The Politics of Shit and Why It Should Be Part of Public Protest

By Gillian Schutte · 12 Jun 2013

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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.

In South Africa over three million households and 18 million people have no access to sanitation.

Worldwide there are over 2.6 billion people who are denied sanitation (four in ten people have no access to any latrine, toilet, bucket, or box) and poor sanitation causes one in ten of the world's illnesses with faecally contaminated water killing a child every 15 seconds.

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.

In this area 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.

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.

Perhaps 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. Perhaps 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.

Schutte is an award winning independent filmmaker, writer and social justice activist. She is a founding member of Media for Justice and co-producer at Handheld Films.

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12 Jun

Shit as a Weapon of Protest

We used a similar tactic to highlight broken sewers in Harare, dumping buckets of shit in council offices with the message, "We live with this. You are paid by our taxes to deal with it. Do your jobs or you will live with shit too". It was very effective!

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12 Jun


Agree! When do we start throwing it at the prez?

10 Aug


Why don't all all middle class citizens who have more than one toilet donate the funds for one toilet to be built in the informal settlements , bath houses could also be built, post ww1 in UK. This was the norm, working class people used these. These could be run by the community. Could have gardens , orchards etc. it's not difficult. I would gladly sponsor one proper toilet to alleviate this suffering. Fuck governments they will never get it right. Lets show the poor in our community we care. How to start??????

13 Jun

The Politics of Shit

This is a brilliant piece.

There is a history to the politics of shit in South Africa.

For instance check out this 2011 video from Grahamstown

And the first person to speak to the media after the 2005 road blockade that led to the formation of Abahlali Base Mjondolo in Durban told the press that "We are tired of living and walking in shit."

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13 Jun


Here we go again another left wing biased article by...well you have guessed!

Look, let us get one thing quite clear, since 1994 until about 5 years or so ago, the ANC were running the show. What did they do, nothing. The ANC ran Cape Town and attached townships down as they were totally inept to govern and full of cronyism and corruption.

Rome was not built in a day, so what do you expect in a decade with the rotten inheritance that the DA received after they won CT. If blame is is to be leveled anywhere Gillian, blame the bloody ANC!

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13 Jun

The ANC are Just as Bad as the DA

The shituation in many ANC controlled cities and towns is way worse than it is in Cape Town. We shouldn't be blaming the ANC, or the DA. The BOTH treat the poor with contempt. This article, good as it is, doesn't acknowledge that the ANC is often worse than the DA when it comes to sanitation. This comment doesn't acknowledge that things are still very bad in Cape Town under the DA. All the parties represent the rich.

ClarenceEsau Verified user
17 Jun

Being defensive makes you "sit die pot mis" entirely!!

This is an article about the politics of shit NOT the shit of politics. It discusses the issue of people reaching the point where their adherence to normative social mores is abandoned due to untenable social conditions.Not at issue here who is to blame!

Tshidi Motsoeneng
14 Aug

Shit Protest-Frustrations?

It is amazing how we are quick to judge who belongs on which side and why they say certain things. The reality is that people are equally frustrated by their living conditions and as we have seen, violent protests etc., or voting, or speaking out (as right-wing liberals suggest) has not worked for these vulnerable people. Try being in a place like Wallacedene for an hour and see if you can survive. The weapons of the weak are unfortunately labeled 'babaric/uncivil' acts like shit protests to get points across. Maybe right-wing liberals that think 'us' left-wingers are problematic, should come up with solutions to these problems.

19 Jun

Why only in W Cape?

I fully understand why people might want to resort to thes tactics and I am not a DA supporter - but why only in Cape Town, when sanitation in other provinces lags behind as badly. It raises suspicions about political motivations - the old promises by ANC youth league to make the Western Cape ungovernable. Same as the farmworker protests - yes the conditons are bad - but worse on the wine farms than the rest of the country? I don't think so. Just makes you wonder, thats all.

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