Written by Gillian Schutte
Saturday, 15 June 2013 11:49
Poststructuralist psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, has argued that humans distinguish themselves from animals in the instant during which shit becomes something shameful. Thus it is the norm in ‘polite society’ that humans defecate in the privacy of a toilet in which their waste can be instantly flushed away. In fact toilet training is the foundation for teaching toddlers acceptable behaviour in society.
Yet, due to lack of sanitation services, over a third of humanity is still subject to open defecation. This system of defecating in the open takes place mainly in Asia and rural Sub Sahara Africa, but urban areas are not immune from similar conditions as lack of services and sanitation in informal settlements means that faeces are often buried in the ground around shacks. The impact this has on the development of those forced to endure these conditions is dire and includes sickness, inability to work, embarrassment and lack of hygiene for menstruating women.
Though ‘shitting’ has to be one of the most taboo subjects around, it is a matter that we all deal with, on average once or twice a day. Defecation, and the rules governing it, undoubtedly comprises the complete gamut of human behaviour yet open discussion around it is deemed distasteful and disgusting. Indeed this is exactly how it played out when protesters dumped the contents of portable toilets on the steps of the Western Cape legislature in a backlash against the sanitation policy of Helen Zille’s administration. This policy offers communal portable flush toilets to shack dwellers at no cost -- a system, which they say, is inadequate and often ends up filthy and untended.
But the shit was also spilled in public and flung at a bus transporting Zille to protest the years of governmental neglect that has resulted in squalor, disease and untenable living conditions in the plentiful informal settlements that (mostly) black South Africans are forced to inhabit. When a crowd of women from Khayelitsha was arrested this week for bringing bags of shit into town to dump on the steps of Parliament, they told journalists that they are angry that they continue to be treated like third-class citizens with third-rate sanitation whilst proper sanitation is being reserved for the largely white middle class.
When shit starts flying in the direction of those in power you can be sure that the lower classes have had enough. In fact throughout history, when the oppressed have brought out their shit as arsenal, rulers have shuddered because it often marked the beginning of a social uprising. In Medieval days dung was flung, along with vulgar language, at Kings and Lords to protest land taxes and other abuses. At Occupy recently, excrement was reportedly used in the protest against the New York Stock Exchange to mark the protestors’ disgust at their fiscal shenanigans. And in 1978 there was the Dirty Protest, which was part of a five-year action during which the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) prisoners smeared their bodies and prison cells with their own excrement and refused to wash in protest of the inhumane treatment they received at the hands of prison officials.
When human shit is used in struggle and protest it is usually a last resort. To be sure, when the rules that control and govern defecation are broken (in any culture) it signifies a shift toward revolt against indefensible social conditions.
In South Africa these dire social conditions can be found in informal settlements, Wallacedene in the Western Cape being one of them. In Mooitrap (Tread Carefully), the informal section of the Wallacedene Township, children die from opportunistic infections that they catch when they play outside their homes. Here services consist of an ablution block with two rows of ten toilets and a few concrete basins. This serves about 20 000 people who are crammed into a 2km radius. The toilets have no doors. To get to them you have to trudge through puddles of mud and dirt. People are deprived of basic privacy and the act of shitting becomes a shameful and public affair. The toilets are clogged with faeces and newspaper. Not one works and they fill up with more and more excrement until they are too full to use. But the municipality does nothing to maintain them. The municipality says this is because the services are not being paid for. What they mean by ‘services’ are neglected germ traps and broken taps.
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(Mooitrap in 2002 - residents report nothing has changed for them since this was filmed)
People do not choose to live like this. They simply have no choice.
Lydia, has been a resident of Mooitrap for 16 years. She describes how it is impossible for her to use the door-less toilets in the area. "We usually use buckets in our houses and when we are done there is nowhere to empty them other than outside. We dig holes but the children usually end up playing in those mounds of faeces. That is why they are sick. There is absolutely nowhere to throw this stuff.” There is literally nowhere to get rid of human waste in a space in which 20 000 people have to shit at least twice a day. In a 2km radius that is a lot of human defecation -- tonnes of it. The burden of getting rid of this is immense, as is the indignity and anxiety around defecating under these conditions.
The government’s promise of free basic services for all seemed like the light at the end of the tunnel for women living in informal settlements. But this has not panned out as planned, especially with the privatisation of services. In the meantime, women in informal settlements still worry about where to do their most private ablutions so they are safe from the dangers of rape and murder. Many still have to worry about where to dispose of their family’s bodily waste without enraging their neighbours or endangering the health of their children, who use the little bits of remaining untainted ground as playgrounds. This is happening right on our doorsteps in the many informal settlements that we drive by while we crinkle up our noses at the smell that hangs in the air around them. Nobody really cares what goes on inside those shantytowns except those who live this reality. So it makes perfect sense that as a last call this shit be taken into towns and dumped on government building steps as a protest against these unsanitary conditions.
