THE POLITICS OF SHIT
Nadine Botha

How bad would design need to be to make you throw shit? The sociospatial apartheid that has continued in Cape Town despite its democratisation over twenty years ago has resulted in an ongoing series of toilet wars. Service delivery protests by Ses’khona People’s Movement (better known as the ‘poo protestors’), student protests by the #Rhodesmustfall movement, guerrilla art stunts by Tokolos Stencil Collective, and advocacy by the Social Justice Coalition have all rallied around an unusual object: the portable flush toilet. How did a leisure camping accessory designed in the 1960s come to drive a class action lawsuit, filed against the Cape Town mayor and municipality on June 16, 2016, on the basis of race and gender discrimination and ignominy? The Politics of Shit explores how the portable flush toilet has uncovered hitherto invisible social, legal, political and psychological systems of design. The Portable Museum is a physical space for residents, activists, thinkers and designers to share ideas and stories in a non-hierarchical manner, evolving and producing the exhibition together day-by-day. The exhibition content is fed back into the internet through various applications to counter hegemonic media coverage and begin to rebalance the dearth of information about Africa. It’s about amplifying and multiplying the stories and efforts of those working to upend the system, using design as a tool for allyship and proactive citizenry. Get woke @politicsofshit or www.politicsofshit.com

Title thesis
‘The Portable Flush Toilet: From Camping Accessory to Political Totem’

Thesis abstract
In Cape Town, the global sanitation shortage has become politicised through the ongoing protests and advocacy action of the toilet wars, including a class-action court case filed against the municipality on June 16, 2016. An unusual object has become central to the rallying cry for safe, dignified and adequate sanitation: a leisure camping toilet designed in the 1960s. This thesis considers how the portable flush toilet has taken on a new identity in the economically disparate, spatially segregated context of Cape Town. Using the portable flush toilet’s nature as commodity rather than sanitation infrastructure, the thesis highlights what a toilet really means for South Africans who continue to live out the divisive sociospatial legacy of apartheid through questions of privacy, dignity, safety, legitimation, inclusion, and historicization – both past and future. That the portable flush toilet lacks these features is what makes it such a potent totem for the service delivery protests by Ses’khona People’s Movement (better known as the ‘poo protestors’), student protests by #Rhodesmustfall movement, guerrilla art stunts by Tokolos Stencil Collective, and advocacy by the Social Justice Coalition. These movements have sometimes been criticised for being contradictory, inflexible or not solutions-orientated – particularly during Cape Town’s reign as World Design Capital when it called on designers to get involved in the issue. However, when analysing media coverage of the protests and personal interviews with those involved, this out-of-context design object identifies the real target of debate: the contradictions between neoliberal urban policy and the pro-poor constitution; the tendency for number-crunching engineering rather than social justice; and an unresolved colonial and apartheid heritage. By amplifying the existing uses of the portable flush toilet in Cape Town, the thesis argues that objects out-of-context can become agents of design critique and powerful totems for living in enmity.

Thesis keywords
Cape Town, social design, politics, urban design, racism, toilets, sanitation, wicked problems, social justice, protest

Thesis summary →


Graduation project, 2017

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