MILE picSERI’s informal settlement action research confirms that despite the challenges, eThekwini’s Communal Ablution Blocks (CABs) provide a higher level of sanitation service to informal settlement residents than options such as chemical toilets, portable flush toilets and others provided by other municipalities.

On 24 and 25 October, approximately 50 municipal officials from various departments including human settlements, water and sanitation, emergency services, environmental health and roads; academics from UKZN; civil society organisations such as SERI and social movements such as Abahlali baseMjondolo and SA-SDI participated in a knowledge exchange session on Sanitation Services in Dense Informal Settlements convened by eThekwini’s Municipal Learning Institute (MILE). 

Alana Potter SERI’s director of research and advocacy, together with ma-Mkhize Nxumalo from Siyanda where Abahlali base Mjondolo partnered with SERI, shared findings and implications from the research on local norms, agency and practices with respect to land use management and tenure, participation, access to basic services and livelihoods.

The purpose of the exchange was to reflect on options and models for sanitation services. CABs were built in B1 and B2 informal settlements in the late 2000’s. CABs have many advantages: They meet basic service level standards; they are electrified reducing safety risks; they dispose of greywater reducing health risks and they mitigate many of the problems of shared sanitation through a caretaker model. Importantly CABs are connected to the municipal grid, which sends a positive tenure security and upgrading message to residents. 

CABs however come at high capital and operational cost, and the City’s bulk sewer infrastructure is overloaded. Women, the elderly, disabled and residents living further from the facilities report lower satisfaction with the CABs, and the selection of caretakers is a delicate issue.

Like anyone else, informal settlement residents want affordable household connections and take action to connect at significant personal risk and financial cost in order to step into the gaps where government doesn’t provide adequate services in order to safeguard their dignity, privacy and security and in order to generate a livelihood. 

In their presentations, Enoc Mudau from Johannesburg Water and Llast Mudondo from the City of Cape Town cited a reluctance to develop municipal infrastructure on privately owned land and the slow pace of incremental upgrading processes as reasons they could not provide individual household connections.

With respect to water services on privately owned land: according to legal opinion commissioned by Project Preparation Trust, municipalities have the right and the obligation to provide services on land that they do not own and they need to do so in a structured and planned manner by: including their plans in their Spatial Development Frameworks; giving notice to and taking comments from land owners, and promulgating enabling bylaws. PPT committed to sharing a briefing note on this.  



Zandile Nsibande from Abahlali base Mjondolo said: “The City of Joburg needs to take a leaf from eThekwini. Those VIPs and those green toilets everywhere are not dignified. Ive been to Slovo Park and when they are not emptied, they stink. Lots of money is spent but nothing is done for people living in informal settlements. Work with organisations like SERI.”

To the City of Cape Town official, she said “SERI’s research shows that people don’t have basic services. When people took toilets to the airports they were being strategic and they were showing their anger because the City didn’t provide dignified services. I thought after all that you would be showing us improvements but I see nothing much has been done”.

City officials referred to new criteria for accessing upgrading funding as a constraint. The Upgrading Informal Settlements Grant in the USDG window requires a Business Plan per settlement which has delayed upgrading in Johannesburg this year. “R 395 million was allocated but won’t be able to spend it this year” said Enoc Mudau. Mark Misselhorn from Project Preparation Trust (PPT) noted similar challenges encountered in eThekwini.

Social movements, academics and civil society organisations sent a clear message: Municipalities need to build constructive relationships with residents, they need to actively understand and build on existing local norms, livelihoods strategies and practices in the participative upgrading process. In the meantime they need to secure residential status and provide at least interim basic services.

As ma-Mkhize Nxumalo said “Ive been living in Siyanda for 31 years. I live there because I have a strong network and it is a good place to make a living. Local government is a long distance from people living in informal settlements. In 2010 I was there when the CABs arrived. The community blamed me and asked me why I am bringing toilets instead of houses. Municipalities, why don’t you talk with us first? It is better here that we talk with officials and they give us time to listen. That is what ward committees were meant for. They would not fail if they engaged us. The problem is the land. Make us secure on the land and we will build.” 


  • Read more about the workshop and access all the material here.