Briefing the Western Cape Premiere on Khayelitsha's rat problems

24 May 2019 - 09:00

by Nicoli Nattrass

Rats are a problem in Cape Town. In 2013, a rat hit the headlines when it bit Helen Zille, the premier of the Western Cape. Emerging out of the shrubbery as she walked to the gate of Leeuwenhof, her grand old Cape Dutch official residence in Gardens, it sank its teeth into her big toe.

Researchers in iCWild were also concerned about rats, not only because they are a health risk and a nuisance to people, but because our poisoning of rats poses a threat to children and the entire food chain. Khayelitsha environmental health officials tried to solve that problem by hiring previously unemployed people to catch and drown rats – but this attempt at a poison-free solution was halted by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).

The Khayelitsha Rodent Study (KRS) of 2017/18, a joint project of iCWild and the Centre for Social Science Research collected data on people’s responses to this controversy, as well as their experience of rodents and rubbish. Emma Green found that rubbish collection was inadequate in the informal sections of Khayelitsha, especially in ‘Island’ where rubbish collected in a highly polluted stream. She argued that people did not always receive their allocation of two rubbish bags and week, that dogs often opened up rubbish bags before they were collected and that the ‘hijacking’ of rubbish containers for other purposes (car wash, drug dealing) contributed to the problem.

Emma wrote to various government officials and then wrote two articles for GroundUp pointing out that government officials placed the blame on rubbish contractors, and that they blamed the community. Helen Zille heard about the KRS and asked for a briefing. This lead to our visit to Khayelitsha on May 20, 2019.

Helen was still the premier, so we were accompanied by body guards and were able to meet several officials who joined us on the trip. They were anxious, especially when Helen dived into narrow alleys between shacks. Emma and I were grateful for their presence, though, especially Emma who was robbed of her phone and wallet by armed gangsters when she was last in Island.

Helen Zille striding out on her fact-finding mission followed by an anxious body guard (the guy in the suit behind in another body guard). Emma Green talks to local councillor, Mr Maxithi.

Emma Green, Helen Zille and local councillor Mr Maxithi and local area leader ‘Simbongile’ discuss the waste problem in and around the stream in ‘Island’.

We found Khayelitsha to be much cleaner than it was during the 2017/18 survey. Helen kept asking officials if it had been cleaned up because people knew she was coming, but it seems that the election might have been the main reason. We saw dogs near open rubbish, and food waste piled outside containers, but the streets were mostly clean – no plastic waste. Even the stream in ‘Island’, though still smelling bad and strewn with food and plastic waster, was much improved.  Apparently, workers had been cleaning it for a month.

We visited the container that had been hijacked by car-washers last year and found that it was no longer operational as a car-wash place (though there were a stack of tires in the corner, and someone looking suspiciously like they were smoking tik in the container. It was, however, functioning as a rubbish container and the area seemed much cleaner.  We were told by the local area leader that a different contractor was now involved in rubbish removal.

Perhaps Emma’s earlier research paid dividends?

We did not see any rats, but their presence was evident in graffiti on shacks and people were quick to tell us stories of rodent damage. The rubbish situation has improved in Island, but the river area is still a mess, despite the month-long clean-up. Improving the socio-economic circumstances of residents is essential if the rat problem is to be contained.