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Poo Wars: Making Light of a Serious Health Problem

Wastewater in street (informal settlement near Cape Town), South Africa
Wastewater in street (informal settlement near Cape Town), South Africa

A planned protest regarding the poor sanitation conditions in Cape Town sparked some interest when it was learned that would-be protesters were armed with feces. The South African press dubbed it the ‘poo wars’ and western media ran with it.

The GlobalPost put it in the Weird Wide Web section and the BBC lead with the 180 arrests that resulted from the protests. Steven Grant took exception with the framing of the story. Namely the headline.

What grabbed me was the headline: “Cape Town ‘poo wars’: Mass arrests in Cape Town”. It’s tongue in cheek, a trademark of British media. Is that really okay, though? (Probably not?) Sanitation is a monumental health issue around the world. Should a Western media outlets being poking fun at poor people demanding basic healthy living conditions? (Absolutely not.) It’s not all that hard to draw the direct line between South African poverty, apartheid and the lasting effect of the British colonialism. Is it fair to hold the BBC, of all news outlets, to a higher standard of sensitivity when it comes to places their country has so thoroughly messed up? (Of course it is.)

Sanitation is a serious problem in many parts of the developing world. The protests that took place in South Africa were no joking matter for the people involved. The use of excrement in the protest was to get attention. Not laughs.

“We are emptying our toilets there because our toilets have smelled for three months,” said former ANC councilor Andile Lili to Eyewitness News.

“This is a violation of a human’s right to dignity. We have a right to dignity and we have a right to privacy,” he said. “All those rights were violated by Helen Zille.”

Zille, the premier of Western Cape, was attacked a week prior by protesters with raw sewage. Toilets were provided for some residents, but the recent round of protests called for more.

The BBC raises the possibility that there is a political element at play. With sanitation problems across South Africa, why is it that the protests are occurring in the only place not lead by majority ANC party? The links are not clear and the ANC distanced itself from the tactics employed by the protesters. However, it did back sanitation protests in 2010 against Zille’s party, says the BBC.

Lighter headlines bring forward what is a significant health and potential politics story. News is not alone in making light of the subject matter to get people to pay attention to the issue of sanitation.

Organizations like PATH use potty humor as a way to get people to talk about the important issue. It’s Defeat Diarrheal Disease (DD) program and Twitter feed mixes in humor with more serious information about sanitation. It also plays host to an annual poo haiku contest.

Thunder down under
Got the dysentery blues
Can you spare a square?
By @Clean_the_World

While there is disagreement over the appropriateness of joking about poo, all sides agree it is a serious issue deserving of greater attention. Despite the arrests, the protesters say they plan on continuing their call for improved sanitation in Cape Town until their demands are met.

Fact: Diarrhea
kills 1.3 million kids
each year. Holy sh*t.
By @Global_ErinH


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]