Toilets. That was the BIG ISSUE in the 2009 general elections in South Africa.
Let me quickly explain the context: during Apartheid, non-whites in SA were sent to areas called homelands, according to their tribal affiliation. They were citizens of the homelands, not of South Africa. However, they were used as labourers in SA towns, so were allowed to live in areas called townships – satellite towns located close to the “white” towns and cities. (A favourite tourist destination, for example, is Soweto (short for South-Western Township), the biggest township of Johannesburg). In both the homelands and the townships conditions were pretty bad. The Apartheid government provided some housing but very little other services and for all intents and purposes these places were little better than informal settlements.
When the ANC came in power in 1994, one of their main priorities were to improve the living conditions of people in these areas, i.e. providing proper housing, water, power and sanitation. I read an article the other day (unfortunately I didn’t bookmark the link) that claims that now around 80% of South Africans have access to these services as opposed to less than 50% in 1994. I can’t remember the figures exactly, but the point is that the government has in fact made some progress in the past nineteen years. (Of course, opposition parties and the 20% of people who don’t yet have access to services choose to ignore these particular statistics.)
Back to ’09. At this point the main opposition party, the DA, is ruling the Western Cape province. They’re also improving housing and service delivery for people in the townships, like the ANC is in other provinces. Then the ANC rejoices. The DA has messed up. In one township in Cape Town, the DA had neglected to put walls around outside toilets that were installed for the people. Can you imagine the inhumanity of having to do your business with the world looking on? Score one point for the ANC.
Not long after, though, it gets revealed that the ANC has also messed up. They have also neglected to put up walls around outside toilets, incidentally in the municipal area where I live. The score was tied, the issue swept under a rug and not mentioned again, probably out of mutual embarrassment.
Until this week. To remedy the situation, the DA had installed temporary chemical toilets that are serviced regularly while they work on a more permanent solution. Not ideal, but definitely more dignified than ascending the throne al fresco.
But some disagree. Earlier this week a group of people, including some high-ranking ANC Youth League members (but acting completely independently and in no way sanctioned by the ANCYL), allegedly poured out the contents of some of the toilets’ septic tanks on the steps of the provincial government buildings. According to the spokesperson for the group, as stated during an interview with television news, who were of course invited beforehand, it was a “symbolic gesture”. He claimed that the DA has been humiliating the poor of the province (though it seemed more like he was talking about himself and fellow ANCYL members) and that they were now humiliating the DA in return.
Now, I concede, flinging poop is a natural method for primates to show dissatisfaction, but I have always thought we humans were more evolved than our hairy tree-climbing cousins. And the big irony, that no one seems willing to mention, is that the building’s cleaning staff, who probably lives in the townships and voted for the ANC, are the ones who had to clean up the mess. It begs the question who were really humiliated by this exercise?
And thus the first salvo in the run-up to next year’s elections has been fired. Everyone is waiting with bated breath to see how the DA is going to retaliate, and with the history of our country’s political parties’ main election strategy being to point out why their opponents are wrong, rather than highlighting how they will change things, one can only guess.
The only thing that is certain is that next year’s elections are going to be messy, and I don’t use that word figuratively.
(For a more humorous take on these events, click here.)