Shit happens: How toilets became political
In February 2011, I had joined a group of American exchange students who visited the social movement for the urban poor, Abahlali baseMjondolo, in ‘QQ Section” in Khayelitsha. Abahlali-Western Cape had been in the news in September and October 2010 as a result of its almost daily erection of barricades in Khayelitsha, and its calls for popular protests to render Cape Town ungovernable until the City management responded to service delivery needs in informal settlements. One of the leaders of the movement, accompanied the exchange students on a walk through QQ Section. He stopped in front of a large mound of garbage and began to speak about daily conditions in the informal settlement. He told the students about how residents had to relieve themselves using buckets and plastic bags, and how they would throw these bags, called “flies”, in the direction of a wetlands area next to the settlement where it was not possible to build houses. The students were also told of how residents walked long distances to request to use the toilets of shebeen owners and residents who lived at the adjacent formal housing scheme called Q Section. Sometimes they were charged to use these toilets, and many residents could not afford to pay these toilet fees. The students were overwhelmed both by these accounts of daily conditions and by the pungent stench coming from the nearby piles of waste. The Abahlali leader commented on the students’ discomfort and pointed out to them that QQ residents have to endure this on a daily basis. Having recently visited an informal settlement in Khayelitisha called RR Section where the Social Justice Coalition (SJC) had managed to get the City of Cape Town to improve sanitation infrastructure, I too was shocked by the sight and smell of huge heaps of uncollected garbage.
What neither the students nor I could have anticipated during our visit in February 2011 was that the open toilet scandals were about to explode in the run-up to the May 2011 elections. Politicians, journalists and the electorate seemed stunned by the sight of these open toilets in Makhaza in Khayelitsha and Moqhaka in the Free State. Notwithstanding concerted efforts by social movement activists from organizations such as the SJC and Abahlali to draw attention to ongoing sanitation disasters in many informal settlements, prior to outbreak of the open toilet scandal there had been very little public and media concern about practices of open defecation, the bucket system, or that large numbers of poor people have to use plastic bags to relieve themselves. There was something specific about the image of the modern porcelain toilet without walls that triggered shock and outrage. How did the open toilet become such a potent political symbol and sign of indignity?
Prior to 2011, toilets and sanitation were not considered “properly political” issues and did not attract significant party political and mass media attention. While “service delivery” protests, had indeed become a national political concern in recent years, media and academic commentators did not directly associate these protests with toilets and sanitation. Instead, analysts attributed these protests to grievances about local government corruption and poor service delivery of housing, water, and electricity in townships and informal settlements. Although the spectacle of the burning barricades in service delivery protests had drawn public and media attention, the underlying issues of “structural violence” and systemic problems associated with the slow, long-term consequences of chronic poverty did not seem to be of particular interest to a media obsessed with instant spectacles of violence and suffering. All of this is of course not unique to South Africa, and pro-poor activists all over the world routinely encounter the difficulties of getting their campaigns covered by news media that tend to be biased towards the “spectacular suffering” from famines, wars, Tsunamis, earthquakes, floods and so on. Rob Nixon’s concept of “slow violence” provides useful insights into what is at stake here.
The long-term processes of structural violence experienced by the poor pose similar representational problems and dilemmas. Activists, social movements, and NGOs constantly face the problem of trying to make “unspectacular suffering” visible to publics, donors, and governments. For example, once AIDS treatment was provided in the public health system in South Africa in 2004, the media and citizens were less interested in AIDS and treatment issues as these were perceived to have become mundane, technical and bureaucratic matters of public health service delivery. NGOs and activists also routinely encounter the difficulty of engaging with publics that are fatigued by bombardment on a daily basis with television images of spectacles of suffering in faraway places, now an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear radiation threat in Japan, and tomorrow civil war in Libya. For activists working with issues relating to poverty and structural violence the problem becomes one of translating forms of “unspectacular”, mundane, everyday suffering into images and texts that evoke sympathy and political action rather than apathy, indifference, ethical paralysis and moral fatigue.
