Civil disobedience meets civil aviation: shit and urban critique

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Toilets in Sweet Home Farm, Cape Town

Cape Town’s poo protests, which were led by the Ses’khona People’s Rights Movement in 2013, were an inventive and frustrated cry of civil disobedience. The protestors, who had more than enough of living with shockingly inadequate sanitation conditions in townships and informal settlements more than 20 years ‘after’ apartheid, turned living with shit into an act of urban critique. They took the old apartheid-era bucket system toilets and emptied the waste – waste that wasn’t being collected due to a city conflict over salaries for maintenance staff – over targeted (and sanitised) sites that are associated with the ‘success stories’ of Cape Town. This included, amongst other places, the international airport, a site linked to elite Cape Town’s image of itself as globally dynamic and successful.

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Toilets in Sweet Home Farm, Cape Town

Now, nine protesters involved in that airport action have been found guilty by the Bellville Magistrate’s Court of contravening the Civil Aviation Act in 2013, a municipal bylaw dictating the proper removal of human waste (http://www.enca.com/south-africa/poo-protesters-guilty). The authorities have struggled to find a way of criminalising what was a powerful act of civil disobedience, and appear to have found their solution in civil aviation law – and the punishment is potentially draconian: the protestors could serve 15 years in prison. The guilty verdict and upcoming sentencing is the latest in a long line of attempts by various city elites to close down debate on urban metabolic inequalities – previous efforts include claiming that the protests were more about ANC politicking than sanitation conditions (the Western Cape is the only area of South Africa controlled by the Democratic Alliance), or that blame should be placed with residents themselves for allegedly ‘vandalising’ the infrastructure the state provides, or that conditions were not as bad as the protestors implied, and so on…

The protests, and the Ses’khona movement that grew from it, took a fundamental and everyday metabolic process – being able to cleanly and safely dispose of bodily waste – and turned into a powerful and sensorial political act of urban critique, and in the process generated a debate in the city about adequate and equitable sanitation conditions. But if the state believes that this sort of revanchism will work, there is little to suggest that the movement will go away, and it may even grow in light of the guilty verdict. The story is a powerful illustration of the contradictions of urban life in post-apartheid South Africa, where the sanitary spaces of elite political economies such as the airport and the sanitising force of draconian legal provisions take their revenge on an urban poor who are not only excluded from such spaces but forced to live in hazardous and profoundly racialised urban ecologies.

The Ugandan poet, Harriet Anena, in her short poem Political Poop, plays on the relation between the sanitising spaces of politics and the realities of being treated politically like shit. In the poem, the ‘blessed words’ of the ‘man in-charge’ are juxtaposed with the ‘political poop’ that is thrown at ordinary citizens, and people cope by purging their memories of everyday struggles with ‘counterfeit laxatives’. How can a sanitised political system that throws shit at its citizens be contested? For the poo protestors, the answer was in part to throw shit back at it. In Anena’s poem, the choice is between the violence ditched out to those who choose resistance and the violence of immersion in everyday struggle: between “the whip, the shotA-Nation-Final-1050x1342, flashes of teargas” and “our life’s vomit”. Anena’s evocative metabolic poetics seems particularly apt for Cape Town’s visceral and ongoing politics of shit (for reviews of Anena’s excellent book, A Nation in Labour [2015, Millenium Press: Kampala], in which the poem appears, see http://www.magunga.com/a-nation-in-labour/ and https://richardoduor.wordpress.com/).

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