2016: political distraction while the people lay in shit

6 min read
Image: WaterAid/Helder Samo Gumo

Like in many regions, in 2016 Southern African headlines were dominated and distracted by political wrangling and scandal. Chilufya Chileshe, WaterAid’s Regional Advocacy Manager for Southern Africa, reflects on the consequences for water and sanitation, and what we can do differently in 2017, as the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights drafts guidelines for the right to water.

2016: the year that was in Southern Africa

Across Southern Africa in 2016, while the people lay in shit – all pun intended – political contestation stole the show. The news was dominated by a maddeningly small cast of political characters and their divisive and distracting misadventures at the expense of progress for the people. Even in civil society circles, headlines were dominated by the very real, very evident, and very concerning shrinking of civic space by politics.

What we in civil society did not do enough was show how this shrinking space meant that families in Zambia, Malawi and Lesotho could not always have their voices heard, and therefore could not claim their rights to water, food, and education. We did not repeatedly remind ourselves that 39% of Mozambicans still had nowhere to go to the toilet. We ignored that growing cities in the region remained poorly planned, with untreated sewage contaminating water supplies and open defecation common.

Distraction from defecation

Gripping tales of unprecedented violence in the run up to the Zambian general elections preoccupied us, and we watched with heightened anticipation who would take all after the 11 August elections. One would be excused for thinking this was all that happened in Zambia last year; the proverbial grass suffered in this political battle of the elephants. In the meantime, 69-year-old Brandina Mulenga died in Mpika district because her unimproved toilet collapsed under her weight. And little was spoken about the fact that University Teaching Hospital, the largest hospital in Zambia, had no running water for several hours a day.

In South Africa, amid immense affluence, the thousands of people who operate from and use a taxi rank that serves 28 villages on the outskirts of East London added another year to almost 20 without water or public toilets. Nearly 2 million girls in rural South Africa missed hours of schooling because they had no sanitary materials and no place to wash their hands or change at school when they were menstruating.

While we joked about Swaziland’s King Mswati’s extravagant family holidays, we neglected to emphasise that it was no joke that the graph showing the number of Swazis with access to improved sanitation was taking a nosedive.

As a region we spent time: discussing what would happen next with the political contestations in Madagascar that resulted in the resignation of the Prime Minister; guessing the President of Malawi’s whereabouts; and sitting at the edge of our seats, fingers crossed that Mozambican political actors would ensure stability.

What the headlines missed

This sapped a lot of the energy needed to address the problem of greater than 40% stunting among children in Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique and Madagascar. The sad situation of many mothers giving birth in facilities without adequate water and sanitation facilities compromising disease prevention efforts got little press. Madagascar featured prominently in the top ten countries with up to 82% of urban-dwellers defecating in the open without safe, private toilets.

Despite the right to water and sanitation being recognised by the countries in Southern Africa where WaterAid works, we noted little to no evidence of political commitment to actually realise this. Infrastructure development continued to increase, with most government-sponsored infrastructure improvements being in roads, rural schools, and health posts, etc. Not nearly enough was invested in water infrastructure, toilets or hygiene, the lack of which largely affects the poorest.

The Sustainable Development Goals refer to water and sanitation in powerful ways, as the pathway to a sustainable future. But did we sufficiently make the connection in people’s minds about why investing in water, sanitation and hygiene is pivotal to achieving multiple development outcomes?

Resolutions for better efforts

Civil society actors need to get better at showing how political rhetoric distracts from development investment and action in favour of the majority who live in unsanitary conditions, at risk of disease, exclusion and continued poverty. We need to shout louder and work more efficiently towards ensuring empowered communities that are aware of their rights and equipped to claim them.

We can work more smartly with media to go beyond international NGO and civil society organisation brand recognition and achieve effective messaging for mass outreach and policy influencing.

We must bring to the fore the few heroes of our time, cascade their lessons, and find ways of sharing and imparting their passion. Stories of leadership, such as that of Florence Radzilani, Mayor of Vhembe municipality in Limpopo Province of South Africa, offer inspiring starting points. She declined a R1.5m (£85,000) car and ensure the municipality instead spent the money to resolve the many water shortages in the district.

We need to maximise the case for the ripple effects that improved access to water and toilets have on reducing poverty. We can do this by making diarrhoea a bygone fear and contributing to reduced malnutrition in children, and by increasing the number of mothers able and willing to give birth in healthcare facilities with adequate toilets and water.

The draft of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) continental guidelines for the right to water is expected in 2017 – this must not end as an academic exercise. The guidelines should translate into wide promotion and protection of rights and support for people to understand, claim and realise their rights. Our states must offer conducive environments, with free press and freedom of expression and association assured.

In 2017

A dear colleague, Deprose Muchena, reminded a gathering of WaterAid staff in November 2016 that “development is a political enterprise in favour of the poor”. We must always remember that the glittering buildings and paved streets that now grace select affluent parts of our cities in Southern Africa might add to our standing in the world, but they do little for developing our people.

The UNDP eloquently defines human development as being about expanding the richness of human life, rather than simply the richness of the economy in which human beings live. It entails directly enhancing human capabilities by assuring access to basic human rights. Water, food, and sanitation are some of the most basic of human needs; access to them sets people on the ladder to better education, healthcare and disease prevention. This decreases mortality levels and increases productivity, resulting in economic advancement.

So, as we begin 2017, with nearly two out of five Africans living without access to clean drinking water, and diarrhoea alone accounting for more than 8.8% of mortality on the continent, we need to go back to basics. We want the headlines to scream less with stories of anguish, and more with stories of victory as we see more people access water and sanitation and lifted out of poverty.

Chilufya Chileshe tweets as @chilufyac and found inspiration for this blog from Sisonke Msimang’s article in the Mail & Guardian urging us to reclaim the news headlines.