Politicisation of human waste
The porcelain flush toilet has come to be seen as a sign of modern citizenship, says Steven Robins.
Cape Town - The past couple of weeks have witnessed some surprising twists to the tale of the ongoing saga of the Western Cape Toilet Wars. Activists who recently dumped human waste in the airport, on the N2 highway and on the steps of the provincial legislature because of their rejection of portable toilets, are now demanding alternative eco-friendly solar-driven toilets.
Three of these toilets, which cost R20 000 each, have apparently been piloted in BM informal settlement in Khayelitsha. But the mayoral committee member for utility services in Cape Town, Ernest Sonnenberg, insists that these SmartSan recycle toilets do not work properly because of the lack of winter sun. He suspects that these activists could be seeking tenders for the rollout of these solar loos, and insists that they “should leave the experts to do their jobs and stop putting politics over the needs of communities” (Cape Times, September 6, “City nixes solar loo tested in township”).
But what is it about these new eco-friendly toilet technologies that has attracted the interest of the activists, and why are they being touted as alternatives to the portable toilets on offer?
To understand these issues it is necessary to step back from the immediacy of the toilet wars in the Western Cape to consider wider concerns relating to the history of human waste and its disposal. The work of the anthropologist Mary Douglas provides a useful entry point for understanding the recent contestation over different types of toilet designs.
Douglas’ phrase “dirt is matter out of place”, which appears in her classic text Purity and Danger, is perhaps one of the most widely travelled phrases in anthropology.
The British anthropologist Richard Fardon has traced the origins of this phrase to the Punch publication of January 30, 1858, which also happened to be London’s “Year of the Great Stink,” when the stench of the Thames River brought parliament to a standstill.
In this edition of Punch there was a reference to Lord Palmerston’s innovative contribution to “The Great Thames River sewerage debate” in which he stated that “Dirt was only matter in the wrong place” (Fardon, 2013: 25). Lord Palmerston, who was later to become prime minister, then suggested that human waste produced in Britain’s cities ought to be productively used as fertiliser in the countryside. As he put it, the dirt of the cities was simply matter in the wrong place; its proper place was in the fields. Although Lord Palmerston was in this respect ahead of his times, he failed to recognise that human waste was not merely matter in the wrong place, but also matter waiting to become “properly political”.
Lord Palmerston was not alone in calling for human waste to be carted off from the cities to the fields of the countryside. In his writings in the 1850s, Pierre Leroux, one of the founders of French socialism, recognised the productive and ecological value of converting human excrement into manure.
As he put it: “Each and every one would religiously collect their own waste and hand it over to the state, that is to say to the tax inspector, in lieu of a tax or personal contribution. Agricultural production would immediately double, and destitution would disappear from the face of the Earth” (cited in Leporte, 1993: 127).
In this regard, both Lord Palmerston and Leroux anticipated the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s $3-million “Reinventing the Toilet” programme, which was officially launched in 2011.
The Gates Foundation has funded teams of researchers at eight universities, including the University of KwaZulu-Natal, to come up with new toilet designs appropriate for developing countries.
The foundation’s target population is the 2.6 billion people in the developing world – roughly 40 percent of the planet's population – who do not have access to flush toilets. Third World people without access to reticulated water and sanitation systems are to be given cheap, waterless toilets that can turn human waste into clean water and fertiliser.
The Gates toilets have to be designed to meet two needs: first, they need to address the sanitation needs of millions of “gridless people” without access to conventional state infrastructure (eg, sanitation systems, electricity etc) typically associated with modern states; and second, these toilets have to meet the environmentalist imperative of transforming human waste into agriculturally efficient byproducts, ie manure and fertiliser.
This Gates Foundation vision was first articulated in a speech in 2011 by Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the president of the Gates Foundation’s Global Development Programme. Beginning her speech with an account of the invention of the “flush toilet” in 1775 by the Scottish mathematician and watchmaker, Alexander Cummings, she went on to call for “the reinvention of the toilet” in order to address sanitation problems and water-borne diseases in the developing world.
