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In South Africa, toilet talk turns political

Saturday - 6/8/2013, 3:34am  ET

In this photo taken Tuesday June 4, 2013, protesters toss human waste at a vehicle carrying opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) leader and Western Cape premier, Hellen Zille, unseen, in the Khayelitsha township, Cape Town, South Africa, Tuesday, June 4, 2013. This week, protesters tossed human excrement at a convoy carrying the leader of South Africa's main opposition party, who seeks to drain support from the ruling African National Congress ahead of national elections next year. Tuesday's unsavory salvo did not hit Helen Zille, head of the Democratic Alliance who is also the premier of the Western Cape, the only one of nine South African provinces that is not run by the ANC. (AP Photo/Masixole Feni)

CHRISTOPHER TORCHIA
Associated Press

JOHANNESBURG (AP) -- It takes mudslinging to another level.

This week, protesters tossed human excrement at a convoy carrying the leader of South Africa's main opposition party, who seeks to court followers of the ruling African National Congress ahead of national elections next year.

Tuesday's unsavory salvo did not directly hit Helen Zille, head of the Democratic Alliance who is also the premier of the Western Cape, the only one of nine South African provinces that is not run by the ANC. On Monday, protesters dumped the contents of portable toilets on the steps of the Western Cape legislature in a backlash against the sanitation policy of Zille's administration, which, in the absence of sewage facilities in some poor and crowded townships, offers portable flush toilets to shack dwellers at no cost.

The harshest critics of Zille -- whom she dismisses as political grandstanders -- say this policy smacks of apartheid, the system under which the best resources were reserved for the minority whites and blacks were confined to areas with inferior services. Politicians on both sides of the political divide say they are still dealing with the legacy of "apartheid geography," though critics say official incompetence is also slowing progress.

In a statement, the ANC's youth league condemned the dumping of excrement at the Western Cape legislature, and said it would investigate a report that at least one member was involved. It said, however, that grievances over the quality of services in the Western Cape are genuine and that some people there are compelled to use what it described as a "dehumanizing 'glorified bucket system,' which was said to replace the notorious open toilets."

The bucket system, whereby people use buckets to dispose of excrement, is associated with the indignities of apartheid, which ended in 1994. All-race elections in that year brought anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela to the presidency, opening an era of mostly peaceful politics but they seem to be becoming more barbed with so many in this nation of more than 50 million still lacking decent living conditions and opportunities.

Zille's convoy was splattered with feces when she was departing an event in Khayelitsha township in Cape Town, one of more than 200 settlements around Cape Town, to promote environmental living. A protest allegedly including at least one member of the ANC's youth league had been building outside the venue before the incident.

"What can I say? Another day at the office," Zille said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. She said such protests are part of a campaign by ANC supporters to make the Western Cape seem "ungovernable" in the run-up to national elections next year, and ignore data showing the province has a leading sanitation record in the country.

Zille defended the sanitation policy, saying the city picks up the waste from the toilet tanks two or three times a week, making the service safe and hygienic.

"Because land gets occupied at such a rate, and so densely, it is almost impossible to retrofit the land with proper services," said Zille, noting that Cape Town had grown by 30 percent between the censuses in 2001 and 2011.

But Magasela Mzobe, national coordinator of the ANC youth league, said the Western Cape administration was not collecting waste on time as it had promised.

Zille, 62, was a muckraking journalist who helped expose evidence of a police cover-up in the death of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko in 1977, and received death threats for her work. In her new David-versus-Goliath venture, she hopes to capitalize on creeping discontent with the ruling party, whose credentials as a liberation movement once led by Mandela have been tarnished by corruption, unemployment and other problems.

Toilets are a hot-button issue in South Africa, which is struggling to provide services to many frustrated citizens in a country with a wide gap between rich and poor, despite expectations that the end of apartheid would improve the quality and dignity of life for all. Some reports about open latrines and other dismal privies in South Africa's townships have drawn the scrutiny of the country's human rights commission, which considers poor sanitation to be a violation of basic rights.

According to census data, the proportion of households with flush toilets connected to the sewage system increased from 49.1 percent in 2001 to 57 percent a decade later. During the same period, the households using the bucket toilet system halved to 2.1 percent.

Last month, Tokyo Sexwale, South Africa's minister for human settlements, said it is unacceptable that some government entities and municipalities have failed to provide proper sanitation even after receiving funds. He cited "recent scandalous cases" in the Western Cape and the Free State, which is run by the ruling party to which Sexwale belongs.

"There is a serious stench of the bucket system in some parts of the country," he said.


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