E-tolls, excrement and a 2014 election

Posted on June 21, 2013


E-tolling, excrement and expanded public works. Apart from starting with the letter “E” they appear at first sight to have nothing in common. But with South Africa heading toward what promises to be a bitterly contested election in April or May next year, they are are not only linked, they are likely to be major campaigning features.

Perhaps even more importantly, the “Three E’s” are likely to put still greater strain on the relationship of the country’s largest labour federation, Cosatu to the governing ANC. Already — and on a national basis — the issue of e-tolling, is causing political strain.

The ANC government is committed to implementing the system of electronic tolling of national roads; Cosatu, the numerically largest component of the governing alliance, is implacably opposed. And not just in the Gauteng province. In the Western Cape, where the SA National Roads Agency (Sanral) is determined to introduce e-tolls, Cosatu finds itself on the same, rejectionist, side as the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA).

But in the Western Cape even more publicity has been given to the second “E”. The issue of excrement, how it is disposed of and who is flinging it at whom is a matter of considerable messy politicking. This involves not only the DA-controlled Cape Town city council and provincial government and elements of the ANC Youth League (ANCYL), but also municipal worker members of the Cosatu-affiliated SA Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu).

The DA council has distributed thousands of portable flush toilets (PFTs) to shack dwellers and others living in the townships on the Cape Flats who have, until now, relied on the bucket system. These large metal buckets, usually emptied once a week, are certainly smelly and unhygienic. And it is workers, whether unionised or not, who have the unenviable task of carting these containers to a tanker to empty them.

This introduces the third “E”: the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP). This is a national government initiative that, according to some Samwu officials, is “an ANC programme enthusiastically adopted by the DA”.

The EPWP is the system whereby “job opportunities” are created that, according to the Western Cape government, “provide poverty and income relief through temporary work for the unemployed to carry out socially useful activities”. Like the payment to farm workers, that became a national media focus earlier this year, the income of EPWP workers is decided by ministerial regulation.

The EPWP regulation promulgated in May last year by labour minister Nelisiwe Mildred Oliphant, made provision for a minimum daily rate of R63.18, almost R6 short of the R69 farm worker determination that caused a national outcry. Following strikes and protests, Oliphant increased the farm worker minimum daily wage to R105.

However, according to a survey by union members in the Western Cape, EPWP workers involved in manual work such as “waste disposal and excavation” are paid R80 a day while supervisors of such work earn between R100 and R132. “It is worse than the farm workers and is a backdoor to privatisation and labour broking,” agrees a Samwu official.

So, added to the volatile mix that involves the battle over PFTs, is anger about jobs that the unions feel should be “decently paid and full time” being handed out on an outsourced basis, in which the EPWP is part. But although some municipal workers are convinced that permanent workers have been retrenched to make way for “job opportunities”, this does not seem to be the case.

As the demand for services in Cape Town has soared and as permanent workers have retired, additional labour and replacements tend to have come via outsourced services. Anger about this has simmered for some time and was ratcheted up when elements of the ANCYL and self-styled “community activists” took to dumping the contents of buckets and PFTs onto council property or flinging faeces at, among others, DA leader Helen Zille.

These actions were supposed to embarrass the DA and to rally the opposition ahead of next year’s Big E — the election. It didn’t work, especially since it made workers — among them members of Samwu — furious because it is they who had invariably to clean up the mess.

At a superficial level, this toilet tiff in Cape Town is about buckets versus PFTs, subjects I can speak about from personal experience having used the bucket system as a youth before water borne sewage came to our suburb. Our family of four also used a PFT for several months while living in a motor caravan — and it is a marked improvement: it doesn’t smell, is hygienic and, provided it is regularly emptied, works very well. However, it is no substitute for an efficient water-borne system.

Here is the rub: The DA says the PFT system is an improved, temporary measure; the ANC and its allies claim it is a scheme to avoid providing “decent, proper sanitation to the poorest of the poor”, a claim the DA says has more to do with electioneering than reality.

But the issue is complicated by the fact that the emptying of the PFT containers was effectively outsourced to a private company and there are complaints in several areas that the job was not properly done; that workers on low-paid contracts do not have any incentive to work well.

Evidence does exist that, in an apparent rush to get the work over as quickly as possible, some containers were damaged, leading to leaks. In some cases, the council also clearly did not anticipate how many people would use each PFT, resulting in damage through wear and tear — and the need to empty the containers more often.

So the toilet tiff continues, with the city council pointing out that it has massively increased the budget for the extension and maintenance of the water borne sewage system. On the other hand, Samwu and Cosatu complain bitterly about cut-price outsourced labour, e-tolling and, at the moment in a more muted way, about the EPWP.

All of which boils down to the E that affects it all: economic policies and their implementation.