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CLTS in South Africa

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Is South Africa a late comer into CLTS?

In August 2011  Petra Bongartz who manages the CLTS Knowledge Hub at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) at the University of Sussex UK and I were  invited by the Community Water Supply and Sanitation Unit, Cape Peninsula University of Technology  to introduce CLTS in South Africa.  The work, supported by the Water Research Commission aimed at piloting CLTS in the Eastern Cape region of South Africa.  Even though it had been over 4 years since CLTS had been introduced in the region, it had not yet made its way to South Africa– the African economic giant. Over 34 African countries had already adopted it, with 12 incorporating it in their sanitation policies and strategies.

Open Defecation in South Africa

While there I learned that about 10 million South Africans, mostly in rural areas could still be defecating in the open. But SA is unique- citizens here are entitled to sanitation subsidies. Most of them hold to the view that the councillor, municipality and by extension the government ought to give them toilets-it is a constitutional right. There are contracted professionals to undertake hygiene promotion and help with the installation of an approved subsidized design of a factory-made toilet in all household. However, it seems, the subsidized toilets have taken decades to reach the households. Those we spoke to were not even certain when they will ever get theirs: there are huge backlogs and households have waited for years. While they wait open defecation continues as we saw in Coffee Bay region.

Changing the high tolerance for open defecation (OD)

Amatole Municipality where we did this work is not so far from Madiba’s (Nelson Mandela’s) ancestral home. The Xhosa people seem to have a high tolerance for OD –meeting a chief who seemed unashamed about OD was a big shock to me. Beautiful house and expensive sofa sets but when I asked him where he defecates he was quick to point to the bushes along the slopes near his homestead. He said,

“…the dogs and the pigs clean up the shit after me and my family members”.

He even pointed to his neighbour’s home which looked equally endowed with resources and asked me, “…look do you see any toilet there? It is our culture here; we have always done it (open defecation).

Here the question was not about waiting for any government’s subsidy but a mindset where OD was seen to be a normal practice.

Why the scepticism and discomfort

The day for community presentations after triggering was a short one. However the Natural Leaders that had emerged during the hands-on triggering gave me a lot of hope. They had grasped the CLTS concept and method very well. Their passion and enthusiasm was a clear demonstration that communities had the potential to take CLTS forward. However, even after these very clear signs there seemed to be a very deep rooted fear and scepticism by the professionals. This was a surprise to us since the participants had grasped and applied CLTS in triggering the communities successfully. Could it be that most of the professionals wanted to maintain status quo as they were benefiting from the toilet subsidy programme?

How many people defecate in the open in South Africa?

The day the natural leaders came to share their post-triggering reports was special I started with a short quiz to see whether anyone had any idea how many people in Africa go to defecate in the open every morning. One natural leader made us laugh –his response? Countless. No doubt if what happens in his community was anything to go by across Africa there must be many Africans doing it every morning. I asked the same questions about South Africa –again an interesting response from another natural leader- “…at least 1 million of them are white”.  His argument? Irrespective of colour/race there are South Africans who are defecating in the open every morning.  I had heard that about 10 million people in SA did not have access to improved sanitation. l left an assignment for them to find out where these people defecate!

The growing movement to end OD

The 4 communities and their natural leaders no doubt were about to join  a growing movement of communities  in Africa, who after going through  CLTS had resolved to end open defecation and were now living in open defecation free environments. The movement, as of July 2011, had reached about 10 million people. Moreover they had an opportunity to be the first villages to attain Open Defecation Free (ODF) status in SA.

The language of CLTS seems to have caught up within a very short time. I remember a moment when the natural leaders were presenting when a chief jumped in to indicate that their NL had forgotten to present the tons of “Ukunya” (Shit) their village was generating and that all the shit was going into the water pans and streams where they fetch water and they were ingesting it. I took on the chief and asked him if there were chiefs who were also defecating in the open. To my surprise he said he was one of them and he went further to point at another chief who was in the room and they all agreed most chiefs have no toilets and were indeed open defecators. You should have seen this chief-in a suit, tie and well-polished black shoes, expensive mobile phone and car keys daggling in his hands. He is not a small man- he had driven to the meeting. I asked him-

How could you possibly be shitting in the open sir?  We have always done it (he responded) …it has been part of our culture (He added). So will you continue shitting in the open after this triggering experience (I probe)..No I have already put up a temporary structure and I am going to construct a good one (toilet)…already in my village one day after triggering people have started digging pits…chiefs have to be an example to the rest of the community…(he responded).

I thought to myself, if this chief is well-off and influential and he is an active participant in mass open defecation, how about the ordinary citizens in his village? Why should they be any different? No doubt this was a fertile ground for CLTS. The CLTS experience had immediate impact on him and his family after the triggering exercise. He was even inviting the organizers of the CLTS training to come and trigger the remaining neighbouring villages as he felt it will not make sense for his village to be ODF when their neighbours continue defecating in the open and make them ingest their “Ukunya” (shit).

“...the CLTS experience has just made us see everything clearly. There is no doubt we must all be singing the same song. It is like a white cat walking over a black patch of land that has just been ploughed-everyone can see it.

This powerful analogy was made by one Natural Leader in reference to how the triggering process had made communities in one of the villages see the realities of open defecation.  He concluded by saying.

“…we have decided to take action on our own to end open defecation in our village. Come at the end of September 2011 and see the progress we will have made”.

I had no doubt in my mind that our hands-on CLTS training had impacted some people and that the fire of ending open defecation will burn on  in spite of the challenging professionalized and subsidy-ridden environment we encountered at this early stage. Now I am preparing to head back to South Africa on invitation to a seminar to hear what the pilot has yielded. The seminar is scheduled for 21st February 2014. I do not know what to expect but I am hopeful of some positive developments and that we are getting somewhere with CLTS in South Africa.


Samuel Musyoki is Country Director for Plan International in Zambia. He previously worked at Plan Kenya.

Date: 21 February 2014
South Africa