Back to the poo that started it all
The outrage that provoked Chumani Maxwele’s smelly opening act in the Rhodes’ statue saga has been flushed away, says Steven Robins.
Cape Town - The flinging of poo on Rhodes’ statue on March 12 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 on to the statue (Cape Times, March 11, page 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 their lack of appreciation for Rhodes’ generous philanthropic endowments to UCT and Rhodes University (Cape Times, March 11). But it was Maxwele’s poo attack that received the most censure. Free State University rector Professor Jonathan Jansen insisted that using human waste to make a political point undermined the integrity of the protesters and their cause (The Times, March 20).
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, March 13, 2015).” Along with this shift of public attention away from the fetid contents of the portaloo container, 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 Abahlali BaseMjondolo 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 Grahamstown 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 among 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” emerging in many parts of Asia.
The emptying of the contents of a portaloo container is part of a story of the ongoing politicisation and mobilisation of human waste that began in 2008 with the Social Justice Coalition’s sanitation activism, then took a rather unanticipated turn with the ANC Youth League’s 2011 open-toilet protests and, more recently, Ses’khona People’s Rights Movement’s full-blown “poo wars” of 2013.
At the heart of the 2013 “poo wars”, and Maxwele’s attack on the 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 these toilets compromise privacy and produce lingering smells in people’s 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, 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 sh*t 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 civilising 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 civilisation” 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 be boxed up and flushed away, out of sight and out of mind.
* Professor Steven Robins is from the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at the University of Stellenbosch.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.