Cape Town’s environmentally unclean townships are a burden for Black Women

URGENT: Illegal dumpers have taken advantage of an open field opposite Cedar Primary School in Bonteheuwel. The reader asks for the mayor and premier to prioritise the problems of litter and illegal dumping in neglected areas to make them more like the beautiful park-like northern and southern suburbs. Picture: Henk Kruger/ANA Pictures

Dirty and sewage overflowing Cape Town townships are an unhealthy social and mental existence for black people. The apartheid policies of differentiated spatial development created and continue to perpetuate unhealthy and dangerous living conditions for black people and their children –and they affect black women’s aspirations for life.

As relics of apartheid policies, especially migrant labour policies, they are now a nightmare for the future of black children.

In a Facebook post one of my friends wrote, “there’s no articulate ‘f*ck you’ to black existence than spending a day in the suburbs with its temporary access to life and luxury, only to return to the permanent death of the dirty and dangerous townships!”

The post captured and articulated a long held sentiment on the negative impact of the uncleanliness of townships on the social and mental health of black people and particularly on black women and children. The emphasis on black women is because they are the most marginalised group in black communities and the society in general. And challenges facing black communities usually trickle down to black women to shoulder.

A walk around in any of the Cape Town townships feel like life is snatched away by the dirty and sewage flooding streets. The dirt filled and sewage overflowing streets overshadow even the most beautiful of dreams and aspirations of black people and children. As black people live their daily lives in these townships, running informal businesses to raise their children, they do so at the shadow of hazardous environmental uncleanliness. It is a theatrical contradiction of its kind because life and dirt do not co-exist.

On weekends, for example, residents in Strand are on the go for their errands, seemingly, unbothered by the suffocating environmental challenge of dirty and sewage overflowing streets. At the Nomzamo Community Centre, the entrance is often flooded with sewage in the middle of its business operations with the residents. Fruit and vegetable traders around the area overlook the conditions and continue trading with the residents –even as they are operating around flooding sewage.

Even in Kraaifontein, a walk or drive around the townships show a similar challenge of dirty streets with overflowing sewage. As one observes, children are playing on the dirt and on the flooding sewage water. Along the streets are black women selling braaied meat, fruit and vegetables with the glare of dirty streets. It seems normal. But is it normal for black people to live so comfortably with dirt and with regularly overflowing sewages?

With these living conditions, there are no appropriate words to describe the slow death inducing experience of living and surviving in the slums of Cape Town. It is a crude existence that can only be explained by periodical, heartfelt and often explosive public outbursts like my friend. The conditions make it hard to beautify or even write about township life without experiencing heightened sensitivity. Like my friend, the life induces unexplainable emotional outbursts sometimes.

In one of her lectures on the need for black people to maintain clean environments, Dr. Frances Welsing asked the question, “who defends trash?” She argued that there is an inherent indefensible trait about dirty and trashy communities. Unclean communities do not inspire nor warrant confidence in social and business investments. Even black people flee from investing in townships –even when they have the capacity to do so. The unclean living conditions accompanied by other social challenges, decrease investor confidence in black communities.

The government, too, does not have a master plan on how to eradicate the objectionable living conditions of black people. Subsequently, social and business entrepreneurship opportunities are lost for the people because of the environmental uncleanliness and unhealthy living conditions.
Black people’s lack of coordinated efforts to collectively keep township communities clean makes the public works street cleaning program seem ineffective. Seemingly, there is a lack of will from black people to collectively maintain and keep the communities healthy –especially for children.

In her series of lectures on the politics of cleanliness, Dr. Welsing recommended that black people acquaint themselves with the science and politics of the broom. She added that black people should get PhDs in the science and politics of the broom if we are to experience different life experiences.

The Rwandan President Paul Kagame understands this logic. His Umuganda national cleaning program elevated Kigali to the cleanest city in Africa –and the world.  As part of his national identity building program, and in the aftermath of the genocide, President Paul Kagame made Umuganda a national environmental policy. Reportedly, on the last Saturday of each month, communities come together to clean and do other community building tasks in Rwanda –including the president. The consequence of the policy is that Kigali is now enjoying the status of the cleanest city in Africa –and the world.
Like Dr. Frances Welsing, President Paul Kagame should teach the rest of the black community the politics and science of environmental cleanliness for nation building and elevating investor confidence for business and social transformation. And simply, communal cleanliness is a collective effort and for collective healthy living.

In Strand, black women run their informal family sustaining businesses from the streets of the townships. Everyday they wake up to prepare their business stands to trade with their customers. As they run their businesses, they do so surrounded by dirt and often graced by overflowing sewages.
To health conscious customers, it becomes a health hazard to support their businesses with the unclean environments they operate in. Consequently they lose potential profit margins due to their unclean environment.

But the question was, shouldn’t the women take up the initiative to keep their environments clean?

However, with the normalisation of uncleanliness as a convention of black life, are they aware that their business growth and potential are affected by the unclean environment they operate in?

These questions should be looked at by township entrepreneurial investors in order to consider and assist with investment initiatives in support of the women. Black women can benefit significantly from social and business investment opportunities for improved social lives. But their current living and business operation conditions are not conducive for expansive business opportunities. The uncleanliness of the black communities is a major disabler for sustained social and business investments on black women.

Not only are black women suffering in business, they also raise their children in these obscene conditions. It is a frequent image to see young children running and playing around bursting and overflowing sewages –without supervision. With the lack space and overpopulation in townships, black children do not even have adequate playgrounds to play safe and in clean spaces.

Lindiswa Jan is a researcher & masters candidate in the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cape Town