Zwelitsha’s Unique Problems


When we broke into different groups, a few of us were given the task of investigating the issues surrounding the chemical toilets up in Zwelitsha. We were told to ask the opinions of the community members up there to see if there were any solutions that we could implement.


Megan, Sarah, Kholeka, Siyanda, Zameka


Zwelitsha, which is the upper section of the settlement, on the afternoon of 23 October


The working group members, especially Kholeka and Siyanda, did most of the translating during our time out in the community. They took their own notes, introduced us to the community members as students from the U.S. here to do research and asked their own questions about the issue with the chemical toilets in the higher part of the settlement. We did not ask many of the initial questions to the community members since we didn’t really know what we were supposed to be asking about due to the fact that we were just thrown into this group with not much prior knowledge. At times, it was easy to feel left out of the conversations when they spoke only in Xhosa, especially when the women from the working group were talking amongst each other as we made our way up to Zwelitsha. However, during the interviews with the community members, the women were more conscious about translating to catching us up to speed; if one was talking to the community members, another would tell us what had been said in the last minute or so of conversation. Kholeka took over taking some of the pictures of people, which was great because they all responded really positively to her. It made everyone in the community seem as if they all knew Kholeka and were pretty close, at least in that section. She wanted pictures of all of the people we talked to as a way of keeping records.

Community opinions in Zwelitsha:

Interaction 1- An older man and 3 other younger men were sitting outside of a shack. When they saw us walking by with a camera, they immediately asked us to take a picture with him. They seemed very pleased to be able to take a picture with us as well as the working group members.

Interaction 2- A young man who spoke pretty good English, two women, a few children and a baby talked to us next. They brought up many issues with the toilets including the wind blowing them over, the smell and the distance from their homes, which is unsafe at night for women to travel alone. There is a concrete slab in front of their homes that they were told would be a place for new toilets, but it never happened. They also brought up the issue of electricity not reaching those sections due to the rocky ground. They also expressed contempt about the garbage that was piling up in the streets. It was explained that people were being paid to pick up the trash, but they were not getting all the way up to Zwelitsha. Some of the people also mentioned they felt forgotten by the government. The young man asked us what we were doing in the settlement and said they needed a lot of help from us. The working group members told us to take a picture of the family, although the young man told us as we were walking away not to use his picture anywhere and to “keep it safe”. At this point, the truck that empties the toilets drove up the steep, narrow road and looked like it was going to tip over. We were told the truck barrels up the hill twice a week to empty the chemical toilets.

Interaction 3- As we made our way toward the toilets, the next group we encountered was made up of three women with a baby and several children throwing rocks and pieces of trash around. One woman was eating an avocado with her fingers and shared it with the children and the working group women with us. Siyanda took about half of the avocado from the woman, even though it was not clear how close they were. These women expressed similar sentiments about the dysfunction of the toilets such as when they blow over and smell bad. They also said they don’t have any toilet paper and have been using cardboard instead. They voiced their distaste with seeing their waste still in the toilets after they use them, especially if their children come with them and see it as well. The three things they wanted to see in potential new toilets were wash basins, concrete flush toilets like the others in the settlement and a roof over the area to block the sun and rain. We took a few pictures of this group with their permission. One of the women enjoyed posing with her arms crossed for the camera, and she even asked us to take multiple pictures after she had seen the first one.

Interaction 4- The last group convened around the toilets and consisted of a woman and two older men. These three thought the toilets were adequate and “better than nothing”. This interaction was different than the others because Kholeka called this woman out of her home and instead of asking her questions in Xhosa, she told us to ask her questions. We were confused and unsure of what to do, but she responded to our first question in perfect English. Kholeka kept urging us to ask more questions, but we felt ill-prepared to ask intelligent questions aside from the most basic ones we could think of off the top of our heads. Their complaints included the wind rattling the toilets, the amount of water around the area, the smell, the tap running too slowly due to low water pressure going up the hill and people not being able to sit properly on the seats. They suggested flush toilets, some kind of fence around them to hold them up better, more adequate tap flow and overall more toilets and taps. They also expressed concern about the garbage building up on the other side of the fence near the dam, fire because of the use of paraffin for light due to lack of electricity and baboons knocking rocks off the mountain that will roll down into their homes because they live at the top of the settlement.

It was interesting to see how the problems up in Zwelitsha differ so much from the bottom of the settlement. This has to do with the different terrain, the ease of accessibility for vehicles and people, and the disconnection between the Municipality and the upper level of the community that some people expressed.

The people in Zwelitsha shared similar sentiments as everyone else in the settlement concerning the role that the government is playing in their community. There are people being paid to pick up trash but are unwilling to get all the way up the hill to do so. Many community members even asked us if we were going to do anything to help them get electricity or better toilets, but the working group women were very careful to describe us as student researchers and not saviours of any kind. These initial introductions to the community were critical in building a good reputation for our entire group as well as perhaps bringing some distant hope to this community’s waning upgrading efforts.

Perhaps the most critical connections made during our walk around Zwelitsha were with Kholeka, Siyanda and Zameka. Though Zameka did not speak at all to us, the other two working group members were excellent translators and tour guides. We felt very comfortable with these two women, especially since they are two of the strongest English speakers in the group. They will definitely play an integral role in facilitating our connections to the community in the future.

In terms of plans for the future for the toilets in Zwelitsha, we don’t think pursuing a permanent cement toilet solution is feasible at this particular time. The WPI teams have decided to focus on reblocking F section and developing plans for the multipurpose centre. The toilets in Zwelitsha could be a project for future WPI teams, since there are clearly problems that need to be addressed. If we could perhaps implement some quick solutions to problems, like securing the toilets so they don’t tip over in the wind, providing toilet paper up in Zwelitsha and perhaps fixing the seat issue of the toilets, that would instil trust and enthusiasm in the community. Nevertheless, it was a good learning experience as well as a valuable communication-building activity.


This experience up in Zwelitsha was truly eye-opening. We could have never anticipated the huge slew of unique problems that exist simply because of this section’s location higher up the mountain. It was interesting, yet somewhat predictable based on Trevor’s tangents and outbursts during yesterday’s meeting, that the community members would use our presence to air their other grievances besides the toilets. This community feels they’ve been promised so many things and feel let down in many aspects by their leadership as well as the Municipality. It is no wonder they do not demonstrate any trust in the government or other outsiders entering their community with promises of change. We hope we can find the delicate balance between keeping the community informed and hopeful while not making them think we’re making promises we don’t keep. Getting out into the community and talking to people was such a valuable, exciting experience. It was exactly what we pictured working in Langrug to be like. We hope that many more interactions like these occur over the next seven weeks.