During the anti-apartheid struggle the politics of the spectacle was very visible both on the streets and in the media. This was largely due to the spectacular character of both state repression and forms of popular resistance. This politics of the spectacle has persisted into the post-apartheid period. For example, writing about service delivery protests, Jacob Dlamini, the author of Native Nostalgia, has noted that these protests tended to conform to a relatively standardised script characterised by “revelry, the burning down of government property, the erection of petrol-soaked tyre barricades and the inevitable handover of a memorandum of demands to a government official.” Although these spectacular acts of “popular resistance” are almost guaranteed to draw the media’s attention, there are sometimes costs involved in focusing on the spectacular to the exclusion of the mundane. In the case of the open toilets scandal, what appeared to be a mundane, everyday object, the toilet, was dramatically spectacularised and came to stand in for politically charged conceptions of basic human dignity and privacy.
There are of course many possible ways of interpreting why the open toilet took on such potent symbolic currency, why it came to be seen as such an affront to black dignity, and how it became the key issue in the run-up to the 2011 elections. The association with apartheid’s assault on the dignity of black South Africans is one compelling interpretation of why the images of the open toilets “went viral”. Matters of dignity and privacy, so central to South Africa’s Constitution, seemed to be rendered meaningless by images of toilets without walls. For Judge Erasmus who presided over the Makhaza open toilets case, the indignity of open toilets resonated with the historical memory of the struggle against apartheid. As he put it, “The Constitution asserts dignity to contradict our past in which human dignity for black South Africans was routinely and cruelly denied.’ For Judge Erasmus, and many other South Africans, the open toilet was a condensation of all the humiliations and denigrations of black people during the apartheid era.
Alongside these legalistic and human rights concerns related to interpretations of dignity and privacy, the mass mediated spectacle of toilets without walls produced powerful symbolic effects that made it very difficult for politicians, state officials and citizens to reconcile the progressive, rights-based constitutional democracy with the idea of people defecating in public. But there were still other twists and turns to this tale of toilets. From the perspective of the ANC and its Youth League in the Western Cape, the open toilets in Makhaza were a gift from the gods, and they became the core theme of the ANC’s campaign speeches in the run-up to the elections. For the ANC Youth League in particular, these toilets were clear evidence of the inherent racism of the Democratic Alliance. However, this narrative coherence imploded when journalists began reporting on open toilets in the ANC-controlled Free State Province.
One of the reasons that the middle classes and political elites were so shocked by the images of the open toilets that circulated in the media was that these toilets were identical in design to the ones found in middle class homes, the only difference being that the middle classes defecate in strict privacy. It would seem possible that the open toilets became the number one political issue in 2011 because images of the modern toilet without walls shattered middle class the sensibilities and assumptions about the inherent privacy of defecation. Whereas open defecation is widespread in South Africa, as it is many other parts of the global South, open toilets profoundly unsettled many South Africans’ understandings of themselves as belonging to a modern democratic state.
What did not surface in public discourses following the media’s dissemination of the spectacular image of the open toilet, were the normalized, daily practices of open defecation and the abysmal sanitation conditions in many informal settlements. As the Social Justice Coalition have noted, some 10.5 million people in South Africa continue to live without access to basic sanitation, and millions of South African citizens still have no access to a toilet, and have to relieve themselves in the open, making themselves vulnerable to assault, robbery, rape and even murder. The poor state of sanitation in many informal settlements also contributes to the transmission of waterborne diseases and illness, and diahorrea has been identified as one of the leading causes of deaths for children under five in informal settlements. While the spectacular images of the open toilets in Makhaza and Moqhaka politicized sanitation in the run-up to the 2011 local government elections, this politics of the media spectacle also obscured the more mundane indignities, health hazards and forms of structural violence that millions of poor people have to endure on a daily basis.
2013 could well be remembered as Cape Town’s Year of the Great Stink. The flinging of human waste on highways, airports and on the steps of provincial legislatures in Cape Town was unprecedented and drew considerable media, state and public attention. The national Minister of Health’s initial response was to identify these actions as a potential national health hazard. The security establishment’s response was to charge the protesters under the Civil Aviation Act and to deploy dozens of extra police patrols along the N2 highway near the airport. The ANC responded by putting the protesters through party disciplinary procedures. But none of this deterred the poo protesters from Ses’khona peoples’ rights movement who proceeded to organise a massive march on Cape Town’s city centre at which a small breakaway group looted shops and attacked foreign street vendors. A group of 86 clerics then issued a hard-hitting statement attacking the protesters for wishing “to promote a climate of hate” and destabilise the Western Cape through violent protests.
