That New York Times column about Cape Town

Let me be clear, because some responses suggest I was not in my recent column for the International New York Times: from just about every assessment, the City of Cape Town and the Western Cape are consistently rated among the top performing South African metros and provinces respectively in terms of governance and levels of service delivery. That said, if the Democratic Alliance [which governs the city] had its way, this should be the only basis by which the metro and province it governs are to be assessed: relative to other metros and provinces. If the African National Congress had its way, Cape Town and the Western Cape are to be assessed independently, with no reference to the other metros and provinces the ANC itself governs.

This is a political gambit I, as a thinking, observant, politically unaffiliated resident of Cape Town and a citizen of South Africa, am under no obligation and have no desire to play. None of us, really, are under an obligation to play this game, yet we do because many of us support political parties like we do soccer clubs: blindly.

I should be able to look at Cape Town or the Western Cape — the city and province where I live — independently and relative to the rest of the country and say: if they are exemplars of how socioeconomic rights are to be realized and social justice achieved in South Africa, then we are in trouble as they fall woefully short of what should be considered good enough in a society founded on human dignity. This was one of the central arguments in my column; an argument some responses have taken issue with.

Over on his blog, Stellenbosch University economist Johan Fourie coined the comically prejudiced word “sangomanomics” (yup, a portmanteau of ‘sangoma’ and ‘economics’) to say:

It is perhaps slightly ironic that Mr Molefe uses Cape Town as the setting for his attack against capitalism. The Western Cape is one of the fastest growing regions in South Africa, where poverty levels have fallen most significantly (but also where migrants are moving to, which suggest that conditions and opportunities must be better there than elsewhere, right?)

In her acerbic, paean-to-the-DA-laden response, Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille says:

But the main point Molefe explicitly ignores is that both the City of Cape Town and the Province of the Western Cape are governed by the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) which is setting a new South African benchmark when it comes to social justice.

Not so, Ms de Lille. Best-performing Cape Town and the Western Cape — like the rest of South Africa — have not made enough progress and remain unjust. Take sanitation, for example, where “in Cape Town there is 100% access to adequate sanitation in informal settlements,” according to Ms de Lille.

This statistic presumably comes from the Report on the Status of Sanitation Services in South Africa, which the departments of human settlements, and performance monitoring and evaluation released last year. According to this report (page 37), all of the 185,000 households in Cape Town in informal settlements have access to adequate sanitation.

This sounds fantastic until you begin to interrogate what is meant by “access” and “adequate”. The report notes (page 11):

There is…confusion at municipal level regarding the interpretation of “access” to basic sanitation services, and current sanitation policy does not provide sufficient guidance on the interpretation of “access” to basic sanitation.

Despite this confusion, the report in its assessments used a ventilated improved pit (VIP) toilet — basically a “long drop” toilet where the pit is aerated — as the minimum requirement for a sanitation facility to meet the definition of adequate. And while not completely clear, the report appears to have used 1 “adequate” toilet to every 5 households (or some other communal toilet ratio) as the minimum before a household is considered to have access.

Considering that average household size in Cape Town is 3.5, this means that potentially, 17 people sharing a ventilated pit toilet would be considered adequate access to sanitation. Looking at it clinically, from the perspective of sanitation as a means to prevent the outbreak and spread of disease, this definition might seem like enough.

However, firstly, access to adequate sanitation isn’t only about health and hygiene; it is germane to human dignity, as the courts have consistently held. So far, the courts have avoided saying explicitly that communal toilets for households violate human dignity, though judge Nathan Erasmus came close in the Makhaza open-toilet case (he rejected the City of Cape Town’s use of the 1:5 ratio for settlements that are not temporary).

And the government has tied itself in knots between policy and practice in this regard, with the national sanitation policy saying that communal facilities and chemical toilets should not be used for longer than one month. This while the City of Cape Town (and other municipalities) and the report above on the status of sanitation services in SA consider facilities shared between households and chemical toilets (portable flush toilets) as medium to long-term solutions that meet the definition of adequate access.

