Cape Town’s ‘poo protests’

I will soon be in Cape Town as part of a new research project with Jonathan Silver on sanitation politics in the city. All my previous work on sanitation politics has been on Mumbai, and I’m continuing that work, so Cape Town is a challenging shift. We’re particularly interested in the city’s so-called ‘poo protests’. The poo protestors have thrown shit at various symbols of political and economic power in the city: the steps of the Western Cape legislature, the Cape Town International Airport departures terminal, Premier Helen Zille’s convoy, the N2 highway, and at the Bellville Civic Centre. A whole variety of groups – political parties, NGOs, social movements – have been tied up in the acts and the fall out, which has included ongoing legal processes and a lively public debate which I’ve been following.South-Africa-Poo-Wars

Our aims are fairly straightforward but open up a set of complex issues: how did these protests emerge and why did they pursue this form of politicisation? How might we understand the protests and the corporeal, sensory relations around them, and how might we evaluate the different responses to them across the city? What do the geographies of shit and protest tell us about the nature of urban politics in the city?

There is a long history in South Africa between sanitation and segregation. Sanitation was a key driver of apartheid logics, a process Maynard Swanson once neatly referred to, in his study of  Cape Town, as a ‘sanitation syndrome’ (www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415103572/). The poo protests appear in part to be about contesting those inherited urban conditions. Much of the activism has been linked to the township of Khayelitsha. As Steve Robins, in the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at the University of Stellenbosch, has argued over a series of pieces in the Cape Times, the activists might be read as throwing human waste across both the apartheid city and new urban centres of economic and political power, and doing so through a politics of spectacle (see his recent piece in the Journal of Southern African Studies here: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03057070.2014.889517).

The protests are also tied to a range of other specific issues, including a labour dispute over contractors who are supposed to be responsible for sanitation delivery, frustration at the provision of portable toilets which appear to many as mere updates of the old apartheid manual bucket system, and a set of party political machinations in the city involving the ANC and the ruling Democratic Alliance.

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