Cape Town’s bid story

The City of Cape Town's successful bid for World Design Capital 2014 was coordinated by the Cape Town Partnership, in collaboration with a wide range of stakeholders and supporters.

Time to redesign the toilet

Around the time of municipal elections last year, open toilets in the Western Cape and Free State hit the national agenda in a big way – resulting in the formation of a sanitation task team under Winnie Madikizela-Mandela to investigate the situation. Their findings? That as a country we have serious shortcomings: Over 16 million South Africans and half a million Capetonians still do not having access to adequate sanitation services – 18 years after the advent of democracy.

Beyond the obvious public health implications, according to policy coordinator of the Social Justice Coalition (SJC) Gavin Silber, the primary obstacle to safety in informal settlements is actually the toilet. “Residents of informal settlements must often walk for more than 10 minutes (often at night) to find a functioning toilet or empty clearing – rendering them particularly vulnerable to crime. People are assaulted, raped, robbed and murdered when conducting a very simple bodily function that many Capetonians take for granted,” he explains.

One toilet often services 50-100 households, without any formal maintenance programme. In March the SJC made a formal submission to the City of Cape Town outlining the need for a janitorial service to maintain the over 13 700 flush toilets that service the over 350 000 residents of Cape Town informal settlements.

Gavin says that the city has agreed that sanitation is a serious problem and that they will be instating a janitorial service, however the form it will take will only be announced in June. “What we’re saying is: ‘Let’s improve conditions in informal settlements by starting with the most basic service – sanitation – and if we can make marginal improvements there, we can make marginal improvements on other things,” Gavin explains.

Global problem

According to Fast Company, poor sanitation is a global problem that affects over 2.6 billion people – 40% of the world’s population! One would think that such a pressing problem that affects so many people would be high on the agenda for solutions. However, as Fast Company explains, it is not a simple case of “air-dropping flush toilets”.

The flush toilet has not been innovated on since 1775, when it was invented. One of the world’s most essential designs, it is also one of the most inefficient. Besides the extensive sewerage infrastructure required, each flush requires an average of 12 litres of water, which needs to be treated before it can be reused.

Designer toilets

At Design Indaba this year, Alfredo Brillembourg showed Urban Think-Tanks’s dry toilet solution for a favela in Caracas, Venezuela. A flat-pack constructible toilet solution for natural disasters was also shown by Rahim Bhimani.

Going beyond just the toilet, the Triratna Prerana Mandal group in Mumbai established a community-driven maintenance and service programme for the toilets in the slums. Above the toilets they also built child-care centres where children could learn computers and English, as well as get a healthy meal.

Seeking a more scalable, holistic solution, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation challenged 22 universities to submit proposals for safe, affordable, waterless, hygienic, sewer-less toilets last year. In July, eight of the universities were awarded grants to develop their ideas. Proposals include turning the waste into electricity and bio-charcoal, or simply dehydrating it.

Design by the people

This Saturday, 5 May, the SJC will be facilitating the first meeting between community organisations and designers who want to see Cape Town’s World Design Capital 2014 designation as a force for good. The meeting will be held in Khayelitsha and members of the community itself are also invited to attend.

“Particularly with things like the World Design Capital, very often we dictate how things should change and what improvements should be made without ever actually consulting with the affected communities,” explains Gavin. “It is important because very often you realise that what works in one community might not work in another when you speak to residents.”

The meeting will see the convening of a wide range of community-based organisations – focusing on everything from health to education, sanitation to day-care – who will seek to identify and frame the key challenges their constituents and communities face, and articulate these to designers, who in turn can help design solutions.

Be there for the community design brief:

DATE: Saturday 5 May 2012

TIME: 10h00 – 12h30 (light lunch after)

VENUE: Site C New Hall, Khayelitsha RSVP:

To find out more, read SJC’s open invitation.

Directions from Cape Town:

  • Take the N2 towards Somerset-West
  • Take the Mew Way off-ramp
  • At the top of the off-ramp turn right onto Mew Way
  • Turn right at the first set of traffic lights onto Lansdowne Road
  • Drive down Lansdowne Road for about 50 metres (train tracks on your left)
  • Turn right at the first petrol garage on your right
  • Drive past the petrol station – now on your left
  • Site C New Hall will be on your right
Main image: Two Social Justice Coalition workers assist COSATU General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi at an SJC event
Second image: Two children play nearby public toilets
Third image: A crowd of people attend a Social Justice Coalition event