Category Archives: Cape Town

The Poolitical City: ‘Seeing Sanitation’ and Making the Urban Political in Cape Town

Jonathan Silver and I have just published a new paper with Antipode on the politics of sanitation in Cape Town. The paper – ‘The Poolitical City: ‘Seeing Sanitation’ and Making the Urban Political in Cape Town’ – is available here (via paywall).

The paper builds on work Jonathan and I have both done on urban infrastructure in different cities. In this piece, we connect infrastructure to the city in several ways: as a metric of urban inequality, as an active and constitutive force shaping the city’s contemporary and historical geographies, and as a vital part of different forms of political response. In particular, we are concerned with how sanitation is seen and politicised, and here there are deep-seated politics of race and space at work.

What drew us to research sanitation in Cape Town was a remarkable political movement in the past few years that has challenged the dominant historical associations of race and waste in Cape Town’s townships and informal settlements. The movement took excess uncollected shit from the spaces where people live and dumped it over key political targets in the city, sites of economic and political power. It is a profoundly geographical story that takes a crisis of infrastructure and turns it into a wider politics of the city, and does so through a selective geographical that it operates not just on discursive levels, but as a powerful sensorial politics.

Across a variety of actors – social movements, the state, NGOs, and others – we show how sanitation is not just a service delivery problem (although it is of course in part this), but a politics of the city more widely. Sanitation connects not just to service or infrastructure delivery, but to race, history, the organisation of urban space, and a politics of dignity and the Constitution. It is in this sense that we talk about shifts between sanitation as a ‘poolitical’ problem – ie one of service and infrastructure in particular spaces – to sanitation as an ‘political’ problem, ie a politics of the city per se.

Here’s our abstract:

‘In an urbanizing world, the inequalities of infrastructure are increasingly politicized in ways that reconstitute the urban political. A key site here is the politicization of human waste. The centrality of sanitation to urban life means that its politicization is always more than just service delivery. It is vital to the production of the urban political itself. The ways in which sanitation is seen by different actors is a basis for understanding its relation to the political. We chart Cape Town’s contemporary sanitation syndrome, its condition of crisis, and the remarkable politicization of toilets and human waste in the city’s townships and informal settlements in recent years. We identify four tactics—poolitical tactics—that politicize not just sanitation but Cape Town itself: poo protests, auditing, sabotage, and blockages. We evaluate these tactics, consider what is at stake, and chart possibilities for a more just urban future’.


Civil disobedience meets civil aviation: shit and urban critique


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.

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 ( 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 and

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’ ( 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:

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.