Claim that no-one in Cape Town has to use ‘bucket toilets’ is wrong

Comments 13

Officials in Cape Town have claimed there are “only 600 bucket toilets in circulation” in the city and everyone has been offered an alternative. Municipal water and sanitation reports show both claims are wrong.

Earlier this month Western Cape Premier Helen Zille tweeted: “No one has to use a bucket system in Cape Town.  Everyone offered an alternative.”

Two days later Paul Boughey, Chief of Staff to the Mayor of Cape Town, added: “CT only has 600 bucket toilets in circulation. We are eradicating them. NO one has to use them, but we can’t force take up of dignified alt.

The provision of sanitation to informal settlements in Cape Town has long been a contentious issue for the City and the Democratic Alliance in particular – dating back to the 2009 construction of 51 unenclosed toilets in Makhaza in Khayelitsha.

In the past few weeks, protests have focused on the remnants of the city’s crude bucket toilet system – which the City is attempting to phase out by replacing the buckets with Portable Flush Toilets (PFTs).

Zille and Boughey’s comments make two slightly different claims regarding the use or prevalence of bucket toilets in Cape Town.

Cape Town’s Bucket List

On May 13, Executive Mayor of Cape Town Patricia de Lille stated there were currently “958 bucket toilets known and serviced by the City” [down from the 1 108 bucket toilets counted in June 2012].

On June 6 Solly Malatsi, De Lille’s Spokesperson, told Africa Check there were now “[a]pproximately 600” bucket toilets serviced by the city – perhaps a sign of the stepped-up bucket eradication plan. It was not made clear whether the remaining number of bucket toilets was due to residents’ refusal to accept the PFTs, or simply due to logistics.

The June figure would appear to agree with Boughey’s claim – however community-based safety and security NGO the Social Justice Coalition (SJC) has disputed this assertion, with the SJC’s Gavin Silber telling Africa Check that the cited figures only refer to the number of bucket toilets the city maintains. Although there is a “lack of accurate data”, Silber says there are “tens of thousands of people [who are not serviced by the City], who make use of their own bucket, which they buy at Shoprite, and who pour [their waste] into a river or down a drain,” or who relieve themselves in “empty clearings or buckets because they don’t have access to a toilet or the one they do have access to is unhygienic or non-functional.”

The City’s own Water Services Development Plan concedes 40.1% of households in informal settlements are not serviced (or under-serviced – see below for the “service gap”), representing 77,783 households. Given this information, and for reasons explained below, it is clearly likely that the total number of bucket toilets in use in Cape Town significantly exceeds 600.

Is ‘everyone’ offered an alternative?

The mayor’s spokesman, Malatsi, told Africa Check the “backlog” of 77,783 households does not indicate completely unserviced households, rather that they are “serviced at a ratio higher than 1:5” – referring to one toilet to five households, the City’s minimum basic sanitation objective. The City aims to “provide minimum basic sanitation (to City Standards – 1:5) to 80% of Informal Settlement Households” by 2016/17.

A separate report released by the City of Cape Town explains: “Adequate toilet facilities include all toilets connected to the public sewerage system, toilets connected to septic tanks, chemical toilets and pit toilets with a ventilated pipe.”

The current backlog or toilet “gap” – to meet the needs in informal settlements in Cape Town – has been identified as 24,650 toilets.

Malatsi told Africa Check the City is “providing 25,000 portable flush toilets (PFTS) as well as full flush, container and chemical toilets to increase service provision,” doing so “as speedily as humanly possible”, he said.

Of course, even if the full 25,000 portable flush toilets are provided, these will only account for 25,000 households (as only one such toilet is used per household), leaving more than 50,000 households still in need of access to “adequate” services.

The existence of a significant toilet “gap” would therefore strongly suggest that not everyone in Cape Town has an alternative to the bucket system – or, at least, not an alternative that is easily or hygienically accessible, if you live in an informal settlement.

Does this mean the DA is doing a bad job?