Perhaps bringing this reality into the public sphere will change things. Perhaps the dumping of human faeces on officialdom will become part of a women’s social justice revolution. After all it is mostly women who have to walk to fetch water, who have to conceal their families defecation, who have to tend to sick children and bury those who die young. It could well be the most radical and defiant performative political protest to have been staged in a post-1994 South Africa, and it is most probably a sign of more to come. Surely, in the shit fearing, sanitised middle class and elitist society, this may actually mobilise people into a faster sanitation rollout plan.
It is all about the shit really. This problem of shitting brings all socioeconomic issues into sharp focus. Shit is both real and measurable. As are the many diseases caused by unhindered faecal matter that proliferates when government is not delivering on its promise of sanitation for all. The moralistic exclamations of how disgusting shit is will have to be pushed out of our social justice discourse and this act of defiance must come in from the margins and be read and interpreted as symbolic of the anger and rage that this deprivation is creating in a country that boasts a constitution that promised a clean and safe environment for all.
Poor people are sick of living in cesspools and waiting for sanitation. They are sick of watching their children die young.
So what if the only way to get those in power to take notice of the untenable nature of living in tin shanty virtual death-camps in which your own body becomes your enemy, is to quite literally bring the most basic human bodily function into the public sphere everywhere. Imagine 2,6 billion people all dumping their shit on the steps of parliaments all over the world to demand access to sanitation and services. Maybe this will compel those in power to face up to the dire impact that poverty and lack of sanitation has on those who are forced into situations where even shitting has to be a political act.
Indeed the only shame around defecation we, as a society should feel, is the fact that so many are denied access to decent sanitation and are forced to shit like wild animals in a modern landscape.
Written by Gillian Schutte
Wednesday, 22 May 2013 10:37
Media for Justice TV
EPISODE ONE - THE MARIKANA FILES - Presented by Sipho Singiswa
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Article by Gillian Schutte.
When the mass strike action hit the Rustenberg Platinum belt in August 2012 mainstream South African public was quick to write off the striking miners as an unruly bunch who were ungrateful for their employment and unworthy of the social development that the mining companies were investing into their communities. Indeed this is exactly how it played out even when the deplorable Marikana massacre unfolded, as everyday media seemingly fell for the corporate propaganda that Lonmin sold to them about their 'constructive and humane' relationship with the community of Wonderkop. This was their endeavour to look like the ‘good guys’ and render invalid any socioeconomic basis for the wave of social unrest that exploded in Marikana in 2012, the resurgence of which we are witnessing this month. What they did, instead of acknowledging the dire social degradation that the workers and their families are forced to endure, was create a scenario in which the miners were portrayed as dangerous potential killers who were out to create political instability in the economy.
But scratch a bit deeper and look back into the history of this country’s economic development, and a very different story unfolds.
There is a plaintive song in workers history, sung in sad low masculine tones. The song goes like this, “it is we who built the mines and built the cities and the places where we trade, and now we stand outcast and starving amidst the wonders we have made”.
This is the story of a South African economy built on the blood sweat and tears of the very people who today, continue to be forced into a form of slavery as they earn wages way below their worth as workers of South Africa’s platinum mines. These are the men and women who are now shot at and brutalised when they rise up to demand a better existence: a lifestyle reflective of the economy that they helped to build.
It was the discovery of diamonds and gold in South Africa that created the pillar on which this land’s modern economy was built. But it was also this discovery that led to the complete fragmentation of the social foundation that indigenous societies in South Africa once enjoyed. While the rapid growth in infrastructure, manufacturing and financial services signalled stupendous good luck and good life for white South Africans, it was quite the opposite for black South Africans.
Many fail to recognise that this is what the contemporary marginalised black population is still reeling from – the bloody exploitation of an entire people at the very beginning of our country’s economy. Since then there has never been a moment to recover from this systemic damage because after colonialism came apartheid, and then a tenuous democracy, all of which have knocked the poor back time and time again.
As pointed out in a 2007 report from the Benchmarks Foundation on the socioeconomic conditions of mine workers and their families, our economy was, and still is, built on the exploitation and suffering of workers from all over Southern Africa. In the 19th Century, cruel legislation forcibly removed people from their lands and entrenched the cheap labour system. This legislative onslaught included the hut tax, land tax, animal tax and labour tax that crippled farm dwellers. Finally the 1913 Land Act forced people to labour in the mines and shattered their autonomy forever.
The 1913 Land Act was pure devastation for black South Africans as entire communities were dislocated and family ties destroyed. Peoples that once depended on an agricultural existence found themselves instead, in bonded labour, forcibly removed from the land, alienated from clan and faced with treacherous working conditions.
Tragically, in a sad twist of incomprehensible fate, nothing has changed for black workers in the current democracy, which coincides with the platinum boom and the race for mining rights from both foreign investors, apartheid investors and even State official investors. The poor just do not stand a chance of recuperation as communities all over the country continue being removed from their lands while mines expand their locations and force people out of agriculturally viable lifestyles into untenable living conditions. These communities are sometimes subtly coerced into living around the mines with promises of work. What they find instead of a better life though, is a life of quiet desperation as they are subjected to the disastrous negative impacts of mining, social degradation and environmental pollution.
