by Rustum Kozain.
Shit, muck, drek, kak. Faecal matter. We humans have a complicated relationship with our shit, one that dates back to long before Freud.
Consider Francois Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel. The birth of Gargantua is confused with his mother’s bowel movement after she has gorged herself on tripe: birth and decay, life and shit. Gargantua soon learns to shit in private and impresses his father, who considers this development as a sign of the divine in his child. The child has grown up.
Freud posits the anal phase – the second stage in our development – as the first step of separation from the mother, and thus as our first step to becoming individuals. We learn to clench and keep it in or release it during potty training. According to Freud, we are learning our own powers in giving or withholding gifts. Shit is a currency.
That currency finds value in different markets. As a projectile of protest, shit is at the extreme end of a continuum that extends from rotten tomatoes and eggs to bare breasts and arses – all things, in one way or another, considered unsightly or lacking in decorum.
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Shit is implied in the hurling of rotten matter in protest, popular in our imagination as the default punishment and humiliation of petty criminals in medieval Europe. In the Middle East, a shoe serves the same purpose. The bottom of footwear is dirty and hitting someone with a shoe or throwing it at them is more powerful as an act of humiliation than as an act of violence.
The symbolism of dirty protest is more important than whatever physical harm or damage might occur. In Greek yaourtoma (the act of throwing yoghurt in protest), the centrality of food and eating in sociability is subverted. Symbolically, the target is cast outside that sociability and therefore shamed. This is the opposite of food fights in the US, a ritual of excess that establishes the social. The MPigs protest in Nairobi earlier this year was pointed in its message: Kenyan members of parliament were pigs at the trough.
Dirty protest often uses something that is central to the protesters’ identity. Garbage collectors, for instance, have a powerful tool at their disposal. When they strike, the accumulation of waste on the streets reminds a city’s inhabitants of the value of their labour, both symbolically and materially.
What about shit in protests? South Africa has experienced faecal malfeasance – Grahamstown and Mangaung (Bloemfontein) in 2011, and its recent showing in Cape Town protests. The mainstream media, politicians and commenters on websites have reacted with predictable, shuddering horror at this transgression of what they consider legitimate protest. But shit’s got a deep history.
Vespasian, the governor of Rome’s Africa Province in 63 CE, was pelted with turnips, his rule there considered by Tacitus as “infamous and odious”. In 59 BCE, Marcus Bibulus had shit poured over him when he tried to block Julius Caesar from distributing public lands to the poor.
More recent faecal incidents include the “Dirty Protest” by imprisoned Irish Republican Army paramilitary members in Long Kesh prison in the 1970s. The UK government withdrew the “Special Category” status for such prisoners, and in the long standoff that ensued, prisoners eventually smeared their cell walls with shit. Women in Ireland’s Armagh prison, in a similar protest action in 1980, smeared menstrual blood on the walls.
Paris-based, Ukrainian feminist protest group Femen’s naked protests are also scandalous because they bring into the open that which has been abjected. Similarly, protesters in South Africa bared their breasts at the Union Buildings on Women’s Day, 2005 in protest against empty promises of employment made by the Department of Health. Their spokesperson stated that going naked was a way of drawing attention, otherwise “we will be ignored”.
In October this year, stall holders in Bujumbura, Burundi, also bared their breasts in protest at random taxation and confiscation of their wares. Some may find naked breasts titillating, but baring them in protest action is taboo in modern society. Patriarchy assigns ambiguity to the female body, and breasts (“dirty pillows” is a slang term) signify excess and transgression when not bowing to male demands.
“Mooning” takes this kind of protest a step further – bending over and showing your arse to someone is an attempt to embarrass your target, forcing the unsightly and the source of shit into their vision. The embarrassment is generated because of identification: the moonees see their own arse in the mooner. It disrupts whatever potential for (verbal) communication may exist. It is subversive like laughter, and more so than laughter. It reduces the target’s sense of decorum, of civility – mocks whatever pretension of civility may exist.
To leave the anal stage, we have to learn to hide our shit, to shit privately. To disavow shit – shit in private, worry about its smell, flush it away or bury it – is to enter into the decorum of society. To enter capitalism as a productive subject, we have to repress the body and all its shit. We have to repress our funk: wash, use deodorant, wear clean clothes. The clinical must prevail over the excessive.
What happens when we treat humans like shit, when we turn human beings themselves into the abject, into the thing that needs to be expelled?
The industrial movement of humans as abject occurred with the Atlantic slave trade, prefiguring the industrial revolution and the invention of modern sewage systems. Slavery had existed since ancient times, but the Atlantic slave trade was the first to move people in such numbers and under such conditions that one could consider the correlation between the movement of waste and the movement of people. Abjection, indeed, is the keyword in Atlantic slavery: when humans are made as abject as shit, to the extent that the figurative gives way to the literal – packed one on top of the other in holds, having to endure your own and other’s excretions, you are no longer treated as shit, you are shit.
The Atlantic slave trade also prefigures the mass murders perpetrated by the Nazis, who, on an industrial scale proper, systematically abjected human beings, moved them around and disposed of them as just so much waste. Under the guise of resettlement, Jews, Slavs and other people designated as waste were transported like cattle to concentration camps situated on the rail networks that connected Europe. Architects designed crematoriums with patented furnaces, where gassed corpses would be burnt. Early mechanical computers were invented to produce databases that would underscore the processing of humans.
The concentration camps were the figurative sewage treatment plants and pump stations in the Nazi waste disposal system. The system separated useful waste (those strong and healthy enough for labour) from useless waste (those to be gassed). Another way of thinking about these camps was as employment agencies or labour brokers, as they supplied the slave labour to German industry.