There were also more sympathetic responses. Judge Dennis Davis recognised their right to freedom of expression and granted the protesters bail, while a group of progressive clerics from the Western Cape Religious Leaders Forum, including the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, later met with the Ses’khona leadership and announced that they would jointly participate in a “March for Peace” in Cape Town early in 2014. The clerics also participated in a “Walk of Witness” in Khayelitsha as an expression of solidarity with the poor. The one common factor in all of these developments was human waste, both in relation to excrement and the fact that the protesters’ constituency were poor and unemployed people who are generally considered to be “waste” and superfluous to the needs of late capitalism. Human waste in all its dimensions is clearly a matter of public concern.
The history of sanitation in South Africa has been narrated as a story of how colonial discourses of hygiene and infectious disease contributed towards the making of racially segregated cities. It was the proximity of the human waste of the poor to white colonial elites that was perceived to be a threat to public health and urban social order. The historian Maynard Swanson (1977), for instance, writes about how, in the early 1900s, fears of infectious disease associated with Bubonic Plague, along with urban native policy in the Cape Colony, contributed towards laying the groundwork for urban segregationist policy and, later, apartheid. But this was not a uniquely South African story.
Matthew Gandy (1999) has written about how the development of the Paris sewers contributed towards the design and rationalization of urban space in ways that segregated the affluent from underclass Parisians. Referring to the role of Emperor Napoleon III and Baron Georges Haussmann in the rebuilding of Paris between 1850 and 1870, Gandy shows how the ‘cesspool city’ of nineteenth century Europe became ‘a place where metaphors of disease and moral degeneration mingled with the threat of women and the labouring classes to middle class society’ (1999: 36). Gandy suggests that even the most progressive and perceptive nineteenth century commentators on urban life such as Engels, Dickens and Baudelaire were trapped within the binary logic of distinctive worlds of dirt and cleanliness, the poor and the well off, the diseased and the healthy. These dualistic metaphors mapped neatly onto perceived distinctions between the urban poor and the bourgeois. It was this dualistic world, as well as real world problems of disease and disorder, that Haussmann and other architects and planners of the mid to late 1900s sought to address thorough their modernist conceptions of urban spatial order.
Gareth Stedman Jones’ (1971) Outcast London shows how, after the 1850s, inner city London became the site for growing fears and anxieties amongst the Victorian elite about proximity to poverty and the latent violence of the underclasses. These twin dangers were viewed through the lens of disease and contagion and came to be seen as a serious threat to Victorian visions of progress and social order. Responding to these real and imagined threats, Social Darwinism framed the late nineteenth century city as a site of potential pathology, disease and social and moral degeneration. Fuelled by bourgeois moral panic, as well as fears about disease and death, scientists drew on epidemiology, sanitary science, public health, social work, criminology, urban planning and other disciplines to address these urban pathologies.
In many respects, these developments in Paris and London were not that different to the challenges faced by colonial urban planners in Cape Town, whose fears of infectious diseases and social disorder ultimately drove them to enforce segregationist solutions to social crises. In all these contexts, slums were identified as hot beds of crime, social and moral decay, disease and subversive politics. While the poor and working class in Paris and London did not experience forced removals and Group Areas Act legislation, slums in these cities did provoke amongst the middle classes and professional elites both real and imagined fears of disease, dirt and disorder that profoundly shaped urban planning discourses in ways that were not that dissimilar to those in the colonies.
It was in the early 1900s in Cape Town slums such as Uitvlugt (later known as Ndabeni) that these metropolitan nightmares of disease and social disorder came home to roost. Swanson describes how the hygienic anxieties of Medical Officers of Health about Cape Town’s slums as spaces of disease, crime and vagrancy coincided with the historical reality of the Bubonic Plaque of the early 1900s. These growing fears also conjured up dark memories of Europe’s nightmarish Black Death. It was in this conjuncture of health threats and social and political anxieties that urban segregationist policy emerged in South Africa. The rest is history: forced removals, the Group Areas Act and so on. Now let us fast forward to 21st century South Africa.
The past couple of years have witnessed an intensification of “service delivery” protests in South African cities and towns. The spectacular politics of the burning barricades has been remarkably successful in highlighting grievances about service delivery failures. Whenever tyres are burning, government buildings are razed to the ground or shops looted, journalists and high level government delegations swarm onto the scene. The “Shit Wars” in Cape Town in 2013 took these community-based protests to another level, triggering both extensive media coverage and disgust and panic amongst the middle classes and city officials keen to portray Cape Town as a premier tourist destination and 2014 World Design Capital. The political, security and legal responses were swift and harsh.
