By Professor Sandra Liebenberg, a Professor of Human Rights Law at Stellenbosch University and co-ordinator of the Socio-Economic Rights and Administrative Justice Project SERAJ

Social audits are a valuable tool in implementing socio-economic rights, which is why the response by the City of Cape Town to the social audit of janitorial services in Khayelitsha is disturbing.

The City of Cape Town’s response to the Social Justice Coalition social audit into the janitorial service for communal flush toilets in Khayelitsha raises questions about the City’s understanding of the constitutional requirement of meaningful engagement in the context of socio-economic rights.

Sanitation is closely linked to a number of fundamental aspects of human welfare – health, housing, safety and security, privacy and human dignity, and environmental well-being. For this reason, access to safe and hygienic sanitation is internationally regarded as a fundamental human right.

In the South African context sanitation is also closely linked to the right to equality.

The daily hazards to health, safety and psychological well-being resulting from a lack of access to decent sanitation disproportionately affect black people and have especially severe impacts on women and girls, children in general, and people living with disabilities.

As Pregs Govender, deputy chairperson of the South African Human Rights Commission observed in the Commission’s 2014 Report on access to water and decent sanitation: “Those who lack most rights, including water and sanitation in informal settlements or schools, are those were historically deprived of their rights. They remain those who are black and poor.”

Sanitation thus has a direct impact on people’s ability to participate as equals in all aspects of society, and is fundamental to achieving the Constitution’s goals of social justice.

But realising the right to decent sanitation in South Africa’s informal settlements is complex. Challenges include historical backlogs, land tenure disputes, the density of settlements, the suitability of the terrain, the availability of water, environmental impacts, establishing reliable systems for regular cleaning and maintenance of sanitation infrastructure, and community acceptance.

In addition, the provision of sanitation involves many government departments and functions, requiring a high degree of co-ordination and co-operative governance.

In a number of cases the Constitutional Court has emphasised the importance of participatory democracy in realising socio-economic rights. This has occurred primarily through the development of the principle of ‘meaningful engagement’, initially in the context of eviction and housing disputes, but subsequently in the context of other socio-economic rights such as education.

Many legislative and policy instruments also promote citizen participation in service delivery, including the Municipal Systems Act and the Framework for Strengthening Citizen-Government Partnerships for Monitoring Frontline Service Delivery approved by Cabinet in August 2013.

International experience from both developing and developed countries has shown the advantages of that participatory decision-making and monitoring.

First, it promotes human dignity as people are given a voice in decisions that directly touch their lives and well-being. Second, social programmes can be tailored to local contexts and can respond to the actual needs of the community. Third, a broad range of stakeholders can be helped to reach consensus on priorities and to experiment with innovative ways of solving seemingly intractable problems. Fourth, the kind of ‘active citizenship’ encouraged in the National Development Plan can be fostered, and citizens can be encouraged to be active in solving the problems in their community.


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