Constucting Justice in Cape Town, One Toilet at a Time

Jane Sloane

"One of the most dangerous acts you can perform in Khayelitsha is to go to the toilet," says Nosiphelele Msesiwe, a resident and a member of Cape Town’s Social Justice Coalition (SJC).

Nineteen-year-old Sinoxolo Mafevuka went to the toilet on the evening of March 2, 2016, and her body was found naked after being raped, strangled and dumped in a communal toilet. She was black, female and poor, the trifecta that deals a death blow to many in Cape Town.

Cape Town is one of the most unequal spaces in the world’s most unequal country.  If you are female, black and poor, you’re more likely to live in a place where there’s high crime, low or no lighting and little access to safe toilets, sanitation or to justice. Mafevuka’s death was a devastating reminder of the human cost of South Africa’s structural inequalities and the failure of its constitutional mandate to protect its citizens and support a free and just society.

Khayelitsha is the largest and fastest growing township in South Africa. Originally, it was established as an ‘apartheid dumping ground’ in the mid ’80s as a part of the ‘Group Areas Act’. In the last ten years, the population has risen from 400,000 to 2.4 million, 50% of these new residents are under 19 years of age. Mandisa Dyantyi, SJC’s Deputy Secretary, readily acknowledges that the SJC has youth on its side: ‘We’re youth-led, vibrant and connected to the ground — and our composition is reflective of the population of South Africa — our citizens are very young.’

In response to the public outcry after Sinoxolo Mafevuka’s brutal murder, Cape Town Council built some additional new toilets. However, the allocation of toilets is still approximately only one toilet for every five households. With between 5–15 people living in each household, that’s a ratio of one toilet per 25–75 people.  Exacerbating this situation, the toilets were built away from the households, meaning residents still need to make the trek to use them at night.

Lindiwe Mafuya, who has lived in this community for 25 years, says, "There’s no safety here. I go to the bushes during the day but it’s too dangerous at night, and so I use a bucket because I don’t want to get attacked.  It’s dark at night with no protection. Some of the toilets were blocked for six months before someone came from the council to fix them, and you can see the state they’re in.” 


A volatile mix of alcohol, anger and hopelessness fuels gender-based violence in the community.  An equally potent lack of accountability, commitment to prosecution and justice sustains this situation.  As Msesiwe says, black people are “dumped here by the system to die. My mother asks me why I’m still doing this kind of work, with all its risks.  I say to her ‘I cannot not do this work.’”

Cape Town has more than 200 informal settlements.  While some families have lived in the settlements upwards of 25 years, the City of Cape Town continues to treat the informal settlements as temporary. This way, the council can introduce porta potties and chemical toilets rather than developing the depserately needed infrastructure.

Access to toilets is a human rights issue.  It’s also intrinsically linked to women’s political power and influence.  For instance, recently I heard from a woman in Pakistan that when a female judge was appointed in a rural courthouse, the courthouse was suddenly required to build a female toilet. This meant women could finally testify in gender-based violence cases.  Previously, they couldn’t stay in the courthouse long enough without needing to use a toilet.

With support from SJC, the Khayelitsha residents are learning how to use a social audit and to use its collective power to hold the City of Cape Town responsible.  This includes requiring the Council to have a plan and to make this plan public.  Such a plan must include the number of toilets installed, where they are located, how often they are cleaned and maintained, and how usage is monitored.  This accountability is a result of SJC supporting the community to access justice through the courts.

Additionally, some men in informal settlements are organising a ‘Not in Our Name’, anti-violence campaign, while the women are forming their own organizing networks.

The issues in the community are myriad and interrelated - including high unemployment, exacerbated by lack of public transportation and with only 60% of students in the community attending school – and so access to toilets and sanitation is part of the overall issue of justice.

With the magnitude of problems facing people living in the informal settlements, SJC remains a point of light in its solidarity with settlement communities.

As Dyantyi says, ‘We’re in this for the long haul.’


Jane visited Khayelitsha settlement as part of a week organised by the University of Cape Town as part of the Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity programme to learn more about the experiences of people living in informal settlements. The group were joined by members of Cape Town’s Social Justice Coalition. 

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity programme, the International Inequalities Institute, or the London School of Economics and Political Science.