Reconciliation’s Waste: heritage and waste in post-apartheid South Africa

By Duane Jethro

Svetlana Boym argues that ruins “make us think of the past that could have been and the future that never took place”. She turns the idea about the link between the past and the future around, and suggests we can use ruined or wasted things for clues about society in the present. In this piece I want to think about what certain ways of talking about waste and ruins in South Africa can tell us about pasts that never came to be and futures that never took place.

To do so means briefly thinking about heritage and reconciliation. Heritage, or the singling out of certain histories and people for commemoration, is connected to the idea of reconciliation, because in South Africa, it was meant to do the work of bringing South Africans together as a nation. Through new museums, statues and memorials, heritage would help overcome the long history of colonial and apartheid era racial division in the period since 1994.

But if we follow media reports from recent times, we see that heritage comes to us ways that are different from how the state would intend. Linked to ruins and waste, these examples reflect a series of pasts that could have been and futures that never took place.

Take the student protests about fees and race discrimination flared up on universities in 2015. Media reports claimed that the now anti-hero, Chumani Maxwele, inspired the uprising when he staged a near spur-of-the-moment protest against racism on the university of Cape Town’s Upper Campus. Maxwele attacked a statue of Cecil John Rhodes, a racist imperialist, by throwing human faeces on it. Here, human waste was used to ruin a statue representing a colonial past that still held pride of place in the present. In one sense it raised questions about why statues like this were still in public, but also about the recognition of the feelings of black students who were offended by it.

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Page from the Times Live.

This was but one small discharge in a steady flood of shit spilled in the post-apartheid era. Take the sanitation protests of 2013. In that year a group dubbed the ‘Poo-Fighters’ by the popular media, activists from the Ses’khona People’s Rights Movement, dumped the waste of the city’s black poor all across Cape Town. They did so in protest against inadequate, even inhumane toilet facilities provided by city-authorities to black township dwellers. Protesting against this treatment, the Poo Fighters washed the provincial legislature’s steps down with faeces, attacked the mayor’s car, and poured human waste inside the airport.

By doing so the Poo Fighters made a smelly statement about the heritage of racialised urban division in Cape Town. Here human waste called attention to a history of social neglect, but also, in the form of portable toilets, signalled the failure of a language about the past to make any real change in the lives of those most in need. The poor inherited a future that was not much different from the past. In that sense the blue portable toilets assigned to black township residents stand as monuments to the indignity of being black and poor in a South Africa where everyone is meant to be free. [Figure 2]

Masixole Feni - Toilets

Row of portable toilets. Image by Masixole Feni, Groundup News. Used with permission.

But waste trickles into another public way of thinking that is removed from, but also linked to the rust and ruin of South Africa’s shantytowns. For a portion of the white middle class, waste serves as a way of talking about the black ANC ruled government as being corrupt and for being wasteful with taxpayer money. The widely reported saga about President Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla homestead is a good example of this.

In 2009 media reports claimed that the president had used taxpayer’s money to secretly build a massive private home for him and his family. The size of his new house was shown using aerial photos that showed a massive complex creeping across the hills in Kwazulu-Natal province. The photos bare a similarity in scale to Freedom Park, South Africa’s six hundred and fifty million dollar monument to freedom and democracy, in the capital city Pretoria, that few visit. Remember that South Africa’s black poor live on roughly one hundred dollars a month.

Journalists had a field day when in 2015 after many denials, they were granted access to president Zuma’s own twenty million dollar Gbadolite. But the pictures of the walking tour were disappointing. The project lay in near ruin. The chicken run and cattle kraal were a crumbling, muddy mess, the fencing was ripped and the Amphitheatre was dirty and over grown. That meant to say that despite the great expense of the project, “South Africa’s monument to corruption” had been left to neglect, decay, to ruin. Nkandla was like a metaphor for wasteful state expenditure, so wasteful that it was ruinous.

Nkandla, like portable toilets and colonial era statues are reconciliations ruins, the things leftover that heritage helps to frame but yet cannot fully explain. As matter that remains unresolved, I think it tells us about the unfinished work of reconciliation in South Africa. By that I mean that we inherited monuments, memorials, even great presidential homes, but a large black majority continues to live in squalor. In a strange way, reconciliation’s waste tells us something about the misguided attempts to build a nation after 1994 and the faith placed in heritage to bring a series of unfulfilled futures into reality.


Duane Jethro is a post-doctoral fellow at Archive and Public Culture at the University of Cape Town, and has blogged for Africa’s a Country and Material World. His scholarly work appears in journals such as Tourist Studies, Material Religion and African Diaspora.


Works Cited
Boym, Svetlana. (2011). Ruinophilia: Appreciation of Ruins. Atlas of Transformation.

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