Infrastructure, ‘Seeing Sanitation’ and the Urban Political in an Era of Late Neoliberalism



In an urbanizing world, the inequalities of infrastructure are increasingly politicized in ways that reconstitute the urban political. A key site here is the politicization of human waste. The centrality of sanitation to urban life means that its politicization is always more than just service delivery. It is vital to the production of the urban political itself. The ways in which sanitation is seen by different actors is a basis for understanding its relation to the political in an era of late neoliberalism. We chart Cape Town’s contemporary sanitation syndrome, its condition of crisis, and the remarkable politicization of toilets and human waste in the city’s townships and informal settlements in recent years. We identify three tactics—poolitical tactics—that politicize not just sanitation but Cape Town itself: poo protests, auditing and sabotage. We evaluate these tactics, consider what is at stake, and chart possibilities for a more just urban future.



The chapter is based on a revised paper: McFarlane, C. and Silver, J., 2017. The Poolitical City: “Seeing Sanitation” and Making the Urban Political in Cape Town. Antipode, 49(1), pp. 125–148. The authors would like to acknowledge Antipode in allowing the material to be used in this volume.


  1. Anderson, W. (1995). Excremental colonialism: Public health and the poetics of pollution. Critical Inquiry, 21(3), 640–669.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Chenwi, L. (2013). Unpacking “progressive realization,” its relation to resources, minimum core and reasonableness, and some methodological considerations for assessing compliance. De Jure, 46(3), 742–769.Google Scholar
  3. Cole, J. (1987). Crossroads: The politics of reform and repression, 1976–1986. Johannesburg: Ravan Press.Google Scholar
  4. Corbridge, S., Williams, G., Srivastava, M., & Véron, R. (2005). Seeing the state: Governance and governmentality in India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Davis, R. (2015). Cape Town vs civil society: How much is enough spending on water and toilets? Daily Maverick. Retrieved August 20, 2015, from
  6. Desai, A. (2002). We are the poor: Community struggles in post-apartheid South Africa. New York: NYU Press.Google Scholar
  7. Desai, A., & Pithouse, R. (2004). But we were thousands: Dispossession, resistance, repossession and repression in Mandela Park. Journal of Asian and African Studies, 39(4), 239–269.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Douglas, M. (2003). Purity and danger: An analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  9. Fanon, F. (1967). The wretched of the earth. London: Penguin.Google Scholar
  10. Featherstone, D. (2013). Black internationalism, subaltern cosmopolitanism, and the spatial politics of antifascism. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 103(6), 1406–1420.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Fewtrell, L., Kaufmann, R. B., Kay, D., Enanoria, W., Haller, L., & Colford, J. M. (2005). Water, sanitation, and hygiene interventions to reduce diarrhoea in less developed countries: A systematic review and meta-analysis. The Lancet Infectious Diseases, 5(1), 42–52.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Hart, G. (2014). Rethinking the South African crisis: Nationalism, populism, hegemony. Georgia: University of Georgia Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Huchzermeyer, M. (2011). Cities with slums: From informal settlement eradication to a right to the city in Africa. Cape Town: UCT Press.Google Scholar
  14. Iveson, K. (2014). Building a city for “The People”: The politics of alliance-building in the Sydney Green Ban Movement. Antipode, 46(4), 992–1013.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Jewitt, S. (2011). Geographies of shit: Spatial and temporal variations in attitudes towards human waste. Progress in Human Geography, 35(5), 608–626.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Lester, N., Menguele, R., Karurui-Sebina, G., & Kruger, M. (2009). Township transformation timeline. Johannesburg: Department of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs.Google Scholar
  17. MacLeod, G., & McFarlane, C. (2014). Introduction: Grammars of urban injustice. Antipode, 46(4), 857–873.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Magnusson, W. (2011). Politics of urbanism. Seeing like a city. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  19. Mara, D. (2012). Sanitation: What’s the real problem? IDS Bulletin, 43(2), 86–92.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Mbembe, A. (2015). Decolonizing knowledge and the question of the archive. Retrieved February 12, 2015, from
  21. McDonald, D. (2012). World city syndrome: Neoliberalism and inequality in Cape Town. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  22. Mels, A., Castellano, D., Braadbaart, O., Veenstra, S., Dijkstra, I., Meulman, B., et al. (2009). Sanitation services for the informal settlements of Cape Town, South Africa. Desalination, 248(1), 330–337.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Merrifield, A. (2013). The politics of the encounter: Urban theory and protest under planetary urbanization. Georgia: University of Georgia Press.Google Scholar
  24. Merrifield, A. (2014). The new urban question. London: Pluto Press.Google Scholar
  25. Molotch, H., & Norén, L. (Eds.). (2010). Toilet: Public restrooms and the politics of sharing. New York: NYU Press.Google Scholar
  26. Nicholls, W. (2011). Cities and the unevenness of social movement space: The case of France’s immigrant rights movement. Environment and Planning A, 43(7), 1655.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Ngwane, T. (2003). Sparks in the township. New Left Review, 22, 37–56.Google Scholar
  28. Parnell, S., Beall, J., & Crankshaw, O. (2005). A matter of timing: African urbanisation and access to housing in Johannesburg. In D. Brycson & D. Potts (Eds.), African urban economies: Viability, vitality or vitiation? (pp. 229–251). London: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  29. Pieterse, E., & Parnell, S. M. (2014). Africa’s Urban Revolution. Zed Books, London.Google Scholar
  30. Pithouse, R. (2008). A politics of the poor shack dwellers’ struggles in Durban. Journal of Asian and African Studies, 43(1), 63–94.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Robins, S. (2014a). The 2011 toilet wars in South Africa: Justice and transition between the exceptional and the everyday after Apartheid. Development and Change, 45(3), 479–501.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Robins, S. (2014b). Poo wars as matter out of place: ‘Toilets for Africa’ in Cape Town. Anthropology Today, 30(1), 1–3.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Robins, S. (2014c). Slow activism in fast times: Reflections on the politics of media spectacles after Apartheid. Journal of Southern African Studies, 40(1), 91–110.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Schnitzler, A. (2013). Traveling technologies: Infrastructure, ethical regimes, and the materiality of politics in South Africa. Cultural Anthropology, 28(4), 670–693.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Satterthwaite, D., MacGranahan, G., & Mitlin, D. (2005). Community-driven development for water and sanitation in urban areas: Its contribution to meeting the millennium development goal targets. London: IIED.Google Scholar
  36. Scott, J. (1998). Seeing like a state: How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed. Yale: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  37. Social Justice Coalition. (2014). Our toilets are dirty: Report of the social audit into the janitorial service for communal flush toilets in Khayelitsha, Cape Town. Retrieved August 12, 2015, from
  38. South African Human Rights Commission. (1996). Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, Act 108. Section 184 (3). Johannesburg: SAHRC.Google Scholar
  39. Swanson, M. (1977). The sanitation syndrome: Bubonic plague and urban native policy in the Cape Colony, 1900–1909. Journal of African History, 18, 387–410.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Durham UniversityDurhamUK
  2. 2.Urban InstituteUniversity of SheffieldSheffieldUK

Personalised recommendations