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ELECTION FACTSHEET: Sanitation in South Africa

How many people in South Africa have access to flushing toilets? How many rely on bucket toilets? Ahead of the 2024 elections, we answer these and other sanitation questions.

In April 2024, news media reported that a 3-year-old child had drowned in a pit latrine at a preschool in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province. Unecebo Mboteni is one of several learners to have died this way since 2013. 

In response, the opposition Democratic Alliance submitted a complaint to the country’s Human Rights Commission, saying the Department of Basic Education had failed to uphold the basic rights of children. 

With national and provincial elections set for 29 May 2024, service delivery is a major theme in the manifestos of political parties. Many have promised to improve access to sanitation.

To give you an idea of the scale of the task that lies ahead of them, this factsheet answers some key questions about sanitation.

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1. How many South Africans have access to improved sanitation?

Improved sanitation refers to flushing toilets connected to a public sewerage system or a septic tank, or a pit toilet with ventilation pipes (also known as a VIP toilet).

Statistics South Africa (Stats SA), the country’s data agency, collects data on sanitation through its general household survey (GHS). 

The 2023 survey, the latest available, showed that 83.3% of households had access to improved sanitation. This is compared with 61.7% in 2002.

The provinces with the highest access to improved sanitation in 2023 were the Western Cape (95.6%) and Gauteng (90.7%). 

The Eastern Cape had the greatest improvement in access, from 33.4% in 2002 to 88.1% in 2023. 

2. How many households use bucket toilets?

When a bucket or pail is used to collect human waste, it is called a bucket toilet. These are used by households that do not have access to improved sanitation facilities, such as flushable toilets.

Data provided to Africa Check by Stats SA shows that in 2002, 278,643 households used bucket toilets. By 2023 the number had fallen to 185,000.

3. What about access to sanitation in metros? 

Metropolitan municipalities, known as metros, are characterised by high concentrations of people and households.

According to the 2023 general household survey, Nelson Mandela Bay in the Eastern Cape had the highest number of households with access to improved sanitation (96.2%), while Mangaung in the Free State had the lowest (79.6%).

Stats SA’s 2022 census, which aimed to collect data from every person in South Africa rather than a sample of households, painted a slightly different picture.

It showed that the City of Johannesburg had the highest number of respondents living in households with improved sanitation (94.9%). Mangaung again had the lowest (79.5%).

4. What was the situation in 1994?

South Africa’s 1996 census is considered to be the “earliest credible data” on access to sanitation. It found that 50.3% of households had access to chemical or flush toilets. 

Statistics from the early 1990s should however be treated with caution. This is due to differences in sampling, methodology and definitions.

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