The Politics of Shit
Shit has become highly political in Cape Town. In fact it has become highly political all over the country. The demand for toilets has been an important demand in many protests over the years. In 2005 it was one of the demands that led to the formation of Abahlali baseMjondolo in Durban. Today it is the largest social movement in South Africa. The demand for toilets is also an important demand in my own movement, the Unemployed People’s Movement.
In October 2011 I threw a bucket of shit into the offices of the Municipality in Grahamstown. I was strongly condemned for this action but quite soon after that the Mayor announced that the Municipality would do away with the bucket system. The reason why this was an effective kind of protest was that it took a suffering that is usually hidden away as a private shame and made it a public embarrassment to the government. I took this action with a mandate from my comrades because we wanted to insist that the dignity of everyone in Grahamstown must be respected.
When people experience their suffering as a private shame things don’t change. But when suffering can become politicised and collective action can be taken, especially in elite spaces, things really can change.
We are coming from an era when the humanity of most of our people was not recognised. It was incomplete. We were oppressed politically, socially and culturally. We were humiliated in our everyday lives. This oppression was organised through the power of whiteness and the denigration of blackness. We expected that there would be real change after apartheid and we expected that change to be in our everyday lives. But the change in terms of who runs the country has not trickled down into the everyday lives of most black people.
Under Thabo Mbeki the ANC had a two thirds majority. They had a clear mandate to heal our society, to fully recognise and respect the humanity of all of us. But millions of us remain landless, living in shacks and unemployed. This is why the ANC is losing support and so many people are either refusing to vote or starting to vote for other parties. This is also why new parties are being formed. The ANC has lost the confidence of the people and they will never again have a two thirds majority.
This loss in support, as well as the development of social movements and the huge rate of protest around the county, is causing the ANC to panic. The Secrecy Bill and the Traditional Courts Bill show how they want to move towards a more authoritarian regime. We can also see this in the demands for an ‘Insult Law’ being brought forward by the SACP. The ANC is also turning to violence. In Marikana they resorted to a massacre. Around the country activists have been murdered, most recently Nkululeko Gwala in Durban. And whenever poor black people organise the ANC will say that they are being used by white people to oppose transformation.
Any clear eyed observer can see that the ANC goes all out to attack the DA for the way that it treats poor black people in Cape Town while saying nothing at all about how badly poor black people are treated in Johannesburg or Durban. It is just as bad to be a shack dweller in Durban or Johannesburg as it is in Cape Town yet all ANC structures are silent about this. They say nothing about the bucket system in Johannesburg or Durban and yet they condemn it so strongly in Cape Town.
What is happening in Cape Town with various attempts to expose the DA is not motivated by a concern for human dignity. It is motivated by a concern for elections and for access to the state and the tenders that come with state power. If we saw ANC structures throwing shit into elite spaces in Johannesburg or Durban we would think that they are serious about opposing the ongoing daily humiliation of millions of our people. But when we only see this happening in Cape Town then we know, for sure, that is about nothing other than elections.
Protest should not undermine the dignity of protesters. It should be very careful to avoid taking forms that are sexist or xenophobic. If you want to win a struggle you must hold the high ground in moral terms. However if protest remains confined to official forms of engagement it will have no impact. Sometimes it is necessary to shock elites into action. Sometimes it is necessary to show the urgency of our demands and the seriousness of the suffering of our people. Sometimes it is necessary to show our anger.
But if we don’t hold all politicians to account in the same way irrespective of what parties they belong to then it is clear that we are not being motivated by a sincere concern for human dignity.