Its about time Cape Town provided services to backyard dwellers

Empowerdex recently released its Munidex – a municipal service delivery index based on a comparison of data from the 2001 census with the 2007 community survey.  According to the index Cape Town is rated the best metropolitan municipality in terms of service delivery.  For the City’s politicians and officials this is an encouraging endorsement of the fact that the City is making strides in its service delivery levels.  However, given that the city received a high 92% for provision of sanitation and an equally high 90% for provision of water, and considering the stark reality of those not serviced or under-serviced,  one can wonder how accurate the index is and whether the measure adequately interrogates the full delivery picture.

Washiela Jackson lives in a wendy-house in a backyard of a council flat in Hanover Park.  Washiela is 40 years old and a single mother of five children (aged 15 to 3 years old).  She has been living in this wendy-house for the past 12 years and has been on the Housing Waiting List since 1996.  Her wendy-house is closely neighboured by similar structure, which in turn is neighboured by another, and so it goes on.  These structures, all closely situated next to each other, are squeezed into the back-yards of council-owned flats, and Washiela and her neighbours are what are commonly referred to as “back-yard dwellers”.  The City of Cape Town is estimated to have 150 000 backyard shacks – mostly wendy-houses or informal structures – throughout the peninsula in yards that are part of council-owned residential units or on privately owned properties. 

Washiela and her family have no direct access to basic services such as water, sanitation and electricity. Her electricity is supplied by a neighbour using an extension cord that runs from the neighbour’s flat through rooms and windows and, slightly above head-level, over a pathway and into her structure.  She also receives water from a neighbour and has rigged a hose from a tap in the neighbour’s flat to her wendy-house.  When it comes to basic sanitation facilities, like the toilet, Washiela and her family have to knock on doors to find a bathroom they can use – their only option is to wander the streets trying to find a neighbour who is at home and willing to allow them to use the toilet.  Washiela’s daily circumstances are not unique to her and her family – hundreds of thousands of Capetonians live this every single day – and have done so for many years.  We have all experienced temporary interruptions of services and so it is not difficult to imagine how trying it must be to live without access to basic services for years and years.  Given the housing backlog and the slow rate of housing delivery – and the fact that the best case scenario for breaking the backlog is 18 years if the City is able to deliver 38 000 housing units a year (and our best delivery rate so far is approximately 9000 units in a year) – the prospect of relief from these conditions, in the short-term, is bleak and so these living conditions should not be regarded as temporary.

There are several national and local government policies in place that are aimed at ensuring that all South Africans receive basic services, and that those who are poor receive some access to these services free.  The Constitution, which is perhaps the motivating source document for some of these policies, provides that everyone has the right to water.  The National Strategic Framework for Water Services provides that all people were to have access to a functioning basic water supply by 2008; and that all people are to have access to functioning basic sanitation by 2010.   

The framework provides that a basic water supply facility is “The infrastructure necessary to supply 25 litres of potable water per person per day supplied within 200 metres of a household … (in the case of communal water points) or 6 000 litres of potable water supplied per formal connection per month (in the case of yard or house connections)”. 

A basic sanitation facility is defined as “the infrastructure necessary to provide a sanitation facility which is safe, reliable, private, protected from the weather and ventilated, keeps smells to the minimum, is easy to keep clean, minimises the risk of the spread of sanitation-related diseases by facilitating the appropriate control of disease carrying flies and pests, and enables safe and appropriate treatment and/or removal of human waste and wastewater in an environmentally sound manner.”  The provision of a basic sanitation service is “The provision of a basic sanitation facility which is easily accessible to a household, the sustainable operation of the facility, including the safe removal of human waste and wastewater from the premises where this is appropriate and necessary, and the communication of good sanitation, hygiene and related practices.

The City of Cape Town’s Water Services Plan incorporates the National Framework targets.  The City’s plan is to achieve the basic sanitation supply target by 2012 (with a target of 70% achievement by 2010) and it claims to have already achieved the basic water supply target in 2005/6. While the City has made significant progress in providing these basic services to informal settlements and, to a lesser extent, to those in rural parts of the city, it is not entirely true that it has achieved 100% of the water supply target – the City has failed the backyard dwellers dismally and has not provided (or planned to provide) these services to them.  The City, in terms of policy, assumes that the backyard dweller accesses these services from the main dwelling.  This is a legalistic but false assumption. It may be legally true that the backyard dweller is a tenant (or sub-tenant) and so should access services from the main dwelling but the reality is that, as illustrated by Washiela’s story, backyard dwellers are at the mercy of their neighbour’s goodwill, good mood or presence at home for access to these services. Furthermore, backyard dwellers are most often living in the yard’s of those who are only accessing the free basic service – which can be, in the case of water, a restricted service.  Sharing this limited service is therefore an extra burden that they most often cannot afford. 

In essence, the City’s assumption that “Backyard dwellers (are) considered to be serviced from main dwelling” marginalizes a very large and already vulnerable group of citizens.  It is a grossly unfair and inhumane attitude and is possibly unconstitutional.  The long term goal is clearly to ensure that all South Africans have a dignified home.  Given the housing backlog and the pace of housing delivery it is essential that the City adopts a more realistic policy to ensure that in the interim everyone has access to basic services.  This will mean abandoning the assumption with regards to backyard dwellers and extending basic services to every house-hold, including those in backyards. In September I submitted a motion to the City’s Housing Portfolio Committee calling for the City to adopt a new policy that will see backyard dwellers being given access to basic services, including water and sanitation.  This motion has been sent to the City’s Legal Services department and to the Utilities Portfolio Committee for consideration also.  Formulating, adopting and implementing such a policy will go a long way towards achieving the National Framework’s vision which is “Water is life. Sanitation is dignity”.  More importantly, it will bring some relief from extreme hardship to hundreds of thousands of our City’s citizens and help reduce some of the burden of poverty and improve human health.  It is the right thing to do and it is long overdue.






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