– Dr Megan Jones
When we think of waste, we imagine opportunities missed, lives ruined or environments polluted. “What a waste” we say, and we mean despair, destruction, desolation. Eliot’s clean, austere lines, the “vacant lots” of the dying city, shape our words in the throat. Rarely does waste conjure economies of affect or resilience, or the possibilities of forging counter-publics. For Achille Mbembe, the neo-liberal pursuits of post-apartheid South Africa have exacerbated the production of poor bodies as socially elided detritus, set adrift in no-man’s lands between the spectacle of consumption and rigorously defended privatization. In a landscape of excess —excess wealth, excess consumerism, excess security— the poor are rendered admissible, and so they remain below the horizon of social visibility. But what are the ways in which we think about waste as a means of articulation? How might waste offer opportunities to pressurise the distribution of wealth and well-being in South Africa and beyond?
I want to linger briefly on recent images of waste surfacing in urban communities in Mumbai and Johannesburg. Go to Youtube and watch Nandos’ recent ads, and you’ll see how the company has appropriated the stylings of izikhothane, a youth practice emerging from Johannesburg’s townships. Izikhothane’s participants, mostly men, burn expensive clothes and designer goods in a display of apparent indifference to the commodity. The idea behind this performance of wastefulness is that one has so much, one needs nothing—we might call it conspicuous destruction. Responses in the media and public discourse online have been scandalised; how dare people with so little behave in this way. What the responses miss is how practices like izikhothane push for a presence in the public domain and resist invisibility. Is there is a limit to which modes of consumption are able to provide their practitioners with agency? Yes, of course. Its appropriation by Nandos signals exactly the triumph of exchange value. Burning clothes and cars will not shift structures of power and privilege. Nonetheless, the reaching for presence that izikhothane attempts has rich symbolic and psychic value.
Refuse and Refuge
Published last year, Katherine Boo’s book Behind the Beautiful Forevers charts the difficulties endured by the Hussain family in the slum of Annawadi, located next to Mumbai’s expanding international airport. The airport is a sleek symbol of India’s economic successes; the inhabitants of Annawadi survive by picking through its piles of discarded junk. On one level, the book is about the vast inequalities shaping the city’s spaces and the social and political injustices this often produces. Yet there is another facet to these lives lived through and in waste. The focaliser of the book is the Hussain’s eldest son, Abdul, who makes a living as a collector and seller of waste. Let’s not sentimentalise: Abdul dreams of escape from the slum’s desperate conditions – filth, disease, crowding, persecution by the authorities. But waste is also the site of his resilience and aspiration, is a cage and a refuge. Thus Boo asks us to read the inhabitants of Annawadi not only as victims but also as actors, and the waste-filled landscapes of their homes as home.