Decolonizing University Toilets in South Africa

An extended version of this post by PLR appears here in the March/April 2017 issue of the progressive politics and culture magazine Briarpatch.

There is a new washroom just off a first floor common at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and it interestingly figures in the ongoing student protests on South African university campuses. Formerly men only, this washroom distinguishes itself because of who may use it.

This washroom is on UCT’s upper campus overlooking the Cape Flats where most of the city’s black and poorest live. In an academic building, this specific washroom is significant because it seems to be available for all.

Signage reading “Toilet” has been posted on the entry door instead of men-only marking. Just beyond the entrance, to the right, stand urinals with modest partitioning while, to the left, nearly-floor-to-ceiling-cubicles with doors lockable from inside. Door signage consisting of an A4 sheet with “Toilet” in laser print was not affixed by UCT’s facilities department but by someone else or some others, unknown, with or without guerrilla intent.

Why this space lacks gendered designation is unclear. No official or unofficial explanation is apparent. Occasionally, the “Toilet” sign disappears only to be reaffixed days later. Then, later, a paper sign with “Toilet” and a hand-drawn stick figure representing a man marks the entrance of the passageway leading to the washroom.

This might signal something banal if the standard pictogram gendering the washroom simply fell off. If not, some type of decolonising politics figures if only because the signage forces users to think in a different gender register.

From #RhodesMustFall to #WashroomsMustFall

Decolonising politics here must be situated within the Rhodes Must Fall movement (#RhodesMustFall) initiated by UCT students in March 2015 and spread to other South African campuses. Rhodes Must Fall and related movements like Fees Must Fall (#FeesMustFall) currently at the fore of student activism were at one level born of a desire to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902) from its prominent perch on UCT’s upper campus, overlooking the Cape Flats. Rhodes—infamous for stating that he wanted to “annex the planet”—owned the land on which UCT is situated as well as huge swaths of land throughout southern Africa also stolen as imperial booty.

For Rhodes Must Fall activists, decolonising UCT, beyond a statue’s symbolism, is complex. Their decolonisation includes racially transforming faculty demographics not just the student body, centreing Africa in the curriculum, and making higher education fee free. Student activists also connect their struggle to the demands of contingent workers (academic and service) who are disproportionately black and female, to efforts outing patriarchal sexual violence concealed by university administrators, and to LGBTQI rights claims against cisnormativity and heteronormativity with trans students leading by vociferously reiterating how and why struggles must be linked in a decolonising vein.

Activist energy prompted the UCT Trans Collective to crash an on-campus exhibition celebrating Rhodes Must Fall in March 2016. Naked trans activists, with red paint on their bodies and, at points, blocking gallery entry points and passageways, defaced some exhibition images and objects. Collective members were incensed with transpersons being on the frontline of Rhodes Must Fall but not recognised in the exhibition.

The disruption in March has continued as Rhodes Must Fall became Fees Must Fall. Today, these student movements are divided along race, class, and sex-gender, not to mention party affiliation and other divides. And we have witnessed the depths of the fissure on one Cape Town campus where students stood on desks and chairs of a large lecture hall while shouting down a senior black academic. This on a campus where, not unlike campuses all over South Africa, university facilities have been destroyed.

“Gender-neutral” washrooms

In 2014, before Rhodes Must Fall, UCT designated gender-neutral washrooms which are basically stand-alone toilets with a single toilet and sink similar in design to home units. This was supposed to be a progressive move, not a decolonising one.

Washrooms designated gender neutral have burgeoned on South Africa post-secondary campuses not unlike Canada primarily to recognise trans identity and to acknowledge the need for transpersons to have comfortable and safe facilities. Unease felt by transpersons stems from cisgender ignorance and fear that transpersons might use a washroom other than that aligned with the sex-gender socially prescribed on the transperson’s birth certificate.

Sociologist Suzanna Walters might call stand-alone washrooms not unlike those in homes, which are “gender neutral,” a “tolerance trap.” To Walters, tolerance of sexual minorities neutralises queer political power when tolerance is misread as progressive act. Actually, in the book The Tolerance Trap, Walters wrote, “Tolerance is not an embrace but a resigned shrug or, worse, that air kiss of faux familiarity that barely covers up the shiver of disgust.”

Ultimately the problem is cisperson supremacy. However, the underlying problem is merely remedied when gender-neutral toilets with a single toilet and a single sink are stand-alone markers of tolerance.

There is a way to liberate society from sexual and gendered binaries bestowed by the Enlightenment and reiterated through colonialism. A different possibility comes when the gender-neutral toilet is designed, comparable to the guerrilla washroom at UCT, as a single public space for all with multiple secure cubicles (nearly if not completely floor-to-ceiling) with each containing a toilet—hold the urinals as gendered object.

This way is not easily achievable because of very real safety concerns beyond but not disconnected from concerns articulated by transpersons. That said, this decolonising way is being tried by at least one Cape Town primary school to promote full inclusion over mere tolerance. One day these young learners will be post-secondary matriculants who will, upon their arrival on campus, look for decolonised toilets without realising there was once anything else.

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