Secondly, the definitions of “access” and “adequate” become more complicated (and more realistic) when you factor in issues such as whether the facilities are clean and properly maintained, safe to use at all hours of the day, accessible to the disabled and acceptable to the people affected. These issues that give a more realistic assessment of what constitutes adequate access formed the basis for the Social Justice Coalition’s clean and safe sanitation campaign, which the mayor has in the past characterised as “misinformation”. I highly recommend David Harrison’s photo essay ‘Cape Town’s dirty little secret’ for a glimpse of how glib and unconsidered such responses from Ms de Lille really are.

I have spoken to people who use portable flush toilets in their homes. In addition to issues of poor maintenance and cleanliness, they consistently say that they do not consider them a dignified way to relieve themselves and are appalled that they are expected to live with the contraptions in their homes, seemingly with no other permanent solution on the way.

The above considerations render Ms de Lille’s “100% access to adequate sanitation in informal settlements” utterly meaningless. The 100% is measured against too murky a standard that is not consistent with what you or I, or anybody, should consider adequate. It’s no wonder then that Ms de Lille is puzzled and cries political conspiracy when people show up at her door to say they do not have access to adequate sanitation (or other basic services). In her closed-off mind, the City of Cape Town has met its obligations.

Ms de Lille’s claim that I created a caricature of Cape Town lies in her (intentionally?) conflating where I say the majority of the city’s residents do not live in the Cape Town of marketing bumf (Gardens, City Bowl, Atlantic Seaboard) with where I point out the service-delivery and socioeconomic problems in the areas where most of the city lives (Khayelitsha, Gugulethu, Nyanga, Langa, Mitchell’s Plain) and where most of the protestors were from. It’s not all extremes of wealth and deprivation, but there are stark and rapidly graduating differences between, for example, Khayelitsha, where 55% (i.e the majority) of households live in informal dwellings, and the much smaller (by population) Camps Bay, where only 1% of households live in informal dwellings (though I have yet to see a single shack in Camps Bay). And these differences manifest in the same geographic pattern and locales (and correlate with race) whether you’re looking at crime statistics, household income, housing, substance abuse or access to basic services.

It’s based on data, not caricature, to say that despite the efforts of Ms de Lille and the post-1994 administrations that preceded it, Cape Town presently still stands as a spatial monument to apartheid and colonialism; a monument that’s taking far too long to dismantle because politicians are patting themselves on their back for the little progress there has been. A similar spatial pattern presents itself in other municipalities around the country. Play around with Adrian Firth’s dot-maps of South Africa for an indication of how profoundly universal this problem is.

Ms de Lille, like Mr Fourie, also hauls out rural to urban migration as justification for why, independent of what others have done, the metro she is in charge of has not yet attained universal access to basic sanitation and housing, two of the most prominent issues raised in the protest march I wrote about. She writes:

The city’s population grew by 28 percent between 2001 and 2011. Post-apartheid South Africa is generally experiencing high levels of urban in-migration, both a consequence and a driver of the economic growth that Molefe finds so scandalous.


Census 2011 shows that access to the major urban services – water, flush toilets and electricity for lighting has improved in advance of the curve despite in-migration, and is indeed the best in the country.

However, this justification is weak on two levels.

Firstly, let’s look at the data and trends, which are scant at an inter-municipal migration level and subject to interpolation. Between 2001 and 2011, an estimated 480,000 people moved to the Western Cape and an estimated 245,000 left, according to StatsSA’s 2011 mid-year population estimate. Cape Town’s population over the same period grew by 850,000. The two aren’t necessarily comparable but they indicate that even if all in-migration into the Western Cape flowed to Cape Town (and those who departed left from elsewhere), there’s still a fair chunk endemic population growth (as a result of having a young female population) not explained in Ms de Lille’s analysis. The city’s own population projections estimate that only towards the end of the 2001 to 2021 projection period will migration begin to exceed fertility as the primary contributor to population growth.

Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, the national budgeting process takes migration and population growth into account when allocating the municipal share of expenditure for basic services. So unlike how Ms de Lille presented it, in-migration should not present an additional burden if the budgeting and planning processes – which are government’s responsibility as citizens of this country are free to move within it as and when they please – are done properly.

