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Lack of Civility Hampers S. Africa's Sanitation Efforts

Wassup activists say the government should do more to maintain the community's environment in Diepsloot, South Africa, December 2012. (VOA/S. Honorine)
In South Africa, two million people living in informal settlements still have restricted access to basic services such as running water, electricity or sanitation. The problem is so acute that so-called “service delivery protests” are regularly staged throughout the country. In Diepsloot, a poor township on the northern fringes of Johannesburg, residents have to share one toilet per 30 people. But as one small community-based organization has discovered, government is not the only actor to blame for poor services. A lack of civility within the township is also undermining efforts to improve the lives of the people.

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Lucky Manyisi inspects his “jurisdiction,” as he calls it. Diepsloot, section 1: its laughing school children enjoying their summer break, its makeshift shacks, its unpaved roads where pointy rocks protrude. But his focus - the core of his job and his duty to his community - are the brightly colored boxes that dot its streets: the toilets.

“As you can see there is a slight breakage that needs our attention. We don't want to see this breakage because it's wasteful of water," Lucky explained. "Then we'll make sure we clean this place, we fix the breakage, and then this thing can go back to normal.”

In Diepsloot, one of the newest townships around Johannesburg that sprang to life after the collapse of apartheid almost 19 years ago, the government installed toilets as well as running water. But Lucky says no one ever came to maintain them. So, two years ago he rallied two dozen volunteers to take on the most humbling of jobs: fixing toilets.

By now, Lucky is one of only five who stuck to their mission, earning a basic compensation of 150 rand, or about $17 (US), per day of work. Lucky, who belongs to the ruling ANC party, used to be the elected secretary general for the neighborhood. He says his new job is another manifestation of his dedication to his community.

“Last week I was in another conference with the Johannesburg water plantation. I got there a nice name to call feces: they call it “sludge.” It's a nice name. So now, I've moved from the office, I wear the blue clothes and I'm working with shit for the community,” Lucky stated.

But his dedication does not translate into automatic respect from the community.

Bright messages on the toilet's walls are not enough to prevent vandalism in Diepsloot, South Africa, December 2012. (VOA/S. Honorine)
Bright messages on the toilet's walls are not enough to prevent vandalism in Diepsloot, South Africa, December 2012. (VOA/S. Honorine)
Andisiwa, a young woman busy with her laundry at the communal tap outside the toilet, says she doesn't recognize him without his boots and blue overalls, even though she's seen him at work a few days a week.

“Honestly speaking, if the people are not helping as well, it's kinda useless for them to do something. Yeah, because you see people, they throw things here, on the drain. We're the ones causing all these litter," she said. "And everything being dirty around here. It's actually us.”

Lucky, too, complains about rampant vandalism: seats stolen, doors broken, walls tagged. He says his neighbors are their own worst enemies.

“Every time when we put a tap like this one, the copper one, some of the naughty people in the community they come and they remove it for their own personal purposes, which we don't understand. Maybe for the metal recycling or they melt it for the scrap... we don't understand. But these ones are often taken away from the community, whom we are helping as Wassup.”

His organization, Wassup Diepsloot, has painted bright messages on the toilet's walls to try to raise awareness that the facilities are here for the public good: “Love me, clean me”; “Respect me”; “Treat me with care”. But Jack Molokomme, one of Wassup volunteers, says it doesn't really make an impact.

“Those who are saying: ‘this is government's property, so I can break it’; we are still dealing with those people. The only thing that they want, here, in our area, is that they want to see themselves getting a RDP house [free of cost for the very poor]. So when you go to the site, that's when they start saying: 'How can you fix that? It means we are never going to leave [the informal settlement]!'” said Molokomme.

The RDP, or Reconstruction and Development Program, was launched by Nelson Mandela's government in 1994 to mitigate the immense socio-economic problems inherited from the apartheid regime by providing services and housing for the poor Black South Africans. The state says it has built 1.4 million houses since 1994, and has set 2014 as a target to eradicate informal settlements.