The toilet wars: take your shit and live with it


There is a big stink in Cape Town. Literally. For some years, now, the so-called “toilet wars” have been a recurrent feature in the political battles waged in the Western Cape. The first of these was highlighted in 2010 when Khayelitsha residents took to the streets over undignified, uncovered toilet structures the City of Cape Town had erected along the N1 highway, supposedly to service their sanitation needs.

More recently, the serious and still unresolved complaints over toilets resurfaced when Khayelitsha residents, reportedly led by members of the ANC Youth League, emptied buckets of human waste on the steps of the Western Cape Legislature as well as flung buckets of human waste at Western Cape Premier, Helen Zille, and the City’s mayor Patricia De Lille. The complaint underlying this protest action was the same: residents were unsatisfied with the unsuitable chemical, container and portable flush toilet (PFT) facilities the City had provided them.

In their responses, both the Western Cape Premier and City’s Mayor belaboured the City’s “extensive efforts” to provide the affected communities with “sanitary and dignified” ablution facilities. The Mayor outlined the inordinate “resistance” the City had faced in rolling PFTs out in some communities. The Premier went as far as dismissing the protest action as no more than opportunistic political grandstanding by the ANC Youth League (ANCYL.)

It bears stating that the Western Cape Premier routinely dismisses unfavourable civil unrest and protest action by poor and landless Blacks as no more than part of the ANCYL’s campaign to render the DA-led province ungovernable. Seemingly, poor and landless Blacks lack the agency to cry foul over the appalling and racially articulated working and living conditions they are systematically locked into, and often by State Power. And true as these assertion might be in this case, whether in part or in whole, one thing has been consistently lacking in the City and the Provincial government’s rhetoric: the fact of the wholly appalling conditions under which residents are made to relieve themselves in.

As it waxed lyrical about the temporary and fixed toilet structures it had erected along roadsides and riverbanks, not once was the indignity of having to use overworked and underserviced communal ablution facilities acknowledged by the City. Nor was the very real risk of robbery, assault and rape that came with using these facilities given a moment’s thought.

In press releases and self-congratulatory puff-pieces about the flushable, sealable and presumably sanitary PFT solution in had rolled out in the thousands, little was said by the City about how the people who must use them often had to do so in their often single-roomed tin shack structures. This sanitary and dignified solution at least meant a convenient place that people could relieve themselves in. Like the same room as their intimate partners, parents, and children. The same room they must sleep and receive their guests in. The same room they must prepare their meals in. Crudely put, these residents were quite simply made to shit where they eat. And not once was this even acknowledged by the powers that be.

Instead, residents were positioned as unthinking political pawns in the service of disruptive ANC upstarts. That they were ungrateful obstacles in the City’s valorous attempts in progressively realizing their basic sanitation needs. That their conduct was criminal and the effluent they had cast on State institutions and office bearers was violence. Of course, in the world of spin and political double-speak, it is unsurprising that the real violence would be so easily elided.

The Western Cape provincial government and City of Cape Town have almost made an art of anti-poor, and anti-Black rhetoric. The City and the DA attempt to systematically delegitimise the voices of upswells of legitimately aggrieved residents by weaving it in the narrative of the ANC’s desperate scramble for the DA-governed Western Cape. They criminalise the landless and destitute by calling them land invaders in order to justify their unlawful exercise of State power in effecting forced removals through the invocation of obscure and unconstitutional common law instruments. They coerce residents to make choices between the barest of services and no services at all and present these to the world as real choices. They annually encourage poor and landless Blacks to prepare for the devastation that will be left behind by runaway shack fires and flash-floods instead of eradicating them altogether.

Indeed, contrary to how they have been framed in the public discourse, the “toilet wars” are not so much about toilets per se. They signify the structural violence that poor and landless Blacks have been locked in by the State and the institutions of Power that comprise it. They belie the waste that people have been forced to live knee-deep in in the ghettoes and shanty-towns that they have been relegated to for generations. They represent twenty years of an assault on the unassailable right to human dignity promised in that first compact for freedom after decades of institutionalized State violence.

While they make up the overwhelming majority, poor and landless Blacks remain unseen and unacknowledged in this country. The State remains unresponsive to their needs, only offering the most basic and palliative solutions to the structural conditions they fight ceaselessly and, perhaps, even hopelessly to get through every day. The war over excrement happening in Cape Town is not simply a war over what constitutes a dignified toilet as it has been so narrowly defined. It is a war over basic sanitation meaning much more than being able to shit indoors. It is a war over decent housing. It is a war over that most essential value among a dispossessed people: land. It is a war over being seen, and being accorded one’s inherent worth as a human being. It is a war that poor and landless Blacks have been fighting in this country for centuries.

 This piece was first published in Amandla 31, July/Aug 2013.

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