Skip to content

Portable toilet protest in Cape Town draws attention to right to sanitation violations

Photo by Koni Benson.

Photo by Koni Benson.

Pota pota toilets are a huge issue in Cape Town, South Africa.

Cape Town-based Blue Planet Project organizer Koni Benson has brought this human right to sanitation issue to our attention.

Pota pota toilets are portable toilets used in homes that lack basic sanitation services. They are delivered by truck to homes, used, collected again by trucks, transported to a depot to be emptied, and then returned to the homes for use again. As difficult as this is, it’s also the case that the families receive different toilets each time, not consistently their own.

There are 2,000 such toilets in the informal settlement of Siqalo. Siqalo has been in dispute with the city that considers it an illegal land occupation because it is made up of more than 6,000 people who have taken homelessness into their own hands and put their shacks up on vacant land in the township of Mitchell’s Plain.

Along with the indignity and the violation of their human right to sanitation, local residents desperate for work take on the job of collecting and clean these pota pota toilets, face constant sickness. They say that because they deal with human feces everyday and the private contractor with the city of Cape Town doesn’t provide them with enough face masks and gloves, they often catch illnesses. The local Social Justice Coalition says that disputes between the company and its workers often affect this service in the townships and informal settlements around Cape Town.

Benson notes that yesterday evening there was a protest related to this issue in a swank public square in downtown Cape Town. She says, “Along with political street theatre, huge scrabble pieces, bubble machines and music, there was this stink. It turned out it was an art installation, or as rumor had it a daily protest, of a pota pota jerry can full of human waste, left open in the square, with spray paint on the sides of it that say ‘Poor Only’.”

Last year, protests against these portable toilets included dumping feces on the steps of the Western Cape legislature and at Cape Town International Airport.

The United Nations states, “Today, 2.5 of the world’s seven billion people, mostly in rural areas, do not have proper sanitation and 1.1 billion people still defecate in the open. This has significant impacts on human health, dignity and security, the environment, and social and economic development. The countries where open defecation is most widely practiced are the same countries with the highest mortality rate of children under five, high levels of undernutrition and poverty, and large wealth disparities.” But this is not just a rural issue and the problem is only growing with the shift in most countries of the global south where the majority being pushed off the land and moving to urban areas where they are forced to build makeshift shelter and face a lifetime of lobbying for access to water and sanitation.

November 19 is World Toilet Day, a day to raise attention to this human rights violation.

The Blue Planet Project is working with people living in the informal settlements to help realize their right to sanitation and their right to housing.

Further reading
Ensuring universal access to toilets as a matter of urgency (December 2012 blog by Mary Galvin)
Four killed in access to water protests in South Africa (January 2014 blog)
The constitutional right to water in court in South Africa (February 2009 blog)