Protesters toss faeces at a car carrying opposition Democratic Alliance leader and Western Cape premier, Helen Zille
*disclaimer before reading: this article’s objective is not to fuel any kind of Afro-pessimistic rant. On the contrary, it is an honest attempt to reflect upon the divided nature of the city I’m lucky enough to call home. Cape Town, you are a beauty but you are a complex city, home to beautiful contradictions.
I’m at the post office in Cape Town’s busy Central Business District (CBD), minding my own business, fighting boredom in the seemingly never-ending queue, when my attention is caught by the drunk-as-a-skunk man who has just ‘joined’ the queue. I smell him before I see him, the undeniable odour of stale alcohol invading my nostrils and pervading every centimetre of the miniscule post office. He is swaying and staggering, muttering under his breath and clearly perplexed as to how he ended up in the post office. All the while, the predominantly white, middle-class, conservative-looking people in the queue are edging away from him, and trying in vain to hide their fear and distaste. They engage in hushed utterances with each other, no doubt lamenting the fact that their neat middle-class bubble has been infringed upon by those they would rather not speak of who exist solely on what they can salvage from dustbins, begging on roadsides and sleeping under bridges.
Income inequality in South Africa is the widest in the world, and widening (Source: Euromonitor International from national statistics)
South Africa is the most unequal country in the world – a title we are not proud of – the disparity between rich and poor an ever increasing gulf. Let’s be honest, the ‘gap’ is no longer just that, it’s widening to Grand Canyon-like proportions. But Cape Town, where this gap is at its widest, is a popular tourist destination, so it makes every attempt to appear affluent and buzzing. During the pre-FIFA World Cup development hysteria, some big-wig in government decided that it would be tactful to build more houses for the city’s impoverished. The fact that getting into the city from the airport takes you along the national highway lined on either side with shacks as far as the eye can see may have been the impetus for this sudden need to uphold the Constitution and provide citizens with the housing they rightly deserve. The fevered last-minute building of informal housing – to create a façade of equality at the best – took place concurrently with the building of the world-class soccer stadium, the home of the FIFA world cup in Cape Town. The absurdity of building a massive stadium – now for all intents and purposes a white elephant, dusted off to play host to international music starts like Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber when they assault South African ears – while many actual South African citizens remain homeless or live in tin shacks was not lost on internationals, despite the ANC’s best PR efforts. Headlines like “Cape Town Prepares To Host World But Struggles To House Its Own” pointed to the very vivid disparity the South African government would rather have kept hidden.
While some in Cape Town do not have a roof over their head, others are able to sell their houses for record high prices, such as the mansion in seaside Clifton that went for a whopping R42 million (€3.1 million). I assume R42 million fetches you a decent toilet or two, perhaps even custom-designed gold and diamond-encrusted throne-like toilets with 3-ply toilet paper. Meanwhile, township dwellers in some areas of South Africa still rely on the primitive bucket system for their daily ablutions. Though this is a countrywide scourge, Cape Town has been the hotspot for debate around the subject. Cape Town falls under the Western Cape district, the only province in the country that is led by the Democratic Alliance, opposition party to the liberation party African National Congress (ANC). Some argue the tug-of-war-like disputes surrounding the Cape Town ‘toilet saga’ are less a human rights issue and more an electioneering platform upon which the two duelling parties can muscle for control over the province. The ANC, it is said, is bitter it had to hand over leadership of the province to the DA and will therefore seize any opportunity that arises to undermine their leadership and point fingers at their misgivings.
An open-air toilet, before the court order for them to be enclosed
The lack of toilets was first touched on when the Democratic Alliance built open-air toilets in the township of Makhaza in 2009. Following protests by residents, who, rightfully, saw the toilets as a disgrace and an infringement on their human dignity, the Western Cape High Court ruled in 2011 that the City had indeed violated residents’ human rights and ordered the toilets be enclosed. Controversially, the newly enclosed toilets were vandalized by ANC Youth League members. Fast forward a few years and, unsurprisingly, the toilet wars are still being waged. However, the ongoing battle has now earned itself the dubious title of ‘poo wars’ after recent events. The story goes as follows: the Democratic Alliance embraced establishing portable toilets as a more financially viable solution than trying to install a flush toilet in every home and shack. This “solution”, however, was deemed inadequate by the ANC Youth League, who generally voice their concerns by protesting. This time, sidestepping toyi-toying and burning tyres, they chose a more direct measure: flinging faeces at the Premier of the Western Cape Helen Zille and her staff. Perhaps they were inspired by the effectiveness of Kenyan "greedy pigs" protest a few weeks ago.
ANC councillor and youth league member Loyiso Nkohla, right, and a protester, empty porta-loos full of raw sewage outside the main entrance to the provincial legislature. Photo: Ian Landsberg
The ANC Youth League led by ANCYL former councillor Andile Lili also dumped faeces on the steps of the provincial legislature and later in the reception area of the Democratic Alliance headquarters.
While it is not my agenda to determine whether resorting to ‘poo wars’ is right or wrong and consequently who is in the right or the wrong, I will muse that residents scooping up faeces, transporting it from the township to the CBD and then dumping it on the turf of the powers that be is less about the obvious issue at hand – the need for decent sanitation – and more a symbolic gesture designed to state the current status quo, the division between ‘us and them’, middle class city dwellers and impoverished shack dwellers, a charmed existence for some and a not so charming reality for others, is reaching, or has reached, a tipping point.
Today, as a result of the legacy of Apartheid laws such as the Group Areas Act, Cape Town’s poor ‘undesirables’ are pushed to the very borders of the city while the middle class enjoy all that the city has to offer, and what the city has to offer is what tourists see when they visit. This marginalized existence allows for a reality in which the age-old adage ‘out of sight, out of mind’ rings true. But, just as it was impossible for me to ignore the stench of the inebriated street dweller entering the post office, so too is it impossible to ignore the stench of human faeces dumped right at the feet of those who so ignorantly place their own human dignity above that of others. Poo is a metaphor for the desire of the marginalized to be seen, heard and even smelled as they traverse the line between ‘their’ world and the city centre.
Yesterday, June 16, South Africans celebrated Youth Day, a commemoration of the Soweto Uprising in 1976, the widespread student protests against Bantu education – an inferior system of education that sought to impose Afrikaans as the language of education, but also keep black South Africans ‘in their place’ by not equipping them with the educational tools to one day become aspiring doctors, lawyers or scientists. On that day, the youth took to the streets under a sky of falling bullets and teargas, and were willing to lose their lives for the cause. Sadly, many did (over 700 in the weeks that followed). Their efforts were not in vain though, Bantu education was eventually abolished and now, South Africa is left with a rich legacy of protest, a legacy the recent ‘poo wars’ are building upon. Lili, upon being reprimanded for flinging faeces at Helen Zille and her entourage in the township of Khayelitsha, was quoted in local newspaper the Cape Argus, saying “We will return with thousands of these bucket toilets next week and empty them around the legislature building…we were ready to be arrested, and will die for this."
The phrase ‘pooing on your parade’ springs to mind. ‘Pooing on your parade’ and on your divided city. Let’s hope the stench of the faeces makes inner-city living so uncomfortable that the politicians begin to adequately cater to the needs and rights of those who, up to now, existed silently on the periphery of society. The ‘poo wars’ have demonstrated that infiltrating or transcending the divide that separates one reality from another is possible. The challenge now is to create a shared existence in one equal reality.