Again, like Mr Fourie, Ms de Lille reads me as being anti-growth and anti-jobs, which I am not, and assumes redistribution has no effect on growth. She writes:

Readers will have to make up their own minds about whether jobs and growth are, contra-Molefe, a good thing. Molefe’s appeal to a policy of redistribution, in the absence of growth (which he explicitly condemns) is founded on an appeal to some sort of South African exceptionalism. India and Indonesia ‘do not have the same progressive founding ethos of social justice and human dignity’, he writes.”

I’m usually the first to warn of exceptionalism, but in so far as an explicitly stated founding commitment to social justice, human dignity and recognising the wrongs of the past (as expressed in the Constitution), South Africa is exceptional. The Constitution explicitly recognises that Black people were oppressed, subjugated and denied their dignity, and opens a path towards creating an equal society. If any other country were to look into its history, it would find, with varying degrees, similar patterns of historical injustices that created the unequal global society we see today. Few countries (and South Africa is among these few) have explicitly recognised and made a commitment to fix this in the highest law of their lands.

The South African Constitution is broad and can be interpreted conservatively, as it has thus far. It can also be read as laying the groundwork for a massive redistribution of income and wealth in order to create an egalitarian society.

Contrary to Mr Fourie and Ms de Lille’s claims, redistribution can (and in South Africa will) spur growth. The demand for healthcare, land and housing, water and sanitation, education, food, land and such is massive and going unmet. Those with the greatest demand for these things lack the means (primarily as a result of historical injustices) to acquire them. The state has put itself as the primary means by which this demand will be met, however, it remains dogged by capacity constraints, which too have their origins in this country’s history of racial injustice. As a result, there are backlogs, bottlenecks, waste and people siphoning resources that should go to meeting this demand.

Something like a comprehensive basic income grant funded from making the tax system more progressive and dismantling non-cash transfers that are not effective will put money in the hands of the people demanding these goods and services and give them the freedom to choose how and when their demands will be met.

Relying on growth, even if equitable, only serves to maintain the status quo and does little to transform our society into that envisioned by the likes of Steve Biko, whose arguments, at the risk of hubris, were also dismissed as those of a “radical” intellectual.



T.O. Molefe

T.O.Molefe is an essayist based in Cape Town, South Africa. His book 'For Blacks Only and Other Ways Of Being Black' will soon come.

  1. I really don’t understand here. You offer two politically motivated ways of assessing the province: relative to others (the DA approach) or independently and relative to an ideal (the ANC’s preferred metric). You say you are under no obligation to do either, and then assess the Province on an absolute scale of social justice.

    I am, take note, profoundly disappointed and sceptical of the DA’s commitment to the poorest Capetonians who tend not to vote for the party. The toilet issue you speak of seems highly cynical on their part. I am concerned that they take more interest in improve the tourist and foreign investor services than the services of those who are most deprived.

    But I am also highly suspicious of the focus on the sole DA-led province’s delivery failures while giving the appalling failures of many ANC metropoles a near free-ride. If the DA is doing better than others, then they are still fulfilling their promise of superior service delivery as a motivation for voting them in. Cherry picking their failures becomes irrelevant. It seems that there’s a level of ideological hipsterism when it comes to criticising the DA. At present they seem fairly obviously the lesser of two evils unless you insist on ignoring their policy statements, their record of government, and merely resort to the stereotype of the thin-lipped white schoolmarm who clearly must put whiteness above all other considerations.

    The failures of the DA’s administration need to be seen in national context. I think that any disinterested party would see that as self-evident. Not to do so puts you in exactly the same position as the conservative press ignoring the ANC’s many national successes (housing, healthcare, etc.) and dwelling only on their failures (education, corruption).

    1. To start, they aren’t in themselves politically motivated ways of performing assessments. They are just ways of performing assessments, no adjective required. The political motivation comes in with the blinkered way these two parties would have us pick one or the other. In my column, I used both to say that Cape Town relatively is among the best in governance and service delivery, yet independently it is not good enough given the values on which this country is founded. In such a situation, where the best governed city and province with the highest levels of service delivery aren’t good enough, a more radical and fundamental reorganization of South Africa’s society and economy is required.

