Making a dent, changing a world

By: Jed Scheuermann

Sanitation improvements in South Africa’s Diepsloot community seem minor against the backdrop of immense poverty but, to residents, the impact cannot be measured

Nelson Mandela said, “You must know your past and the cruelty that was committed to your people. But do not keep this too much in mind because we are here to build the new South Africa. ‘You remember what happened in the past so that in the future you can avoid it’ – my philosophy and legacy of reconciliation to the world…”

Imagine your house has no toilet. Not to worry, there’s a community toilet just around the corner or down the road. What if, when you get there, it’s not working or there’s no door? Oh, by the way, ‘your’ toilet is shared with 90 other people — not necessarily members of own your family or your friends… maybe your neighbours, or perhaps complete strangers. Again no worries, this arrangement is only ‘temporary’ after all. You dare not risk it after dark when murderous thugs prowl about unlit streets. This is reality in Diepsloot community near Johannesburg, South Africa.

Diepsloot, situated north of Johannesburg, is a shantytown consisting of an estimated 300 000 residents. A branch of the Klein Jukskei River carves its flow through Diepsloot, hence its name, meaning ‘deep trench’. Most dwellings are tiny shacks, often not larger than 2m by 2m! Although Joburg Water provides limited municipal water supply and basic sewer infrastructure, there is no electricity. Sewage flowing openly on the surface makes for muddy streets with ample potholes and deep ruts. Garbage is heaped everywhere due to sporadic collection. Although they are rarely seen in daylight hours, Diepsloot teems with innumerable rats. The stench is overpowering, ubiquitous and inescapable.

How can one even begin to manage public health concerns here? With virtually no municipal intervention, it forces residents to their own devices. Labelling Diepsloot a ‘temporary’ arrangement excuses most governmental and utilities leaders, who simply ignore residents’ plight by marginalising them entirely.

Emerging from this almost insurmountable predicament is the Water Amenity Service Supply Upgrading Programme (WASSUP), staffed by five locals apparently undaunted by a monumental task. WASSUP is comprised of Lerato Monama, Junitha Kgatla, Jack Molokomme, Luckie Manyisi and Obed Kekae. From time to time they also call in Mathebula, who, blessed with a very strong mechanical inclination, helps them with particularly difficult cases. WASSUP manages, maintains and upgrades shared public toilets, potable water tap points and drains attached to them within a section of Diepsloot known as Extension One. What the team lacks in formal training, they certainly make up for with indomitable enthusiasm.

In 2014, WASSUP partnered with the World Skills Foundation, HealtHabitat, Sticky Situations, and others to address basic public health concerns. Initial efforts clearly demonstrate toilet repairs and improvements quantitatively and qualitatively help living conditions in the Diepsloot community. Water meters indicating consumption and timers showing usage patterns were installed to monitor the difference between toilets before and after repairs. Results were absolutely staggering, as values obtained verified water savings often exceed 4 000ℓ per day. From fiscal and environmental perspectives, this statistic is mind-boggling, especially when one realises WASSUP manages 122 toilets of an estimated 400 toilets in Extension One alone. IAPMO joined this global partnership in the 2015 Diepsloot Sanitation Studio.

During our first days with WASSUP, we expended considerable effort to demonstrate we were there under their authority to make improvements and grow a vision for their efforts. Local residents were often sceptical and ambivalent, but also curious all at once. A few approached us seeking employment. They responded with a most incredulous expression, however, when told we weren’t in charge. We explained that WASSUP was in charge, and we served at their pleasure – once a seemingly improbable concept, but now the beautiful reality of our collaborative venture in Diepsloot.

Some people were definitely amazed at the contingent that arrived in the heart of their settlement. Each day at lunch, we ate right in Diepsloot with the WASSUP team at a local restaurant. It was a fantastic opportunity to build friendships and share tasty meals together. The food melded together elements of traditional Zulu or Xhosa tribal fare with Indian influences brought to Africa centuries ago. Everywhere we worked at the toilets, crowds of curious onlookers gathered to watch progress unfold. The banter of various languages was animated. Shy children peered from behind fences or around corners to see what was going on. The more outgoing engaged us in conversation. Laughing and playing, they even used some plumbing repair parts as toys — that is, of course, only until we needed them!

As is too often the case, in spite of radical improvements overall, even today South Africa is not utopia. Our goal of completing 20 toilets was ambitious, yes, but possible if all went according to plan. Then reality hit us. A mundane, simple job — turning off water, for example — becomes quite complex if bureaucracy is involved. Communication (or more correctly lack of it) presents a huge hurdle to overcome or work around. Plumbers understand it’s easier to work on systems if the water is off. On the fly work is possible, occasionally necessary, but hardly ideal. Waiting patiently to see if Joburg Water would isolate Diepsloot Extension One, it became apparent no message was conveyed, the date was mixed up or something else was at issue. In any case, municipal water supply remained on, leaving us no choice but to dive into our first task of installing new isolation valves as high-pressure water flow drenched the team. Despite a thorough soaking, bright smiles clearly showed team spirits would not be dampened. We improvised a method to pinch the polyethylene supply to at least slow down or, in some cases, stop water flow. Now, with new valves in place, the rest of our task became easier.

Read more about this feature in Plumbing Africa Novemeber 2015, page 40.

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