Each year on April 27th South Africa celebrates Freedom Day, a public holiday commemorating the first democratic elections held in South Africa 17 years ago today. After a half-century of white elitist rule, the 90% black majority took power just 17 years ago. The elections marked the transition from apartheid to democracy, from segregation to unity. People of all ages were casting their very first ballots. Individuals stood in queues miles and miles long, waiting to have their voice heard for the very first time.
Today, thousands of South Africans gathered at Saint Georges Cathedral in the center of town to protest the current sanitation issues. The Social Justice Coalition hosted a Toilet Queue during which thousands of individuals came together to give the government a wake up call to the issues they’ve been ignoring.
Speakers took the podium yelling Amandla! Viva! Black power! Individuals spoke in a mix of isiXhosa and English about the issues of sanitation. Participants listened with intent, cheering and clapping. This rally was focused on the township of Khayelitsha. Similar to Langa, there are areas of the township that are considered “informal settlements.” These areas of the township are shack communities that lack proper sanitation.
Members of the Khayelitsha Township community wore t-shirts showing “water is life, sanitation is dignity.” The keynote speaker, Zackie Achmat, spoke to us just a few weeks ago at SIT about the importance of nationalism. Today he spoke about how much has changed in the last 17 years, but many South Africans still lack basic amenities such as clean and safe sanitation.
After a powerful speech, participants marched outside and onto the street. We walked the length of the downtown Cape Town, all in unity. Women sang, young boys drummed, and everyone marched to the beat. People of all ages came out to support the need for clean sanitation. The march stopped in front of city hall, where we were met by a do not cross line and Cape Town police standing shoulder to shoulder. Individuals protesting began to queue- lining up to symbolize that millions of South Africans are constantly waiting for the government to provide clean sanitation. Individuals stood in front of city hall for hours, showing the government officials the strength of the community. In South Africa’s constitution, citizens are guaranteed the right to these basic provisions, yet they are not being delivered.
Individuals in townships such as Khayelitsha face major challenges when it comes to sanitation. It is degrading and humiliating to use a public bathroom because your home has no running water, or to use a bucket system to dispose of your waste. There are also great issues of safety. Individuals that have to walk a great distance to use the toilet face issues such as assault, rape and murder. Also, a lack of sanitation increases individuals’ risk of waterborne diseases and parasites. This is an issue that is in dire need of attention and action by the South African government.
Time will tell if these issues are resolved. Hopefully today sparked a realization by the government that they need to recognize the urgency of this issue. Government must plan and implement provisions for sanitation in every household in Khayelitsha, and other informal settlements in the Cape Town area. I have never felt so powerful as just one individual amongst a crowd of thousands.