Toilet Capitalism

The restaurateur-cook-waitress looked more like a grandmother than mother, shrunken with poverty. Scarf tied around her simple but sweet face. Tired but with a smile and outspread, work-worn hands, one felt the urge to give her a hug, and tuck her into bed, rather than giving ‘Mama’ an order for several plates piled high with steak and sadza (maize meal) at nearly midnight.

Our group (from Italy, Malawi, Britain and South Africa) had been invited by our lovely Zimbabwean friend ‘F’ to hang out at one of the best ‘braai’ or BBQ stands, in Harare. The braai stands, with rows of well-skewered customers on wooden benches, frequently act as gourmet cooks to Harare’s poor and not-so-poor people – ministers, businessmen, wannabes and in-betweeners – despite being located in the deprived Warren Park area in the heart of kwaMereki.

For a ‘cooking’ fee – about $16 for two kilograms of steak bought from across the road, ‘Mama’ got to work, flaming up a world-class braai, served on two metal trays. No utensils were provided and, until the very end, there was no light in the area, save from store-signs across the road and cars, some of them Mercedes, parked near the stands. Our enterprising Italian ‘G’, proffered up a lighter for our viewing pleasure; and a pen knife; and then it was our turn to work – eat, quickly, to free up a table.

Meanwhile, kwaMereki’s business-minded youth were being their usual resourceful selves, as they made a killing walking to and fro the 50 metres between the liquor stores and food stands, selling alcohol and soft drinks to thirsty diners. It appeared that beer made diners more thoughtful and largely immobile. Though the business of selling drinks was done in almost complete darkness, somehow, they would notice whenever a drinker approached the bottom of the bottle and offer to top-up.

Before and after we ate, our hands were bathed by a woman who walked around with a jug filled with lukewarm water and a bucket. There was no bathroom. Men migrated to far corners for their business. The women had it much more difficult and, when not able to escape to a discrete spot, often waited until they were able to return home. ‘It is not always safe across the road, in the dark, with all of these people,’ said one Zimbabwean woman.

While the gourmet restaurateurs pay $5 rent to the council (and city) on a monthly basis, like much of Zimbabwe, the area has several times prior been stricken by illnesses stemming from various structural problems – mainly the lack of toilet facilities and tap water. Since the early 1990s, save for negotiating use of bathrooms available in the mainly liquor and butcheries across the road, customers have been using the same area as a place of convenience. Problems are myriad. When it rains, amongst other things, the great wash of human release floods the vegetable gardens in the area. Cholera outbreaks sometimes occur, in Mereki and surrounding areas. All of a sudden, the delicious crunchy green vegetables from the gardens in our plates conjure horror.

But where are the rolling toilets?

With a piece of crunchy green salad in my mouth, it occurred to me then that Warren Park and Mereki went hand in glove with toilet capitalism. Sometime back, one Zimbabwean, in partnership with a South African, purchased mobile toilets from South Africa for Mereki, charging customers R5 a hit. He would go on to win an award. We inquired, but did not see, these award-winning toilets. Several younger chaps confirmed the rumour: ‘the rolling toilets? It has come through here, but I cannot say the whereabouts now.

Certainly, the mobile toilet would have been a welcome addition and brilliant short-term solution – but at what cost? “What we want,” said Mama, “is for them (government) to put in toilets and taps.” From Thursdays to Fridays, she said, the place was jam-packed.

Of course, Warren Park is not special: one of my earliest memories is running almost straight into a ‘flying toilet’ in Nairobi, which until 2008 had just 150 public toilets for over 3.5 million people. The public toilets then, were a scene of physical chaos, later dubbed by a friend, visiting India – where over 800 million have little access to sanitation facilities, ‘toilet warfare’. Historically, the power imbalances underpinning the structural layout of public worlds have reflected economic inequalities in areas characterised by those lacking political capital.

Similar to environmental racism, evidencing landfills, slaughterhouses and the like, situated in the poorest areas, lack of waste sanitation is often interlocked with lack of access to clean water. In her book, ‘The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters’, detailing the waste sanitation crisis, Rose George writes, ‘I thought a toilet was my right. It was a privilege.’ But as every African knows – this is untrue. Access to clean water and safe sanitation is a fundamental human right, only the quality of that provision (such as Japan’s high tech toilets) is a privilege.

