Gogo Sikhosana Ngcobo is 76 years old. Growing up, she says she had dreams of what her life would be like. They featured a brick house with a flushing toilet. Those dreams, like all the teeth in her mouth, are long gone. “I did not imagine that living in an urban area, after voting, I would still be using a pit latrine,” she complained. “Our councillor has neglected us, it’s like we have been thrown away.”
Ngcobo is one of the oldest residents of Zakheleni Informal Settlement in V section Umlazi, a big township in South Africa’s port city of Durban.
Hunched over, one hand on her back and the other tightly gripping her cane, she takes one shaky step after another into the toilet. A shop-bought wooden toilet seat rests on a high base of wooden planks.
“My children had to lift the toilet,” she explained. “I am still strong but I could not sit on this thing before, it was far too low.”
Because of this issue around the height of latrine toilet seats, small children are often scared to use these toilets and often go behind their houses instead.
A father of two boys, 52-year-old Thembinkosi Jerome Khoza has lived in Zakheleni for 23 years. In this time he has had to move his pit eight times. Apart from digging a new hole once one filled up, some of his pit latrines have collapsed due to heavy rains. Khoza does not work and does not have the financial means or materials to rebuild his toilet.
“I have to go in the bush,” explained Khoza, with some embarrassment.
“When my wife leaves the house with paper and goes into the bush to do her business, it lowers her dignity and makes me feel shame at not being able to provide for my family. I feel like a failure of a man.”
The only other room in his shack besides the kitchen is the bedroom. He shares this with his whole family. At night, if any of them need to urinate they go in a bucket. “Although I have boys, I have to wait until they fall asleep before I go in the bucket.”
As embarrassing as it is, Khoza says that the toilet is not a priority.
“I do not sleep in the toilet,” he said. “I would like to see development of houses, provision of jobs so we can eat – and then see about the toilets.”
He relays how in another informal settlement, the government built toilets first and never came back to build houses, saying they had exhausted the development budget on sanitation.
“What will I do with a toilet and no home?” he asks.
The conditions of other ablution facilities in the Umlazi informal settlement echo Khoza’s sentiments. The shacks are made from various materials, and since residents cannot afford to waste material on toilets, they use bits and pieces of rusty corrugated iron, reeds, plastic and wood. With one side sunk in, some stand skew, others were built over pits that are too big and one sits precariously over open pits.
Soliwe Mnguni is a 72-year-old pensioner. When her pit latrine was swept away by rains last year, she had to wait weeks for her pension money so she could pay someone to dig up a new pit for her.
“Because of my weight, my knees are weak and I cannot do much myself,” she explained. “It hurts, for a woman my age, a mother with her own house to have to go next door to use the toilet. Leaving my waste in my neighbour’s yard, there is no dignity in that.”
She now has a new toilet. Its wooden frames hold up sheets of steel that serve as walls are barely far apart enough to fit her burly frame. Beams of sunlight peep in through holes on the plastic covering which makes the roof.
Although her new metallic toilet bowl is much taller than the homemade one she had before, she still sometimes needs help getting up from it.
“Once I am finished doing my business, I call someone to help me up from the toilet. If my daughter is not around, I wait for the smell to subside, then call for help.”
Mnguni believes the beauty of a toilet is it flushing away the waste, taking away the smell.
“But with these toilets, we live with the dirt,” she notes with disgust.
“Sometimes nothing helps with the smell and we cook and eat with last night’s defecated meal wafting in the air.”
There is one flushing toilet in Zakheleni. It is in the crèche built by the community.
Bheki Buthelezi, a member of the community committee, says, “Proper sanitation is our vision for our children. We don’t want them to grow up feeling like subjects as we have been treated by government, but as thinking human beings.”
The waste collects into a septic tank on the premises of the crèche. The committee has been engaging with the department of public works to have the waste removed once the tank is full.
For the rest of the residents of this informal settlement, they will continue to live by the name of their area: Zakheleni, Zulu for “build it yourself”.