It’s relative. The Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Richard Baloyi recently informed a national conference that 272,995 bucket toilet systems were still being operated by municipalities across South Africa.

Cape Town is far from being the only “offender” in this respect. The toilet: household ratio is also “pretty dire” in many other informal settlements in South Africa, with “many settlements having no access to formal sanitation whatsoever,” Kate Tissington of the Socio-Economic Rights Institute told Africa Check.

Further, the City’s assertions – that in many areas they are simply not able to install conventional sewerage connections (because of the underlying ground, for example) – is an honest claim.

Why the Big Stink?

There are a number of reasons Cape Town and the DA have come under fire for the bucket toilet and related issues:

1. The toilets that are provided are not always usable. The Social Justice Coalition recently released a social audit of toilets in informal settlements, which strongly indicated the City was failing to adequately monitor service provision to/for communal toilets (chemical toilets, etc) – this includes the removal of human waste, the cleaning of the toilets, the safety of the toilet structures, and the security of [people using] the toilets. The servicing of toilets not connected to the municipal sewerage system is performed by the municipality and outsourced sub-contractors, and the SJC report indicated these contractors were underperforming (and are insufficiently monitored). Boughey has rejected these claims, saying the SJC is “NOT authoritative” – but has not provided any of his own data to support this response. AfricaCheck repeatedly attempted to query the existence of any City service audits with Mayoral Spokesperson Malatsi, but the question was routinely ignored.

2. 1:5 is a minimum requirement, not a benchmark. The ratio of one toilet to five households is the absolute minimum specified in the Emergency Housing Programme, explains Kate Tissington, and should not be used as a guideline for [non-emergency] informal settlements. “It’s not supposed to apply to established settlements,” Kate says, “but there isn’t much else to guide municipalities.”

3. PFTs are a big issue. There are benefits to the PFTs – the most important, perhaps, being the safety or security of the user, who will no longer have to travel for 10-minutes or more in darkness in order to find a working toilet.

However without adequate servicing, the PFTs function as little more than fancy bucket toilets. Zille and City officials have spent a great deal of time in the press and on Twitter, explaining the hygiene and odour benefits of the PFTs. [ANC] City councillor Loyiso Nkohla, however, says the PFTs are perceived as an insult – and that their rollout has been conducted without any proper prior consultation with the communities affected.

In an interview with AfricaCheck, Nkohla challenged the Premier to use and live with one of the PFTs – in a room in her own house – for a week, and see what the experience was like. He added that many people, including media, had mistaken the Portable Flush description for a flushing toilet connected to a sewerage system – and wanted to clarify that it was a hand-worked toilet, and which required the addition of several litres of water (each time) to flush waste into the attached container [which, later, had to be emptied and disposed of].

For the record

Responding to newspaper headlines stating her entourage had been pelted with faeces sourced from bucket toilets, @helenzille corrected the statement and said that “Loyiso Nkohla of the ANCYL transported it in his Audi. That shows that the portable flush tanks are clean and odourless.”

Nkohla confirmed to AfricaCheck that a) he had transported the faeces in his Audi and that b) it was transported in PFTs. He did, however, dispute the “clean and odourless” claim, saying that even though he had wrapped the [five or more] PFTs in black plastic bin-liner bags, the containers leaked and he had to take his car to a carwash following the protest.


The assertion that only 600 bucket toilets remain in Cape Town applies only to government-serviced toilets and fails to take account of the thousands of households not serviced.

While the City of Cape Town may not be the worst-performing municipality in South Africa in terms of providing of sanitation, by its own figures more than 112,000 people in the municipal area do not have access to sanitation.

The war of words (and poo) have turned a community’s fight for a basic human right into political grandstanding on all sides.

For the City and the DA to treat protestors as somehow being “ungrateful” is equally disingenuous and obscures the municipality’s very real service delivery progress in this and many other areas.

