In the English summer of 1858 the city of London came to a standstill when Londoners refused to leave their homes unless the government addressed the stench oozing from the Thames River. For centuries the Thames had functioned as a dumping ground for human and industrial waste, and dead animals. A heat wave in 1858 boiled centuries of accumulated waste in what became known as London’s “Great Stink”.
Overwhelmed by the stench wafting into the English parliament, MPs proposed relocating parliament but this was rejected because the newly constructed building had only recently been acquired.
It was only when parliament could no longer function because of the stench that legislators agreed to a systemic overhaul of the infrastructure of the Thames. The unbearable smell pervading parliament had compelled MPs to cough up the financial resources needed to provide a proper sewerage.
Cape Town has recently had its own “Great Stink” with the flinging of faeces at Premier Helen Zille’s convoy, on the N2 highway, on the steps of the Western Cape Legislature, in the Cape Town International Airport departures terminal, and, most recently, at the Bellville Civic Centre. These poo protests targeted the Western Cape government’s sanitation policies.
Whereas the Thames River was the lead actor in the drama in London’s parliament in 1858, in Cape Town this year the stench at the airport was the work of a small group of renegade ANC youth activists.
Because of the spatial legacies of apartheid urban planning, these activists had to make their point about poor sanitation in informal settlements by transporting the smell of the slums on the urban periphery to the sanitised city centre and seat of state power. Travelling by taxis, trains and cars they literally dragged bags of sh*t across from the margins to the city centre. For their trouble they were arrested and charged with public violence.
Meanwhile, their detractors have accused them of political opportunism, ill-discipline and hooliganism. Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi accused them of creating a potentially lethal health hazard in their “direct attack against the whole population”.
The developments in Cape Town are in many respects quite different to what happened in London where MPs had no choice but to respond to the awful stench of the Thames. In Cape Town, sanitation activists ranging from ANC Youth League militants to Social Justice Coalition (SJC) activists have the more difficult task of trying to convince the political elite and middle classes that the stench and dangerous e-coli levels in some of the informal settlements in Cape Town constitute a health crisis that needs to be addressed with urgency.
The origins of this newly emerging politics of sanitation can be traced back to the “Toilet Wars” that erupted in the run-up to the 2011 local government elections, when ANC Youth League leaders destroyed corrugated iron enclosures of toilets in Makhaza informal settlement in Khayelitsha to protest against the DA government’s insistence that residents enclose their state-provided flush toilets by themselves.
The recent poo protests are seemingly being driven by a number of grievances, including a labour dispute with Sannicare contractors responsible for sanitation service delivery in informal settlements, the infamous “bucket system” and the DA government’s distribution of portable rather than permanent flush toilets.
While the poo protesters have resorted to these spectacular tactics, the SJC has, over a number of years, been organising what they regard as an ongoing and systemic sanitation crisis. The SJC has developed forms of “slow activism”, involving protests, petitions, and threats of litigation, in order to lobby, pressure, blame and shame the state into improving sanitation conditions in informal settlements.
But why has it taken so long for toilets and sanitation to be recognised as “real politics”?
There are historical reasons why human waste has seldom been considered to be a properly political and public matter. Before the 16th century in Europe, human waste was usually dumped in the streets, fields or rivers. Then, in 1539, an ordinance was introduced in France that required that human waste be stored in the basement of houses.
In his aptly titled book, The History of Shit, Dominique Laporte notes that France’s royal decree of 1539 required that “every individual or individual family hold on to personal waste before carrying it out of the city”. The consequence of this privatisation and domestication of human waste is still with us today. France’s decree of 1539 is one of countless sanitary laws that have been introduced by states throughout the world. In colonial Africa states have used sanitary and hygiene laws to displace the poor from the middle-class city centres and suburbs to the urban margins. Sanitation and politics have always been intertwined, despite being framed by bureaucrats as purely apolitical and technical matters of urban infrastructure, planning and public health.
Numerous poor and working class neighbourhoods such as District Six have been demolished in the name of hygiene, sanitation and public health. Yet, political theorists and commentators have generally shied away from engaging with the political dimensions of human waste.
For European political theorists of democracy such as Hannah Arendt, the private domain of the household (the oikos), and everything that takes place within its walls, was not considered to be a properly political matter of public concern. For Arendt, a fiercely masculinist thinker, “proper politics” consisted of debate and deliberation on public matters beyond the feminised domestic realm; private household matters such as defecation, toilets and sanitation did not qualify as “political”. Yet, as SJC activists observe, it is precisely the rape of women going to the toilet at night that makes it political. It is also women who have to deal with the dire health consequences of children playing in spaces contaminated by raw sewage.
Many South African commentators and politicians would probably agree with the national health minister that flinging faeces in public places is simply dangerous, unruly and ill-disciplined behaviour without any real political content. But African political theorists such as Achille Mbembe (2001) have been far less restrictive in their assessments of what counts as “political”.
Mbembe writes eloquently about the porous borders between the private and the public in his accounts of a west African “politics of the belly” in terms of which the bodily fluids, private parts and orifices of “Big Men” are more than game for public commentary, scrutiny, parody and ridicule by citizen-subjects.
In a somewhat different vein, Allen Feldman (1991) has written about how Irish Republican prisoners became cognisant of the potency of a “politics of sh*t” when, from 1978 to 1981, they embarked upon the “blanket protests”.
These prisoners smeared their cell walls with excrement in protest against not being allowed to leave their cells because they had refused to wear prison uniforms as part of their struggle to be recognised as prisoners of war, rather than common criminals.
They used their bodily waste as a weapon in a struggle for political recognition. These examples suggest that bodily fluids and functions such as defecation, perhaps, the most private and intimate of household activities, can, under certain conditions, enter the circuits of public debate and political life.
There are nonetheless historically constituted obstacles that may prevent such private matters from entering the domain of public debate and deliberative democracy. For instance, long histories of stigma and shame associated with excrement and open defecation, especially among the poor, have ensured that these matters are only gradually becoming part of what Arjun Appadurai (2002) and others refer to as a “politics of sh*t” that is emerging in Asia.
In a book entitled Shit Matters, Lyla Mehta (2010) writes about how the Community-Led Total Sanitation Programmes that began in Bangladesh have opened up such debates in rural villages, thereby challenging the silence and normalisation of abysmal sanitation conditions in many parts of the developing world. Clearly, sh*t can become political.
A friend recently told me how overwhelmed she was by the stench at Cape Town International Airport. She had arrived at the airport a short while after the protesters had dumped their sh*t.
By taking their struggle to an international site, the activists had raised the stakes. The initial state response was to charge them under the National Key Points Act but this was later downgraded to public violence.
Clearly, the smell from the urban margins was intolerable for the middle classes and political elites.
But will the political classes take sufficient note of the legitimate demands for improved sanitation, or will they need a “Great Stink” from the periphery to waft into Parliament before they act?
* Professor Robins is with the department of sociology and social anthropology at the University of Stellenbosch.