Whereas responses to urban crises of the early 1900s gave rise to urban segregationist policies, the containment of the threat of the “unruly poor” is nowadays left to a combination of land market forces, state welfare programmes and policing. These post-apartheid strategies are not that different to the situation in the United States where, according to Loic Wacquant (2001), urban ghettos are managed by a state apparatus that splits poor populations between ”workfare” and “prisonfare.” It does this, Wacquant argues, by isolating poor populations into neighbourhoods which are simultaneously managed by large police forces and the social welfare interventions involving public health, social work and publicly funded employment schemes. Wacquant describes this form of dual management as the “Centaur State.” A similar management regime in South Africa transforms the poor into subjects of the state rather than its citizens. Acts such as dumping shit on the highway, legislature and airport can be seen as attempts to break out of isolation and containment within these zones of state control and surveillance.
In her critique of late liberalism, the Columbia University anthropologist Elizabeth Povenelli analyses Ursula Le Guin’s tale of a fictional city, Omelas, where the happiness and well-being of its citizens depends upon a small child’s confinement and humiliation in a tiny broom closet. As Povenelli (2011: 2) writes, the happiness of the inhabitants of Omelas is “dependent on a child’s being naked and constrained in a cramped space, and being covered with festering sores from sitting in its own excrement, and these facts being known by all Omelas inhabitants.” Le Guin’s story engages with philosophical and ethical conundrums resulting from the inhabitants’ knowledge that their happiness is intimately tied to the child’s enduring suffering.
Change the word broom closet to ghetto, Aboriginal reserve, Bantustan, favela, slum, shantytown and township and the ethical and political relevance of Le Guin’s fictional story becomes even more poignant. This story can also render the subversive political act of dragging excrement from the slums on the urban margins to the city centre legible as a form of resistance to late liberal modes of urban containment.
It would seem that many South Africans are inured, if not numbed, by abstract and disembodied statistics and reports on urban poverty, unemployment, E. coli levels of water contamination, HIV/AIDS, and everyday violence in poor neighbourhoods. Like the inhabitants of fictional Omalas, the middle classes in South Africa, and many other parts of the world, seem content to tie their happiness to the realities of the spatial containment of the urban poor in fetid and degrading broom closets. But perhaps the stench from inside the closet has begun to find its way into the highly policed spaces of power and privilege in ways that will force bureaucrats, politicians and middle class citizens to become more aware of their own complicity in the lives of those trapped in the abjection of our urban slums and favelas.
The flinging of poo on Rhodes’ statue at the University of Cape Town on 9th March 2015 by Chumani Maxwele, a fourth-year political science student triggered a series of events that culminated in student protests across the country. Standing shirtless in front of the large, looming statue wearing a bright pink mineworker’s hardhat, Maxwele said he “felt suffocated” by the overwhelming presence of colonial names and memorials on the campus, and complained that most black students couldn’t breathe on campus because of the claustrophobia produced by English colonial dominance at UCT. “There is no [black] collective history here – where are our heroes and ancestors?” he asked a large group of students and journalists before emptying the container of human waste onto the statue (Cape Times 11 March 2015, p.4).
Maxwele’s actions triggered national protests and debates about colonial statues, the names of university buildings, affirmative action regarding lecturers, student admission policies, labour conditions for UCT workers, and calls for the transformation of the institutional culture of the university. For weeks, newspapers and social media were saturated with these matters of public concern. Meanwhile, UCT’s Rhodes Must Fall campaign gathered momentum and students occupied the administration building at UCT and produced a long list of demands
The letters pages of the Cape Times were cluttered with condemnations of the students’ actions, especially regarding their lack of appreciation of Rhodes’ generous philanthropic endowments to UCT and Rhodes University (Cape Times 11 March). But it was Maxwele’s poo attack that has received the most censure. Free State University’s Rector Professor Jonathan Jansen, for instance, insisted that using human waste to make a political point undermined the integrity of the protesters and their cause (The Times 20 March 2015).
Meanwhile, as the calls for the removal of the statue intensified, the students’ political discourse began to shift attention away from the odorous act itself. What was also forgotten in the days and weeks that followed was Maxwele’s poignant statement to a reporter in which he said that he had thrown the faeces and urine contents of a portable flush toilet container at the statue to highlight his feelings of shame. As he put it, “We want white people to know how we live. We live in poo. I am from a poor family; we are using portaloos. Are you happy with that?” he asked the journalists. “I have to give Cecil John Rhodes a poo shower and whites will have to see it” (The Times 13 March 2015). Along with this shift of public attention away from the fetid contents of the portaloo container during the course of the student protests, there was also silence about the relationship of Maxwele’s act to the recent history of sanitation activism in Cape Town.