Edited by Peter Cunliffe-Jones

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Comment on this report

Comments 13
  1. By Ipie

    “The City’s own Water Services Development Plan concedes 40.1% of households in informal settlements are not serviced … representing 77 783 households.”

    It is not clear to me how you derive the figure of 77,783 households from the Water Services Development Plan. The Plan suggests that 59.9% of households are serviced and that there are 34,225 toilets currently in operation. That means that the total number of households currently is 57,136. Please explain how you got to 77,783.

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  2. By Africa Check

    Thanks for the question Ipie.

    The figure is not ‘derived’ from anywhere, as such. It is listed in the table on page 3 of the development plan. “Backlog in informal settlements: 77,783.”

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  3. By John

    So, what you’re saying is that it’s not true that no one has to use a bucket because Cape Town does not have 78,000 pchemical toilets ready to go. That’s flawed logic. It’s like saying not everyone in this bar can have beer because there are only 3 poured ones on the counter. Cape Town could always order more if there was demand. Surely the only way to test this would be to find someone who asked for a toilet and was refused.

    You may be right that the problem set out in the WMP is more serious than the DA implies, but I don’t think you’ve proved their statements incorrect.

    This article would have been interesting if it actually gave hard facts for Johannesburg as a comparison. It’s perhaps unsurprising that this was not done given who the author is. Ultimately I think the main reason why a stink is being made about this is obvious. Because the ANC can’t tolerate the fact that the DA might be better at governing and at service delivery to the poor than they are.

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  4. By Africa Check

    Thanks for the comment John however, that is not what Helen Zille said.

    She did not say that nobody in Cape Town will have to use a bucket toilet at some point in the future when the City has the necessary portable flush toilets (PFTs) available. She said nobody has to use a bucket toilet in Cape Town now.

    The mayor’s office then told us it is seeking to provide 25,000 PFTs when it can, but on its own figures, this is 50,000 short of the estimated need.

    To use your analogy of a bar, it is a bit more like someone claiming that the drinks are on them, and then admitting there is not enough beer in the bar to go around.

    On your other point about comparisons with other cities, this was a report about the claim Helen Zille made which referred to Cape Town only, nevertheless, our report does in fact point out the problems suffered elsewhere and illustrates this point with a photograph. Your reference to our researcher is misplaced.

    We would be happy to look into claims made by public figures about other cities. That does not lessen the importance of being honest about the situation in Cape Town.

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  5. By John

    “To use your analogy of a bar, it is a bit more like someone claiming that the drinks are on them, and then admitting there is not enough beer in the bar to go around.”

    As I said, you’re saying that it’s not true that no one has to use a bucket because Cape Town does not have enough chemical toilets ready to go. Your “fact” and the statement are unrelated hence the flawed logic in your finding.

    Your argument is (using your analogy): it’s not true that no one in this bar has to go thirsty because there isn’t enough beer for them all. Everyone in the bar has been *offered* a beer. It is impossible to exclude the possibility that: a) they don’t all accept the *offer* (maybe they aren’t all thirsty or prefer vodka); and/or b) more beer will be delivered. In other words, as at the time the drinks are offered, there is no relation between the quantity of beer available and the statement that no one has to go thirsty. The statement will only be false when someone asks for a beer and there isn’t one.

    Which is why I said that you haven’t proved Zille’s statement false until you have found someone who has accepted the *offer* that CT has made and CT has refused them a toilet.

    Either this article is just badly written or the person writing it wants to make Cape Town look bad. Ultimately, I think it was just a poor choice of “fact” to verify. The statements made by the DA do not lend themselves to empirical disproof.

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  6. By Africa Check

    Dear John

    Thank you again for your comment.

    The key point of issue here is the number of households in the informal settlements that do not according to the City authorities have adequate sanitation and the nature of the response.

    As we point out, the City’s own documentation declares a “backlog” of 77,783 households without adequate sanitation, defined as one toilet to every five households, adequate toilet facilities defined as including “all toilets connected to the public sewerage system, toilets connected to septic tanks, chemical toilets and pit toilets with a ventilated pipe.”

