The politics of toilets in South Africa

David Smith in the Guardian, 17 May 2011:

Why is South Africa still providing ‘apartheid toilets’?
How can a nation that builds five-star hotels and airports and hosted a successful World Cup still fail to provide decent sanitation?

… Like the Reverend Wright’s fiery sermons, or Gordon Brown’s “bigot” gaffe, unexpected bumps in the road can change the course of election campaigns, and so it is that televisions and newspapers in South Africa are full of images of toilets ahead of tomorrow’s local government vote. The image has come to symbolise the post-apartheid state’s continued inability to deliver electricity, running water, sanitation or housing to millions of people. It has left many wondering how a nation that can build five-star hotels and airports, host a successful football World Cup and enshrine human rights in its constitution can violate the basic right to defecate in private.

Toilets are the battleground between the two principal rivals for South Africans’ votes. The African National Congress (ANC), 17 years in power, has come to regard itself as the natural party of government with overwhelming support from the black majority. The opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) – which controls Cape Town and claims it is the best-run city in the country – is striving to bury its reputation as the bastion of the white elite. First there was an open lavatory scandal in the DA’s backyard. Cape Town was condemned in a recent court judgment for building 50 unenclosed loos in the Makhaza section of Khayelitsha. The gleeful ANC claimed this proved what it had been saying all along: that the DA protects the privilege of Cape Town’s affluent suburbanites while kicking its township dwellers in the teeth. These were “apartheid toilets built by racist whites who don’t respect blacks”…

Donor trips to the developing world

Sophie Arie writing in the Guardian, 10 May 2011.

NGO package tours – holidays with a conscience?
A growing number of NGOs are offering package tours to developing countries so that donors can see their work in action.

…So is this the future for development agencies? To show people and not just tell people how hard life is for the poorest of the world’s population? And will this become the ultimate way for the discerning donor to decide if an agency deserves his or her support?

For some time, aid agencies specialising in child sponsorship have made ad hoc arrangements, despite the time and resources this demands of local staff, for individual donors to meet the child they support. Many also take major donors, board members and policy-makers on “immersion” trips. And many run volunteer working trips and fundraising adventure holidays…

Compare to my findings about the elastic membrane in my PhD.

Shigeru Ban disavowing novelty

A reporter for The New York Times posed the question to Japanese designer Shigeru Ban: “Katrina. The Asian Tsunami. Haiti. Every time a natural disaster of this order occurs, designers present innovative ideas for shelters that never get built. Why not?”

Shigeru Ban replied: “We don’t need innovative ideas. We just need to build normal things that can be made easily and quickly. A house is a house”.

See also paper in ‘Design for Need’ re. disaster relief.



My name is Ralph Borland, and I’m an artist, designer and technologist based in Cape Town, South Africa. I am currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cape Town on the research project Global Arenas of Knowledge, which is investigating ‘Southern Theory‘. Before that I was a postdoctoral fellow at the African Centre for Cities. This site houses my PhD thesis, and my continuing research into objects (and development) – for more information, please see the About page. This is my journal, where I keep track of articles of interest to my work. You can use the ‘Categories’ menu in the sidebar below to navigate through posts – ‘Objects‘ for example. Please feel free to send me links to examples of interesting objects or anything else related to my research – you can contact me here. Subscribe to this blog by clicking here. For my wider work please visit