The echoes of this kind of processing of humans remain with us to this day. Moving through Heathrow or Abu Dhabi airports, with their sealed, uni-directional passages and fenced queues, all under surveillance, one experiences a mild version of what it means to be processed. It’s not for no reason that economy travel is called “cattle class”, the term itself referring to mass farming. As J.M. Coetzee points out in a piece in the Sydney Morning Herald (2007), the Nazis adapted “methods of the industrial stockyard, as pioneered and perfected in Chicago, to the slaughter – or what they preferred to call the processing – of human beings”.
Controversial as this analogy is, it is still chilling to consider how methods employed by the Nazis survive beneath our euphemisms – death camp as labour broker, for instance. Or when we look at the uniform planning for low-income housing, the rows and rows of uniform houses in areas with no vegetation. Or when we consider the places to which we consign labour, the people who can sell only their labour (if they are lucky) – townships, barrios and banlieues – the dormitory locations where people do nothing but eat and sleep and reproduce to keep a global economic system running, and to which that system expels them every day.
As much as it is a commodity – a currency of sorts – labour is also the waste of capitalism, the abject of sanitised bourgeois life. The poor make middle class life possible, a surplus of labour that produces that life materially and the ejection of that which is needed psychically.
Copying the Nazi playbook, apartheid sought to manage and process this surplus, though stopping short of systematic, direct mass killings. That black South Africans were considered no more than an apartheid surplus was recognised by an organisation that started out in the 1980s to support, document and publicise forced removals, the Surplus Peoples Project.
But the post-apartheid poor in South Africa – as elsewhere – remain a surplus people, trucked and taxied into cities for their labour, and expelled in the evenings. Comparisons to the Nazi treatment of surplus people, during which more than six million were murdered, may seem hyperbolic, but they are valid, partly because the treatment of people as waste is veiled by a managerial vocabulary of capitalist production, a respectable and acceptable process because it is, exactly, about keeping numbers productive: transport provision, the market dictates, rehabilitation, development, service delivery. The language in which large numbers of people need to be managed is structurally the same – they are units, volumes, who live in townships, not neighbourhoods or suburbs.
The figurative and the literal come together when we consider the living conditions of the poor. In South Africa we have become used to “service delivery protests” – people in poor neighbourhoods protesting and demanding electricity provision, potable water systems and adequate sewage systems, services that most people, rich or poor, would consider the basics of a decent life. It may be that, given apartheid’s racially skewed provision of these services to start off with, the ANC government faces an overwhelming and growing backlog.
At the same time though, the slow or absent provision happens against a backdrop of wide-spread government corruption, chronyism, and incompetence, coupled with the very public, consumptive, selfenriching lives of government officials and connected business people. The rhetoric of the anti-apartheid struggle has been perverted by the newly privileged into a self-serving slogan. “I didn’t join the struggle to be poor,” Smuts Ngonyama remarked a few years ago when queried about a profitable deal to which he was a fixer.
Contrasted with a much-flaunted opulence in the media and public spectacles, South Africa’s abject recognise their position: “We live in shit and fire,” a recent press statement by Abahlali baseMjondolo (the Shack Dwellers Movement) Youth League put it bluntly. The depth of abjection that poor South Africans suffer is unthinkable, it exceeds what can be thought. For many, many people, shitting is not that private Freudian ritual by which the middle classes become part of society. When the abject poor then use shit as an element of protest, they turn the tables, because it in turn exceeds what can be thought, exceeds our sense of decorum and legitimate protest. And reminds us of the shit we create from human beings.
Ayanda Kota, of the Unemployed People’s Movement, makes his thinking behind the use of shit in protests in Grahamstown in 2011 clear:
It takes the suffering that is usually hidden away as a private shame and makes it a public embarrassment to the government… When people experience their suffering as a private shame, things don’t change. But when this suffering becomes politicised and collective action can be taken, especially in elite spaces, things really can change.
The shit protests make the private shame a public shame.
Recent protests in Cape Town involving the dumping of shit in streets and in front of official buildings have been characterised as party political. The Democratic Alliance, which governs the Western Cape, claims that the “shit protests” were instigated by ANC members in line with the latter’s agenda to make the province “ungovernable”, in the lead-up to the 2014 general elections. The DA points to the dire lack of toilets – worse provision – in poor areas in ANC-ruled provinces, and the fact that “service delivery protests” in these areas have yet to use human excrement as a protest tactic.
It may be that the Cape Town shit protests are custom-made, as the DA claims. A few ringleaders and a group of cohorts collecting and carting shit around, rather than an entire group of protesters doing so, indicates a cynical gesture.
Yet there remains a societal horror at the fact that people would go to the lengths of carting human waste around. ANC-appointed Minister of Health Aaron Motsoaledi spoke out against the protests, stating that the health hazard was a “direct attack against the whole population”. This could be a way, perhaps, for the ANC to distance itself officially from the tactic, but it can also be seen as a moment where official society, across party-political divisions, expresses its horror at this disruption of decorum.
Shit, it seems, may be a high-value currency, especially if you have no voice. South Africa is buckling under neoliberal economic policies where party politics mean naught and the political classes enrich themselves by selling off the country to foreign investors. It treats its poor according to the dictates of the market, a pool of surplus labour, more so because of high unemployment. Protest politics are denuded of any power by the requirement, as elsewhere, that the right to march and protest be approved by municipal authorities. A protest march has to be legal. You have to first have your wish to raise a grievance licensed before you can raise the grievance.
In such a regime – the poor become abject, their voice denied legitimacy – it may be that shit, smuggled shit, gains currency. Against the filthy lucre being accumulated by the political class, your own shit may be the only shit you have.
Whatever the party political machinations behind Cape Town’s recent shit protests, the use of excrement speaks of desperation. Its symbolism is also pointed: South Africa is a gilded turd.[/ppw]
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