Toilet Trouble: defining humanity through water and sanitation – Fellows’ seminar by Peter Redfield

5 September 2023

“Large questions – such as what might count as being human — can appear in the most mundane settings, especially in relation to resources,” said Peter Redfield of the Department of Anthropology, University of Southern California. “We are looking at water and sanitation as a way to think about future modern norms more generally.”

“Our project approaches water and sanitation as a material index for abstract sensibilities about what constitutes a ‘proper’ and dignified human life. Influenced by a longer trajectory of anthropological inquiry into humanitarian practice, as well as science and technology studies research, we focus on the technical systems that provide stable access to these resources for urban hygiene, along with efforts to develop alternatives where they fall short,” he continued. “Although our analytic frame moves laterally across place and time, the technical and ecological politics of water and sanitation in contemporary South Africa play a central role in articulating concerns of the present, particularly tensions between egalitarian desires to distribute services more justly and growing awareness of environmental limits within changing climate conditions.”

STIAS Fellow Peter Redfield during his seminar on 29 August 2023

He explained that this particular research project derives from an ongoing ethnographic collaboration with Steven Robins of the Department of Social Anthropology at Stellenbosch University, examining overlapping social concerns about toilets in contemporary South Africa. South African citizens claim a constitutional promise to formal equality, while experiencing widely unequal degrees of material services from state and municipal authorities. “Urban sites in the country simultaneously serve as a laboratory of sorts for efforts to redesign sanitation systems, led by the Gates Foundation and other international donors, along with a global array of designers and researchers. By tracking this evolving interplay between perspectives, our larger goal is to outline articulations of human value as defined and contested in practice. We seek to explore tensions around the limits and breakdown of modernist infrastructure, along with technical assumptions built into political visions of the future.”

Asking difficult questions

Redfield noted that he and Robins approach this work from the disciplinary orientation of anthropology, which he described as placing humans (sometimes in contest) at the centre of the question, and focusing on small places, practices, histories, a deep-and-wide perspective, often generating more questions than answers.

“It’s a plural and fuzzy discipline with a large tradition of sub critique and argument. For a long time, it offered a space in the university system to talk about small places and out-of-the-way histories. We don’t have a singular binary history and therefore are aware of the deep past and the traces of life that existed hundreds of thousands of years ago. It’s about what people do in their encounters, habits and habitats as well as their thoughts.”

“Anthropology is often not an easy fit in policy settings,” he added. “People trained in this perspective don’t usually produce action briefs but rather raise the questions that are not being considered. It’s about the questions you choose to ask and those you don’t choose to ask.”

He highlighted a few major projects (resulting in books) from his career, including his first project in French Guiana in the 1990s, which houses the primary launch site for the European Space Programme; at the time, about half the world’s communication satellites went up from this former penal colony. He described the juxtapositions of colonial history and development expectations as producing “revealing anxieties”.

He subsequently went on to examine the work of Médecins Sans Frontières – “At the time a small oppositional group, now a transnational institution. I became interested in the phrase ‘without borders’ and wanted to understand what happens when people try to pursue biomedicine as a form of ethics, seeking to save lives all over the globe.”

“While there are antecedents, the humanitarian value of life is distinctive at this moment in time,” he said. “The phrase ‘saving lives’ is now used as a justification for all forms of action. The connection and tension between monetary value and number of lives saved has become important in contemporary politics. Political legitimacy includes representing yourself through measurable things like infant mortality rates. Success or failure is calibrated by indicators.”

He also pointed to a rise in products produced using humanitarian design for social good. Many are what he calls “devices for slightly better survival – promising to help people live in difficult circumstances, even if they don’t resolve the underlying issues.”

The Toilet Wars

Turning to the specifics of his project, Redfield explained that controversy over unenclosed toilets in informal settlements in the Western Cape and elsewhere led to the 2011 local-government elections in South Africa being described as the ‘Toilet Elections’ and episodes of protest involving sanitation as the ‘Toilet Wars’. “These toilets without walls were seen as an assault on dignity and deployed for party gain.”

“Because of the history of unequal access and cultural feelings about privacy, it’s a social issue, not merely a technical concern,” he added. “It matters that you have walls.”

He described the two imaginaries involved – one centred around located activists concerned with the history of racialised inequality; the promise of equality within the South African Constitution; the inadequacy of service delivery in informal settlements; and, modern sanitation as a material measure of municipal citizenship.  At the same time there is also a global eco-humanitarian imaginary, which sees human waste as a matter of humanitarian and ecological concern, and recognises a global need to reinvent a toilet beyond municipal sewer systems.

Redfield emphasised two analytic frameworks drawn from science and technology studies. The first is ‘technopolitics’ – which posits that technical problems are always political and vice-versa; if you suggest the need for adequate sanitation you have to have the means to achieve it. The second is ‘broken world thinking’ — which points out that all technical systems hold the potential for breakdown and stresses the importance of maintenance as opposed to innovation.

The project is mostly looking at these issues in the Western Cape and Durban, and Redfield pointed to some innovative thinking in eThekweni municipality, including a range of experimental endeavours alongside sewer lines, pit latrines and urine-diversion toilets.

“South Africa is a particularly interesting place to examine these issues – there’s lots of infrastructure but it’s no longer adequate for the population and distributed in a highly unequal way, even as the constitution calls for rights to access,” he said. “There’s significant variation in water availability in South Africa. There’s also the issue of population distribution and migration flows and, of course, climate change will make it more variable and unpredictable. At the same time, this is also not just a South African problem but a problem on the horizon for many countries and regions around the world.”

The project will examine political questions of inclusion; legislative and political processes; rising demands related to population growth; legacy segregated infrastructure that is not designed for the level and distribution of the population; as well as the “tension between the legal guarantees of the Constitution and the obvious inequality that is keenly felt and contested politically”.

“We are asking questions like: Who gets what when you don’t have enough for everyone? How to provincialise the flush toilet and not just reinvent it? How to reimagine who enjoys benefits and who bears the cost? How to redistribute innovation and the pressure of inconvenience? And, how to shift middle-class norms and global aspirations?”

Rather than any one obvious policy fix, he suggested that the issue will require continuing “sociopolitical pressure and an ethos of care that considers multiple forms and scales of value.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Noloyiso Mtembu

Share this post:

Share on whatsapp
Share on email
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

Subscribe to posts like these:

Related to this article

News categories



STIAS is a creative space for the mind.