Mercury: Toilets that became political dynamite

Toilets that became political dynamite

June 27 2011 at 11:48am

Steven Robins

In February I joined a group of American exchange students who visited the social movement for the urban poor, Abahlali baseMjondolo, in Khayelitsha’s QQ Section.

Abahlali-Western Cape had been in the news last year over its almost daily erection of barricades in Khayelitsha, and its calls for popular protests to render Cape Town ungovernable until service delivery needs in informal settlements were satisfied.

One of the movement leaders, Mzonke Poni, 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. He said residents had to relieve themselves in buckets and plastic bags, and threw these bags, “flying toilets”, into the wetlands where it was not possible to build houses.

Poni also described how residents walked long distances to use the toilets of shebeen owners and residents who lived in formal housing called Q Section. Sometimes they were charged, and many could not afford toilet fees.

The students were overwhelmed both by Poni’s descriptions and by the stench coming from the piles of waste.

Having recently visited an informal settlement in Khayelitisha called RR Section where the Social Justice Coalition (SJC) had got the city to improve sanitation infrastructure, I, too, was shocked by the sight and smell of the garbage.

What we did not anticipate during our visit in February was that the open toilet scandals were about to explode in the run-up to the May 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 bodies such as the SJC and Abahlali to draw attention to the ongoing sanitation crises, prior to the open toilet scandal there had been very little public and media concern about practices of open defecation, the bucket or plastic bag system. There was something specific about the image of the modern porcelain toilet without walls that triggered outrage. How did the open toilet become such a potent political symbol and sign of indignity?

Before 2011, toilets and sanitation were not considered “properly political” issues. While service delivery protests had indeed become a national political concern, media and analysts did not directly associate these protests with toilets and sanitation. Instead, they focused on grievances about local government corruption and poor service delivery of housing, water, and electricity.

Although the spectacle of the burning barricades had drawn public and media attention, the underlying issues of “structural violence” and systemic problems associated with the long-term consequences of chronic poverty did not seem to be of particular interest.

This is 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.

The long-term processes of structural violence experienced by the poor pose similar problems. Activists, social movements and NGOs constantly face the problem of trying to make “unspectacular suffering” visible to the public, donors, and governments. For example, once Aids treatment was provided in the SA public health system in 2004, the media were less interested in Aids as this was seen to have become mundane, technical and bureaucratic matters of public health service delivery.

NGOs and activists also routinely encounter the difficulty of engaging with a public that is fatigued by daily bombardment with television images 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 of 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.

During the anti-apartheid struggle the politics of the spectacle was very visible. 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 media 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 made spectacular and came to symbolise 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 Nathan 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 apartheid.

Alongside these legalistic and human rights concerns related to interpretations of dignity and privacy, the highly publicised 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. 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 election speeches. For the ANC Youth League in particular, these toilets were clear evidence of the inherent racism of the Democratic Alliance.

However, this idea imploded when journalists began reporting on open toilets in the ANC- controlled Free State.

One of the reasons that the middle classes and political elites were so shocked by the open toilets publicity in the media was that these toilets were identical to those 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 sensibilities and assumptions about the inherent privacy of defecation.

Whereas open defecation is widespread in South Africa, as it is in many other parts of the global south, open toilets profoundly unsettled many South Africans’ views 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 normalised, daily practices of open defecation and the abysmal sanitation conditions in many informal settlements.

As the Social Justice Coalition has 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 diarrhoea 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 politicised sanitation in the run-up to the local government elections, this politics of the 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.

Although the toilets in Makhaza will soon be properly enclosed in response to the High Court order, the broader issues of slow, structural violence that briefly surfaced during the Toilet Wars, will no doubt continue to be eclipsed by the politics of the spectacle – the Malema Daily Show, the ANC’s internal factional wars, new allegations about the arms deal, and numerous other media-friendly spectacles.

Robins is professor of sociology and social anthropology at the University of Stellenbosch