    In response to this situation, the mayor’s spokesman told Africa Check that the City is “providing 25 000 portable flush toilets (PFTS) as well as full flush, container and chemical toilets to increase service provision,” doing so “as speedily as humanly possible”.

    This leaves more than 50,000 households without adequate sanitation, as defined above.

    As we point out in our report and illustrate with our choice of photos, there are many places across South Africa where these problems persist.

    However, this does not absolve those in charge of Cape Town from being clear about the remaining problems and it is on the basis of City figures that we find Helen Zille’s claim is unsound.

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  7. By MdT

    Africa Check

    Regardless of how much you debate this…
    Regardless of who said what and how…
    And putting aside that your bias is showing…

    The FACT is, if you get the informal-sanitation statistics of all the other provinces in South Africa, you will find that there is MUCH more fuss to be made about those being governed by the ANC. Here are the stats from the article I mentioned earlier:

    “Cape Town is the leading metro for sanitation delivery in the country. Here are the statistics for the percentage of people with either flush or chemical toilets per province:

    Western Cape: 90.5%
    Gauteng: 86.5%
    Free State: 67.7%
    Northern Cape: 66.5%
    National Average: 62.6%
    KZN: 53.2%
    North West: 46.2%
    Eastern Cape: 46%
    Mpumalanga: 45.2%
    Limpopo: 22.7%”

    The FACT is, this whole issue is nothing more than a huge dust-cloud kicked up by the ANC youth league in an attempt to discredit the DA.

    In 2008 Helen Zille was chosen for the “World Mayor of the year Award”, do you honestly think such an award will go to a leader that is anything less than outstanding? Less than fair, less than just? I honestly believe that a leader like her has the potential to address and resolve MUCH more of SA’s ailing issues than the ANC can ever dream of, since they are too busy enriching themselves while their still in the driver’s seat of this gravy train.
    Link here:

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  8. By Africa Check

    Thank you for your comment MdT

    The aim of Africa Check is to raise the level of accuracy in public debate, so we do indeed aim to look at ‘who said what’, check the facts that lie behind what public leaders, on all sides, say and then issue a report.

    This is what we have done here, and, on the basis of the City of Cape Town’s own figures, we have found that the claim that has been made repeatedly in public that everyone in the city who wants one has been offered an alternative to the bucket toilet system is inaccurate.

    The City’s own figures show that more than 50,000 households have not.

    We believe this is an important issue which merits serious debate, not inter-party (or inter-city) point scoring and we do indeed point out in both the text and images used in the report, that sanitation services across the country are failing to meet people’s needs around the country.

    But the claims that have been made relate to Cape Town.

    And what happens in other regions or cities does not lessen the obligation on everyone to be honest about the challenges remaining in that city.

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  9. By Stegan

    One question with regards to the claim that 25 000 PFTS is not sufficient for 75 000 households. When the toilets are supposed to be for every 5 household, theoretically this should be sufficient for 125 000 households?

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  10. By Africa Check

    Thank you for your comment, Stegan. The 1-to-5 ratio relates to the number of public toilets available to households. The PFTs are supposed to be 1-per-household, not carried around from house to house.

    Reply Report comment
  11. By Jill

    Out of interest sake, do we know at what rate our informal settlements are growing? Does this not also affect the service delivery in our province?

    Reply Report comment
  12. By Africa Check

    Hi Jill
    Thanks for your question. According to Helen Zille’s latest newsletter, the population of Cape Town has grown by “30% in 10 years”. (These are numbers we have not checked but which we simply report).

    As said in the report there are many challenges, including the ground structure in some of the areas around Cape Town, which make it a particular challenge. This is another.

    This is why it is strange to claim that the challenge has been overcome when, according to the city’s own statistics, Cape Town, (and other cities around South Africa even more so), has yet to overcome.

    Reply Report comment

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