The politics of Cape Town’s poo

Last month, the Netflix production ‘ The Crown ‘ season four stormed to popularity with 29 million viewers. Besides the turbulent romance between Prince Charles and Diana, Thatcher’s refusal to impose economic sanctions on South Africa’s apartheid regime in 1986 was aired. I started to wonder what it took for a known human rights emergency to come out from under the carpet, and consider how the population was impacted during.

If we uncover the carpet, there is strong evidence for concern of hygiene and sanitation in Cape Town (Swanson 1977). Wastewater management is an essential connection between humans, the environment and the political sphere that is considered to work in the background (Star 1999). However, this presumes that everyone has equal access and use of the state’s municipal system. During the apartheid, racial stereotypes of bad hygiene and concerns over disease were one of the reasons to relocate black ethnicity South African’s to townships known as the ‘sanitation syndrome’ (Swanson 1977). Cape Town’s long history of colonisation and urban segregation has unquestionably influenced the flow of service access which remains disproportionatley imprinted on townships (Swanson 1977; Jackson and Robbins 2018).

Figure 1, drone footage shows the apartheid is still in place. Source, QuartzAfrica

Khayelitsha, one of the largest townships houses 400,000 people, and one of the world’s five biggest informal settlements. Per 20,000 people, there are 380 communal portaloos available (chemical toilets not connected to the sewage system). The conditions are awful; they compromise privacy; are often unhygienic and unsafe. To add to this atrocity, the symbol of portaloos indicates to me of temporary and makeshift dwellings, not of settled communities and citizenship. Moreover, these images expose the neglect and lack of planning in Cape Town; one of the hottest tourist locations in Africa.

Figure 2, portaloos in Khayelitsha, next to a stream exposed to leaking effluent. Source Reuters.

“To use these toilets is degrading, unsafe and demeaning. It violates my right to human dignity, my right to safety and security of my environment, my rights to privacy and my right to be treated as an equal citizen like other South Africans.”

Source, Next City, a nonprofit news organisation

What did it lead to?

Primary impacts included the feeling of abandonment which led to unrest. Communities were angered that the disposal of waste is a private shame rather than a government matter. In response, the ‘poo wars‘ begun by the group ‘Ses’khona’ in 2013 where the centre of the city’s political, cultural and economic powers- the airport and steps of provincial parliament were targeted (McFarlane and Silver 2017)(figure 3). Historically, there has been stigma associated with conversations and political debate regarding poo, however, events such as the ‘poo wars’ are mobilising political discussions of human waste (McFarlane and Silver 2017).

Figure 3, poo protests demanding their human right. Source eNCA

The event broadcasts that sanitation in the urban setting is very much political, for instance, the decision of who gets what infrastructure provision is made by political leaders. Similarly, by analysing a states provision of sanitation can act as a lens to understand the relations between state and people. Here we can see sanitation as a deeply historical process of racialised segregation that can be traced back to colonial settlements. I think we take for granted how many processes are involved in the ability to flush a loo for example the organisation and distribution of pipes connecting my flat. McFarlane and Silver (2017) have famously coined the “poolitics” in Cape Town which fixates on the politics of sanitation. The article cleverly links to the ‘metabolic inequalities’ of the disparity in access to the urban infrastructure and networks for the residents in Cape Town. Therefore, papers such as Iossifova (2020) are pre-eminent in discussing that a unified approach to sanitation is needed which accounts for culture, identity, representation and economical and ecological processes. 

Other impacts and solutions:

Post-apartheid legislation backed access to water and sanitation as a basic human right in accordance with the UN Millenium Development Goals, yet the lack of municipal wastewater infrastructure is one of the largest contributors to health problems in the city (Herbig 2019). In April 2013, the National Audit found that 32% of loos had not been emptied the previous week despite contracts imposing removal three times a week. 65% were also damaged and 54% in an unusable state. Furthermore, figure 2 shows runoff from the portaloos flowing directly into the stream, a direct metabolic link between humans, the environment and their health. This enhances the spread of waterborne diseases and has direct health consequences. Simultaneously, Cape Town experienced a spike in diarrhea and officials warned about the rise of cholera. With little spare water to wash hands after the water crisis, the unequal provisions of sanitation services has been exacerbated.

Overall, analysing the wastewater infrastructure reflects the city’s historical racism and urban segregation which hasn’t been overcome. Human waste interconnects politics; wastewater mismanagement and socio-environmental impacts. Cape Town needs to work from the top down to endeavour in better provision to tackle water and wastewater marginalisation.

Word count: 842


Herbig, F., 2019. Talking dirty – effluent and sewage irreverence in South Africa: A conservation crime perspective. Cogent Social Sciences, 5(1), p.1701359.

Iossifova, D. (2020). Urban (Sanitation) Transformation in China: a Toilet Revolution and its socio-eco-technical entanglements. [online] pp.102–122. Available at:

Jackson, S. and Robins, S., 2018. Making sense of the politics of sanitation in Cape Town. Social Dynamics, 44(1), pp.69-87.

McDonald, D. (2012) World city syndrome: Neoliberalism and inequality in Cape Town, London: Routledge.

McFarlane, C. and J. Silver (2017) ‘The Poolitical City: “Seeing Sanitation” and Making the Urban Political in Cape Town’, Antipode, 49, 1, 125-148.

Star, S.L. (1999). The Ethnography of Infrastructure. American Behavioral Scientist, 43(3), pp.377–391.

Swanson, M. (1977) ‘The Sanitation Syndrome: Bubonic Plague and Urban Native Policy in the Cape Colony, 1900–1909’, Journal of African History, 18, 3, 387.

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