      This piece was mainly a response to those who ignored this aspect of my argument and claimed rather disingenuously that I ignored the cities and provinces that performed more poorly to beat up on Cape Town. It was also to illustrate more clearly why, independently, Cape Town’s much-vaunted performance isn’t good enough — an argument the mayor specifically rejected and backed with shaky performance stats.

  2. I have been a DA supporter since before it was the DA (remember the PFP). I started to wonder whether I should support them when they intergrated the previous racists from the NP and became the DA. I hung in there and was rewarded when the DA won the WC and Cape Town. When the open toilet fiasco hit the headlines I then realised that I was not at home anymore. My opinion is that the DA, although it has tried, did not try hard enough and should have used the opportunity to really show the country what can be done, an opportunity squandered! They really should have pulled out all stops so that they could have achieved more. If one is on the sidelines screaming to get onto the field then one better perform twice as well as the rest of the team, the DA failed. I am a 58 year old white male and in 2014 my vote will go to Agang as I believe it is time to give someone else the opportunity.

  3. It would be greatly appreciated if T.O Molefe wrote a comparable article about each of the other provinces. That would put this article in context to the rest of the country.

      1. He did a good job on assessing the WC and Cape Town so it would be interesting to have the other Provinces and Metros assessed. Why be so arrogant and aggressive to a simple question? Seems like you would prefer he didn’t, why?

  4. This is a great response to de Lille.

    An important point: the statistic that comes from the Report on the Status of Sanitation Services in South Africa, which claims that 100% of Cape Town households have access to basic sanitation, is not actually in its self accurate at all.

    I can think of a number of informal settlements in Cape Town (and in other cities to – of course) that do not even have basic access even by those vague and watered down measures.

    For instance, QQ Section shack settlement in Site B, Khayelitsha, is a community of approximately 660 households. Its been in existence for about 20 years. Zille has visited while she was mayor and promised to re-settle some and upgrade the rest of the settlement within a year. That never happened.

    The settlement has zero toilets. Not 1 for 5 households. Zero. (not to mention no access to legal electricity connecitons – which is why there are tons of fires there -, irregular street cleanings and waste disposals, etc).

    So how do the residents do their business? They pay a monthly fee to use a private toilet in nearby Q Section, they go over the main rd to go in the bushes, or they use a bucket in their own home. None of this can be even vaguely considered access to basic sanitation. And this is an example of just one of the many informal settlements that don’t get any sanitation at all.

    So we should not take these reports as truth without serious interrogation.

  5. Also, i should add, saying Cape Town is the best run City in South Africa is a problematic statement.

    On what grounds do we say this? Firstly, Cape Town has historically always been the richest big city per capita in SA and the one with the best services. This was true during apartheid and remains true today. People might make their money in Joburg but they come to retire in Cape Town. The fact that it has a significant white population – favoured historically and still favoured today – makes it even richer and also explains why historically it had the best service delivery. It also explains why its easier to deliver services in Cape Town post-1994: because there was a smaller percentage of the population that needed these services expanded too once formal apartheid ended.

    So the assertion that Cape Town is the best run City says little or nothing about the DA and a lot more about how Capital develops places in a geographically uneven way.

    Furthermore, by other standards, such as inequality, segregation, crime, etc, Cape Town is the worst performing City in South Africa. All these points are relevant. They show that there isn’t much of a difference between the ANC and DA after all. As TO Molefe explains, they both fail dismally in terms of basic needs and social justice.

  6. What a long-winded and laborious response which is again aimed at dodging bullets. The elephant in the room is the failed ANC government who after 20 years of democracy have done dismally in the remaining 8 provinces where they govern. Mr Molefe is struggling with his own internal conflict, he knows that the DA is doing a better job but his political indoctrination forces him to do that age old form of psychological acting out – he PROJECTS. I feel sorry for black intellectuals like him as they seem to be unable to move past their own prejudice to see the wood for the trees. I really hope he does as his intellect will be lost in the quagmire of the defunked, corrupt and inept ANC. The DA is not obsessed with race Molefe. YOU are.

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