Not that your average outsider would know any of this, so carefully disguised is this reality behind expensive advertorial and Green Washing Campaigns that are the carefully crafted work of Corporate Social Responsibility propaganda machines.
Take Marikana for example. As you drive into Wonderkop, the shantytown that spreads on the outskirts of the Lonmin mines, there is a large billboard with the face of a happy miner in full mining regalia smiling back at the onlooker. The words “Integrity, Honesty, Trust” are displayed on this billboard. One would expect then, that we would find happy miners who are treated with integrity and honesty and that a trusting bonds exist between them and their employers.
What we find instead are desperate workers struggling to eke out a living, though they are employed by a multinational mining concern. We find tin shanties tacked together and surrounded by muddy walkways. We find little children playing in this mud and on mounds of waste and litter, because the services are few and far between and neither government nor the corporates have even considered building these children a playground or creche. We find that there are no toilets. We find women who are at the end of their tether because they have to try and feed families of small children whilst unemployed. We find high levels of HIV, though the corporate reports will say that few people suffer from this virus under their watch.
Life in Wonderkop is hard -- much harder than anyone who has not experienced poverty can imagine. It is a surreal medieval landscape dotted with signs of an age of technology in hand-painted cellphone signs that hang lopsidedly off the walls of tacked together wooden slat or corrugated tin shops.
The Bench Marks Foundation's research indicates that the mines in the Rustenburg mining belt are poisoning the land and the waters through unchecked polluting and doing very little about cleaning up their mess. Toxic sulphur dioxide leaks spill into the water sources that supply the communities, who then have no choice but to drink and wash from it.
According to the foundation report mines are allowed to emit a whopping 18 tonnes of Co2 from each company into the air, forcing surrounding communities to breathe in this contaminated concoction of toxin laden emissions and dust particles that cause both cancer and respiratory disease. Poisonous slime dams are often found close to the settlements too, impacting negatively on the health of the inhabitants.
Here people cough and wheeze and babies are sometimes born deformed.
The financial pressure that dealing with ill-health puts on these already impoverished communities, pushes them to borrow money from loan sharks at exorbitant interest rates and keeps them in a cycle of debt, poverty and subjugation.
This harsh reality completely contradicts what the mining companies are telling the world they are investing into the communities that live around their operations. They claim, in sustainaility reports that go out to the world, that they invest plenty into these communities They also claim that they work hard to improve upon their poor environmental track record as they aim to reach a state of zero environmental harm on surrounding settlements.
But says John Capel of the Benchmarks foundation in an interview with SACSIS, http://www.sacsis.org.za/site/article/1656, these promises often play out as confessions around pollution spills and other environmental transgressions, always with the disclaimer that they plan to fix it all. It is a never-ending confessional as nothing ever seems to improve and not enough pressure from the government is ever exerted onto these companies to clean up their act.
The reality is, according to Capel, these corporates are putting little more than 1% of their profits back into developing these communities or cleaning up their operations, despite what they claim to be doing on paper.
In the meantime the untenable multi-systemic violations perpetrated on communities living close to these wealthy mining operations, coupled with exploitative wages, continue to push a people to breaking point. Their only recourse is often to down tools for up to three days just to get their employers to talk to them.
Though it is clear that these dire socioeconomic factors are the root cause of strike action and unrest, they are often the most overlooked in the analysis offered on media platforms for why strikes and civil unrest occur. Indeed, even the Farlam Commission’s focus remains on the urgent issue of police brutality against the miners - but seems not to be scrutinising, at all, these indefensible poverty and environmental factors, including unsustainable wages, that ultimately contribute to strike action and instability. The Benchmarks Foundation has appointed Advocate George Bizoz as their representatvie at the Farlam Commission, with the aim of broadening their terms of reference to also look at the socioeconomic causes of the strikes in the Rustenberg mining belt and hopefully to call for accountabiltiy from these mining companies.
This is a human rights issue and ought to be tackled as one. While people are being exploited, enslaved and violated with impunity by multinationals and while this is well hidden behind expedient social investment advertorials and Green Washing campaigns, human lives will continue to be expendable and worthless to corporations that put profits before people.
It is time for South Africa’s public to look beyond the social responsibility propaganda of big business and join struggling communities in calling for corporate accountability and human rights before profits.We should no longer tolerate the hypocrisy of corporate attempts at social responsibility that claim to save and protect with one hand what the other hand destroys.
(Media for Justice are currently filming a documentary in Marikana looking at the disjuncture between Corporate Responsibility claims and socioeconomic realities. Watch this space for video clips.)
Sources: SACSIS interview with John Capel of the Benchmarks Foundation.
Benchmarks Study released in 2007 and updated in 2011.