Maxwele is not the first South African to use human waste as a medium of protest. Ayanda Kota of the Unemployed Peoples’ Movement in Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown) claimed he was the pioneer of this form of protest when, a few years earlier, he had dumped a bucket of human waste in a government building in Makhanda in protest against poor state service delivery. But South African activists do not have the patent when it comes to using bodily fluids to make political points. In the late 1970s, IRA female prisoners smeared menstrual blood on the walls of their cells in protest against poor prison conditions, and in 1978, during the ‘Dirty Protests’, IRA male prisoners smeared excrement on their cell walls in protest against the refusal of the prison authorities to recognise their status as political prisoners.
These examples from South Africa and Northern Ireland suggest that human waste and bodily functions such as defecation, perhaps the most private and intimate of household activities, can, under certain conditions, enter the circuits of political life. There are nonetheless historically constituted obstacles that typically prevent such private matters from entering the public domains of politics and activism. For instance, long histories of stigma and shame associated with excrement and open defecation, especially amongst the rural poor, have ensured that these matters are only gradually becoming part of what Arjun Appadurai (2002) refers to as a ‘politics of shit’ that is emerging in many parts of Asia.
The emptying of the contents of a portaloo container is part of a story of the ongoing politicization and mobilization of human waste that began in 2008 with the Social Justice Coalition’s sanitation activism, and then took a rather unanticipated turn with the ANC Youth Leagues’ 2011 open toilet protests and, more recently, Ses’khona Peoples Rights Movement’s full-blown “poo wars” of 2013.
At the heart of the 2013 “poo wars”, and Chumani Maxwele’s attack on Rhodes’ statue, was a mundane, plastic object: the portable flush toilet or portaloo. Ses’khona activists regarded the portaloos as a violation of the dignity of the users because in over-crowded informal settlements these toilets typically compromise privacy and hygiene and produce lingering smells in peoples’ homes. These objections led them to haul portaloo containers from the shacks of the urban periphery to Cape Town’s centres of political, cultural and economic power – the steps of provincial parliament, the Cape Town International Airport, an upmarket city gallery and, most recently, to UCT.
Responding in a website posting to the widespread condemnations of these protests the journalist Jacob Phamodi spelt out what was at stake in the poo wars. Expressing his outrage that the poor have to use these portable toilets in single-roomed tin-shacks, he wrote, “They have to relieve themselves in the same room occupied by their intimate partners, parents, and children, [and in] the same room in which they must sleep and receive their guests and prepare their meals. Crudely put, these residents were quite simply made to shit where they eat. And not once was this even acknowledged by the powers that be.”
It was precisely such outrage about sanitation conditions that provoked the opening act at Rhodes’ statue. However, Maxwele’s personal testimony about his family’s shame at having to use the portaloo was quickly forgotten, and his excremental politics was roundly denounced by commentators across the political spectrum.
This outcome was perhaps to be expected. As Freudians like to remind us, of all the desires to be repressed in the name of the civilizing process, anal and excretory activities and pleasures present the greatest threat to the attainment of bourgeois respectability. The excretory taboo is therefore not something easily undone.
In History of Shit, written in Paris during the heady student revolts of 1968, Dominique Laporte claims that the entire “socio-political infrastructure of civilization” has been geared towards the domestication of the human being’s need to defecate. For Laporte, the management of human waste has been central to modern subjectivities, the establishment of the nation-state, the organisation of cities, the development of capitalism and the rendering of language clean and proper. The elite and middle classes in early modern Western Europe, Laporte writes, were obsessed with sanitising their language and separating themselves from intimacy with excrement.
Extrapolating liberally from Laporte’s lucid lines of thought, it would seem that the student protesters believed that Rhodes’ muck continued to cling tenaciously to his philanthropic legacy regardless of attempts by English liberals to cleanse his colonial past. At the same time, many of the students, staff and political commentators were themselves repulsed by Maxwele’s visceral excremental politics. This act, which was the explosive catalyst that launched a national student protest movement, therefore had to be flushed out in the name of respectability. Like Rhodes’ statue itself, Maxwele’s indignation, which found expression in his smelly opening act, had to boxed-up and flushed away, out of sight and out of mind.