of vehicles. Country shops whose owners were affectionately called general dealers have given way to big shopping malls where people shop until late hours of the evening.

Despite all these new developments, despite being densely populated with immigrants, local people, visitors, business people and overseas tourists, these country towns have no bathroom facilities for use by the public. Very few shopping malls have toilets open to the public, and those that have, require a member of the public to pay a certain sum of money to use the facilities.

An elderly and sickly lady nearly did a terrible thing to herself in one of these booming towns. She had been refused the use of bathroom facilities as she could not produce the one rand entrance fee. She was sent to the nearby magistrate’s office, where sergeant-major (honorary title of any security officer) refused her entrance because it was lunchtime – people were not allowed on the premises during lunch hours, sergeant-major reminded her. He later advised her to seek the facility of a nearby ravine on the outskirts of the town – everybody goes there in answer to the call of nature, sergeant-major beamed with a disarming smile as befits a caring, high-ranking official. Only, he did not mention that people go there against their will. Her brow damp with perspiration, the lady manoeuvred her way through the thickets, mindful of stepping on the waste and of disturbing other squatters, until she reached a ravine infested with armed robbers and rapists. Poor devil, she should have known better and prepared herself before she left her village home. She should also have had an extra one rand for unforeseen circumstances and emergencies with which she was faced then. When she finally emerged from the gorge, she saw hundreds of people flocking down to the donga. Feeling much better, she hastily returned to town with a host of others.

An itinerant eye of an overseas tourist would love to swoop on such obscure area as “the people’s relief centre”, out of sheer curiosity. Providence vehemently refuses to allow tourists to see or stray to these cursed spots for reasons that need no explanation. Hopefully, the towns’ fathers will one day raise enough funding to build public toilets for the people, and all prophets of doom who predict that the people’s government cannot run the beloved country would be forced to eat their own lies. Amandla, long live the people’s government, long live!

Adjacent to the informal settlements situated on the periphery of these towns there are streams and forested spaces of land blessed with indigenous trees which could serve as dream parks or botanical gardens complete with walking trails - potential tourist attractions. Regrettably, this natural splendour (streams and forests) serves as “relief centres” for thousands of people who visit these towns on a daily basis.

One could argue that the idea of toilets is foreign to Africa, and that in traditional Africa, homesteads and villages were built without bathrooms included in the whole plan. Even today, some homesteads in rural areas have no proper bathrooms. May it be that town planners have opted for the old traditional African style when developing towns rather than choosing a modern approach? The latter approach stipulates that no town planner worth his salt would approve the erection of a public building without bathrooms.

Fair enough, people are stupidly irresponsible for contaminating the whole area to their own peril. Can’t they see that they are contributing to producing toxic waste that would wipe them from the face of the earth? But how should a poor fellow or lady who spends four to five hours in town respond to the emergency when the authorities kindly inform him/her that he/she can’t use a bathroom if he/she is not prepared to pay?

Are health authorities so short-sighted as not to see that dongas, gorges, ravines, brooks and creeks turn into roaring streams with contaminated water during the rainy months? Some of the informal settlement dwellers are forced to drink or use unclean water as they have no drinkable running water in their residential areas. Have the health authorities become the victims of their own bureaucracy? What happened to the hallowed saying, "People First"? Is it a melody to be sung during election time in order to arouse people’s patriotic feelings?

Lest we forget, the health department has wasted millions of taxpayers’ money trying to stem a diarrhoea outbreak in the Dennilton-Bronkhorstspruit-Groblersdal areas. The outbreak, which was caused by unclean and undrinkable water, occurred about three to four years ago. One would think that the health department had learnt a good lesson from the mishap, yet its unimpressive performance tells a different story. At the moment, tens of South Africans have lost their lives both in Limpopo and Mpumalanga due to the health department’s clumsiness. While moving from door to door educating people about the cholera outbreak is to be welcomed, it is too little too late. And the only beneficiaries of this hastily planned education are people in affected areas, the rest of the country still in the dark about the ravages of cholera epidemic.

One could be excused for thinking that the health department would try to be a bit professional rather than commit one functional bungle after another. As we sail towards the national elections, some of the directors in the department would like to be voted in as minister of health. Unfortunately no voter, however election-illiterate he/she may be, would ever waste his/her vote on a short-sighted and confused candidate who cannot pull up his socks.

Shopping centres should count themselves fortunate to have multitudes of people who constantly bring in bags of money to fill their coffers. Well, is this how shopping centres should treat local people, customers, tourists and casual visitors? Is the worth of the human person calculated only in terms of financial value?

The town’s planner is only prepared to take us back to rudimentary geography, pointing out the obvious, that the Lowveld area is an arid region. As such, there is not enough water to build toilets with running water for everyone. But what about pit toilets? Better still, who forced the town planner to build towns in a semidesert?

The town’s top administrator – the Lord Mayor – blames the street vendors who, he says, turned all public toilets into storerooms to put away their merchandise after hours – a point well made. An arrogant politician, the Lord Mayor is never short of solutions to remedy the situation; he soon reveals that his office has devised a “ten-year plan” to solve the shortage of public toilets. He had lately discarded the catch phrase, "People First" because he had realised that people are fed-up with it. The silly adage has nothing to do with prioritising people like the sickly old lady, but is just a mere feel-good saying designed to cover common people’s eyes he contemptuously referred to as the voting cattle. When a decade has passed with no public toilets having been built, he won’t have to be concerned, because his term of office would have expired any way. So a “ten-year plan” is a sugar-coated pill for the cure of every public complaint.

Today it feels good for us to accuse Zimbabwean nationals for transporting cholera into the country and to accuse them of being instrumental in killing our own people. Turning every Zimbabwean into a colourful scapegoat is the work of health authorities who failed to foresee the cholera epidemic and put the necessary emergency plan in place.

By forcing people to use open spaces to relieve themselves, we are unwittingly preparing our own graves. One does not need to be a medical scientist to understand that mucky streams are fertile ground for epidemics such as cholera and diarrhoea – plagues which will send us galloping to heaven.

This is no time for cheap rhetoric. The department will gain nothing by being secretive and by beating about the bush. People want to know the truth about the recent cholera epidemic so that they can take the necessary precautions.