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National Sanitation Policy: South Africa

South Africa’s national sanitation policy seeks to address inequalities in sanitation access

June 6, 2023
Author: Tracy Jooste, Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity (LSE)

In 1994, an estimated 48 percent of South Africans did not have access to safe sanitation. The systematic exclusion of Black people and women under apartheid meant they were most impacted by the lack of services. Since then, several measures were put in place to address sanitation access, including the National Sanitation Policy (NSP) 2016.1 The NSP advances earlier policies by stipulating that municipalities (responsible for basic services) must apply inclusive and participatory approaches for women and girls for decision-making and service delivery of sanitation services.

The National Sanitation Policy (2016) sets out principles, objectives, and strategies for the provision of sanitation services that are affordable, equitable, and environmentally sustainable. A key component of the NSP is its promotion of the participation of affected communities and civil society organizations in the planning, delivery, and maintenance of sanitation services.”2 The NSP includes 31 policy positions. Each policy position in the NSP is an expression of the values and principles that the government must practice when delivering sanitation services. For each policy position, the NSP includes a problem statement, reflection on past policy, and stipulations about the updated and new policy parameters, approved in 2016.

Three notable NSP policy positions which address long-standing inequality and exclusion in South Africa include the following:

  1. Municipalities are obligated to provide basic sanitation in permanent informal settlements, and all sanitation should be delivered through a participatory process.
  2. The Minister for Water and Sanitation must develop norms and standards for sanitation services in informal settlements. These standards are needed to ensure the equitable delivery of sanitation to those living in informal settlements. These areas have the greatest need and have historically been excluded from receiving dignified access to services.
  3. Municipalities must implement women-centered approaches, such that women are empowered to play a meaningful role at all levels of sanitation provision, including in the consultations, planning, decision-making, and in the operation, and management of services.3 Including women in service delivery decisions can have a direct impact on their health and safety. Women rely more on sanitation services than men, due to anatomical differences. The lack of sanitation also disproportionately impacts women’s health. Using communal toilets at night can be very dangerous for women and girls, because toilets are often poorly located, without adequate lighting. The design and delivery of safe sanitation can only be done effectively if women are centered in the process.


Indigent residents are eligible for free basic sanitation, usually in the form of communal toilet access. The NSP provides a framework for how municipalities can be more inclusive in the way they provide services. The NSP was the result of an extensive policy development process, which included engagements across government, non-government organizations (NGOs) and private sector stakeholders. It was signed-off by the then Minister of Water and Sanitation, Mrs. NP Mokonyane, in 2016. It sets out the responsibilities of each of the three spheres of government—national, provincial, and local government.

The NSP tasks the national government with developing norms and standards for services. In 2017, draft regulations for domestic water and sanitation were developed,4 although this is yet to be ratified.5 A National Water and Sanitation Master Plan was developed in 2018, to establish targets for service delivery to be achieved by 2030.6 In 2022, a draft Water and Sanitation Services on Privately Owned Land Policy was published and is open for public comment.7


The cost of the NSP is not available. The Water and Sanitation Master Plan (2018) estimates that ZAR 900 billion (about USD 56 billion) is needed over 10 years to achieve significant and sustainable improvements in water and sanitation.


A systematic review of the NSP (2016) has not been done but available data suggests some progress. Access to basic sanitation stood at 78 percent in 2013. By 2019, sanitation access increased to 82 percent.8 There remains a deficit in services, and a 2020 study identified the following as challenges:9

  • Lack of maintenance and repairs: Municipalities regularly provide new toilets, but often fail to budget for and fix broken toilets. This reduces the availability of functional services.
  • Increasing backlogs: the number of urban informal settlements increases annually. Municipalities under-estimate this growth. They typically under-budget for services and some areas remain under-served for years.
  • Uneven progress: Sanitation access is higher in cities, compared to rural areas10 which typically have less resources.
  • Water scarcity: There needs to be more investment in sustainable forms of sanitation, but this has not been prioritized.

These issues were exacerbated by COVID-19. Despite this, there are several examples of municipalities implementing inclusive service delivery. The NSP states that sanitation services must be provided to informal settlements in consultation and with participation of the community. This has created an enabling environment for residents and NGO’s to engage with municipalities on their sanitation needs. It has also catalyzed changes in the way municipalities budget for and provide services, especially for those living in urban informal settlements. For example, Asivikelane, a national coalition of informal settlement grassroots organizations advocating for safe, reliable access to services in informal settlements, has reported the following budgetary and service delivery improvements. These changes were implemented following Asivikelane’s extensive engagement with the government.11


  • The city of Ekurhuleni provided additional chemical toilets and amended the specifications to respond to several quality and safety issues raised by residents.
  • The city of Tshwane amended its specification for sanitation to ensure that communal toilets are accessible for wheelchair bound residents.
  • The city of Johannesburg increased its informal settlements sanitation budget by almost ZAR 20 million (USD 1.2 million), following residents’ written submissions.


  • The city of Cape Town increased its budget for Informal Settlement Sanitation by 36 percent.
  • Residents engaged the Knysna municipality in asking for female-friendly sanitation. In response, the municipality provided separate toilets for men and women, and residents decided on the safest location for these toilets.

The majority of informal settlement residents who are part of Asivikelane, are female (over 60 percent). Women played a pivotal role in leading government advocacy and engagements.

The examples above demonstrates why policies that promote inclusive, participatory service delivery matter for accountability and redistribution. Yet, there remains much more to be done to build trusted partnerships between government and communities in South Africa. The challenge is to scale and integrate this inclusive approach at all levels of government.