The “Dignity Toilet” is a Canadian design that requires that users separate urine from faeces, then carry the dried-out faecal material in a portable toilet container and dump it in the fields to be used as fertiliser. But the uptake of these urine diversion dry toilets has been very low, and numerous studies reveal that people are often unwilling to get close and dirty with human waste.
A study by Matsebe and Osman concludes that the lukewarm response to urine diversion dry toilets in Kimberley may be due to the failure to get buy-in from politicians and officials; clearly the political classes are not particularly enthusiastic about using these alternative technologies. Similar initiatives at Stellenbosch University also produced very low uptake amongst students.
Urine diversion dry toilets have been resolutely rejected by residents of informal settlements in Durban who simply want modern, flush toilets, just like the ones in middle-class homes. For them it is not simply a case of “matter in the wrong place”, but also a modernist aspiration for such matter to be instantly flushed away. Similarly, for the poo flingers in Cape Town, the new portable flush toilets referred to as FFTs are simply old buckets in new containers.
They do not provide for privacy and allow the smell of sh*t to waft through their shacks while they cook, eat, and sleep. They are also associated with indignities of the apartheid past that the new democratic constitution claims to have overcome.
The porcelain flush toilet has come to be seen as a sign of modern citizenship in a democracy in which the disposal of human waste becomes the problem of state infrastructural systems; at the moment of flushing, it becomes matter out of sight and out of mind.
This could explain why activists are lugging containers of human waste across the racialised divides of the apartheid city to the new urban centres of economic and political power.
Meanwhile, engineers and officials claim that conventional water and sanitation infrastructure cannot be provided in some of the informal settlements in Cape Town because of a variety of technical and health-related reasons.
This was purportedly the reason for the introduction of the portable toilets. But these “porta-loos” have been widely rejected by many residents because of their smell and lack of privacy.
It remains to be seen whether alternative toilet designs of the sort that the Gates Foundation is funding will be effective solutions for settlements where conventional sanitation infrastructure is not available.
What is clear is that designers and implementers of these sanitation solutions will need to take cognisance of local understandings and experiences with technologies in the past.
In a recent letter to the editor, Andile Ndlovu, the Western Cape provincial secretary of the SA Youth Council, compared the DA’s portable toilets with apartheid era’s undignified “tshemba” toilets, disparagingly referred to as the notorious “bucket system” (“DA’s disrespect has been repaid in kind by poo-flingers”, Cape Times, September 4).
According to Ndlovu, these porta-loos are “an affront to human dignity” of black people that forces them to cook and eat next to a smelling toilet. He adds: “As Africans we know that one does not defecate where you live… The last government that tried to mock black people has been thrown into the dustbin of history.”
Clearly urine diversion toilets, porta-loos, and the bucket system are not neutral, apolitical technologies, but are instead often imbued with potent political meanings produced by long histories of racialised inequalities and indignities.
The Gates Foundation and the DA government will need to acknowledge these histories if they wish their technological interventions in sanitation to have any political legitimacy and traction.
It is one thing to use a portable toilet for outdoor camping where it can be placed far away from the tent; it is another thing completely when these same toilets are confined to small shacks where people have to live in close proximity to each other without privacy when relieving themselves.
In a press statement, Sithembele Majova, a local ANC branch chairperson and one of the leaders of the poo protests, complained about the smell of the portable toilets and insisted that it is “unhygienic to live with poo inside the house”. He added that “we want the people who are living in those nice areas like Constantia to feel how poo can damage your life when it is next to you” (Sunday Times, August 18).
To dismiss these comments as mere political point-scoring is to miss the larger point that human waste can indeed become highly politicised when it is perceived to be matter in the wrong place.
The poor also want toilets that instantly flush such matter out of sight and out of mind. Anything else is being interpreted by the poo activists as an assault on the dignity of black people.
* Steven Robins is a professor at the department of sociology and social anthropology, Stellenbosch University.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.