This much was confirmed by the UN’s General Assembly, which bemoaned in the UN’s usual toothless way, that as much as 2.6 billion people globally have no access to waste sanitation. A situation that results in 2.2 million deaths annually, of which 1.5 million are children – excluding the numerous consequences of illnesses such as cholera, frequently affecting African countries.

Like Uganda’s Kampala – which hosted just 108 public toilets for a population of more than 2 million people, and privatised public toilets several years ago, in Zimbabwe, the scene is ripe for private waste sanitation companies or toilet capitalists.

According to one development worker I bumped into, waste sanitation apparently rests under the mandate of the country’s National Water Department via the Harare Water Supply Division. This was allegedly inherited from the City Council of Harare, thereafter further devolved to local councils. But neither department seems overly anxious to claim the responsibility of upgrading, connecting and developing, what is actually a matter of life and death. Of late, it seems China – anxious to secure platinum reserves allegedly worth US$40 billion, had negotiated a US$144m deal with China Exim and the government to finance three phase development of basic needs including sewer and waste sanitation systems.

This was also allegedly discussed with the local councils. But when I asked a receptionist at a guesthouse about the interest of the city and local councils in the constituencies, she responded in the negative, saying that right now, while things had greatly improved, the battle between ‘those who wanted power for good, and those who were good at having power’, had drained the life from Zimbabwe’s political scene, corrupting many in the process. The people on the periphery of these political battles – particularly women like Mama, not only had no political say, but also, no financial choice to opt for private or portable toilets.

Where did the money go?

Cumulatively, since the 1970s, Africa has lost over US$730 billion – money that should have been invested in infrastructure, to illicit flight. More than 60 per cent of the continent’s annual wealth is lost to corporate mispricing – your everyday respectable multinationals looting through respectable institutions. In 2008, as a vicious cholera epidemic swept through Zimbabwe much of the country’s GDP was siphoned through illicit flight, while the political situation deteriorated.

Revenue leakage not only drains nations of funds required for basic needs – and decent and dignified lives, but is also the symptom of a corruption that is global in architecture, and globally pervasive in nature. This reality is reflected in the indignity of having no toilets, no water, not enough food and no medicines.

I got the chance to speak with police chiefs and soldiers. I got the chance to speak with students. I got to speak with everyday people. And forefront in their minds is access to basic services: even in good areas, electricity cuts were common. Basic services – the kind that provide the architecture of living (water, waste sanitation, schools etc) may just become possible soon enough, if diamond revenue could be caught before gross revenue leakage, already pegged at US$1 billion. The legitimisation of Zimbabwe’s diamond industry, considered the gravy train of Zanu PF chaps, is pegged by Mines Minister Obert Mpofu, to generate upward of US$1 billion annually.

The dollarisation of the economy, and almost sole reliance on imported goods, particularly from South Africa, has rendered the economy a landscape of exploitation – to the point where Finance Minister Tendai Biti has banned importation of second-hand underwear. Like the cost of food, Zimbabwe’s toilet capitalism is symbolic of the structural inequalities that constitute the character profile of the political economy. Everywhere, vulnerability was evident.

By the time I left, I began to harbour – nonsensically – a hatred against ATM machines, bizarre boxes that poured magically, not to the deserving, the hungry, the fearful, but to the right code. I was extremely grateful to our hosts and a friend, who previously lived in Zimbabwe for decades, for bringing us out of the usual ‘tourist sphere’, and into the lives and worlds of real Zimbabweans – the grocery markets, food stalls, neighbourhoods, townships, and bars. Though many South Africans from an early age, witnessed a mass divide between those dispossessed, and those with the mansions, the Zimbabwean divide is seemingly greater. While we did not visit the richest areas, the semi-rich area suburbs were dotted with opulent mansions and gardens so large, I presumed, initially, to the amusement of my hosts, that it was an area filled with beautiful guesthouses.

Khadija Sharife is a journalist; visiting scholar at the Center for Civil Society (CCS) based in South Africa and contributor to the Tax Justice Network. She is the Southern Africa correspondent for The Africa Report magazine, assistant editor of the Harvard “World Poverty and Human Rights” journal and author of Tax Us If You Can (Africa). 

This article originally appeared in Africa Report.