Toilet Humour is No Laughing Matter in Cape Town

Public Bathroom

The Cape Town water crisis has us all in a tizz and it’s made things a little awkward – especially in the public bathroom department. Klaudia Schachtschneider from World Wide Fund SA hit the nail on the head with the let it mellow rule in the workplace. All cringing and laughter aside, the struggle is real.

We came across this article while looking for tips on water saving on the World Wide Fund SA website, and we couldn’t help but feel like the author, Klaudia Schachtschneider, captured exactly how Capetonians are feeling.

I was raised in Namibia and always fancied myself a bit of a hard-core conservationist. I knew all about camping, minimal water use and roughing it. So when the Cape Town water restrictions slowly notched from level 3 in November 2016 to level 5 in September 2017, I was not particularly alarmed for me or my family. After all, the worst that could happen would be like an extended camping trip.

The “if you wee, let it be” rule was fast adopted at home, shutting off toilet cisterns and living by the bucket. We embraced the new normal at home. My daughters learned to dispose of loo paper in a swing bin to avoid unpleasant sewer blockages. And if the Cape Town sewer system was ever to collapse closer to day zero, our family would be ready to dig that pit latrine in the garden. It all seemed under control – in the happy and safe confines of the family, right? But herein lies a snag that so many of us Capetonians are caught up with – we have not mastered the art of taking our water saving habits into the public realm.

To work and beyond

We live in a metropole of four million people, sharing confined spaces every day. We share space at work, at leisure and while going about our daily living. In these situations, our health, well-being and conflict-free coexistence are underpinned by a strongly articulated – and repetitive code of conduct: cubicle ethics.

The back door of every toilet cubicle has its own version of “Please leave these facilities in a condition you would like to find them in’. This social code of conduct is drilled into us everywhere. It has been burnt into the deep layers of our subconscious and it drives our behaviour when we use bathrooms in public. Not adhering to it is considered undignified and an insult to those who use the cubicle after you.

My inner cubicle critic

So it was in a public cubicle at work where I hit my moral dilemma. Do I mellow it and risk facing the wrath for disobeying cubicle conduct? Or do I flush six liters for my number one down a U-bend and clock up my daily allocation of 87 liters?

To be honest, I sat longer than needed, waiting for colleagues to leave the bathroom facilities, so that I could make an unseen, unflushed escape.

For me, the crisis took precedent – but I felt too ashamed to be seen doing it.

“If we hit day zero, the freedom of choice (to flush or not to flush) will no longer be ours.” – Klaudia Schachtchneider

Sharing is caring

In one of our lively work lunches, our conversation drifted towards the drought one day. Before we knew it, we discussed our sentiments about non-flushing in public bathrooms – a clear moment of hilarious oversharing and toilet talk. But what became clear is that my dilemma was shared by others – apart from a few who could or would not entertain the idea of a non-flush. It is a touchy point. Each to their own, but ultimately we are in this drought together. If we hit a day zero, the freedom of choice (to flush or not to flush) will no longer be ours.

My watershed moment

My literal watershed moment came a while later – again in the cubicle. After a long meeting, my colleague and I chattered our way into adjacent bathroom cubicles. Our cubicle conversation continued – until we both hit pause as we realised that neither of us could exit this cubicle, leaving it anonymously unflushed.

We were both there and could judge each other… after a moment of consideration and uncomfortable silence we dared each other to not flush.

We both emerged, feeling conspiratorial and relieved – in more ways than one. We had given each other the permission to not flush – and somehow that had made it all easier.

So if there was any lesson to share, it is that permission cubicles in public spaces will appeal to a significant number of Capetonians – and maybe even visitors. Many of us want to do the right thing, but we need a magic word: “permission”.

In a drought as severe as this, my plea is for an amendment to public toilet cubicle conduct.


Klaudia SchachtschneiderKlaudia Schachtschneider is the Water Stewardship Programme Manager at WWF-SA. Originally from dry Namibia, Klaudia has always had a passion for water and she has worked on human and plant water use throughout her career.


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