Steven Robins discusses how the “s**t hit the fan” and the problematic politics of poo in South Africa.
by Mvuzo Ponono
Here’s something to think about: next time you go to the loo for a number two, try thinking about this wonderfully personal act of nature, and the fact that you don’t have to worry about the end result.
Poo or poo politics was the topic of discussion Think!fest speaker Steve Robins presented on Saturday 5 June. Those in the know will be aware that poo politics have exploded onto the South African national stage with regular poo protests in Cape Town.
Robins pointed out that the phenomenon of using human waste as a form of protest is nothing new, Grahamstown activists – the Unemployed Peoples Movement actually claimed to have used the ploy long before it became a hit in Cape Town.
The attempt to deal with the problem of human faeces has long troubled the human race. Robins made the point that historically, poo has moved from being dumped outside home windows (which led to waste filled European streets) to being domesticated (where buckets were collected and thrown out at certain times).
The strategy adopted by the modern world to deal with the problem is to flush it away and so it becomes the government’s problem.
And, for South Africa, herein lies the problem. Robins discussed that poor South Africans who cannot afford porcelain toilets reject other alternatives and technologies that are not the flush away system. He said that this was due to the fact that porcelain toilets were closely and intimately tied to the aspiration to modern life. “Porcelain toilets form part of the promise of democracy… when faeces is flushed, it becomes the states problem”, said Robins.
The talk came down to the truism that everything in life is politics, with Robins stating that toilets are “highly politicised” and that they are a reflection of resources and aspirations.
That is why that in South Africa, after the 2011 local government elections, the debate about poo elevated from the politics of slow activism that was waged by civil society organisation campaigning within government logic and processes. The stage set by the 2011 elections allowed the politics of spectacle, where open toilets in Cape Town caused a country wide outrage.
The problem in South Africa is thus a rift between the haves and have-nots. The haves possess porcelain toilets while the have-nots have to deal with their own poo.
So far, most people have not had to bother with excrement or human waste. But the politics of the spectacle is forcing us to, and maybe the spectacle will force us to rethink the porcelain toilet.