Cape Town Class Struggles: a Shit Perspective
A bout of diarrhoea put me on a toilet safari in Cape Town and provided me with some insight into the country’s class struggles and inequalities.
Since arriving in South Africa, I’d had trouble formulating a clear idea of post-apartheid relations.
In Durban, my great uncle and his friend collected me from the airport. On the drive back to my uncle’s home in Pinetown (now called Crime Town by its fearful elderly residents), his friend taught me all he had learned in his 70 years living in South Africa, offering advice like, “You must watch out Scout – the only safe blacks here are the ones in jail or dead.”
I then went to the Rhino River Game Lodge with my family where black maids and gardeners and cooks and cleaners were seemingly invisible. Apart from a black arm reaching from the kitchen or an afro darting into a room, the domestic help lived among the shadows and the ghosts.
And then cosmopolitan Cape Town, where I spent my first night gazing from a balcony over Long Street, utilising enhanced perceptions afforded by large lines of cocaine. Here I enjoyed the drunken intermingling between wealthy blacks and whites.
So was South Africa still an apartheid nation or not? Being short of a valid explanation for these wildly varying degrees of racism and inequality, I was luckily bestowed with the bum-runs, which conversely elucidated my perceptions.
My toilet safari began around two hours after chomping a dirty Nando’s wrap filled with vegetarian slop. The familiar bloating and wet fart left me ashamed and frightened in the middle of busy Garden Square. I had no underwear on and no safety zone to return to.
In the shaded privacy of a large tree, I stuffed my hand down the back of my pants to check for defecation. Then, with the confidence of a clean butt and the haste of oncoming diarrhoea, I set out on my journey.
There were no bathrooms at any of the hobo’s favourite stops: McDick’s, Hungry Jack’s and KFC were all without amenities. At each restaurant, there were hundreds of people buying food and drinks and eating and slurping, yet no toilets. It was as if their consumption only travelled halfway.
While searching all the familiar fast food stops and shopping centres, fear and anxiety began cramping my bowels. The hangover blurred my vision and made my emotions vibrate.
Scenarios of me shitting myself in the middle of SA whirred through my imagination – me crumpled in embarrassment and shame on the ground with brown-splotched pants and poo dribbling down my leg, a curious crowd forming, laughing, taunting. How would I clean up? Where would I find the privacy to switch clothes and discard my soiled shorts?
While spinning in this introspective frenzy I stumbled upon the Cape Town train station. The poor and homeless scattered the periphery, begging for change or food or a ticket. Within, armies of the masses charged. Most were black, some Indian. They spread out then came together like a torrent of flesh rushing through the station. They moved as a mass, barely discernible, and I drifted around them, lonely and paranoid.
The busy bathroom had 13 stalls and a large trough that spread around two walls. Broken taps and tiles and blacks and Indians filled the area. It smelt like stale urine. Graffiti covered most walls. I was overcome by a sense of fear and danger, possibly conjured by the imaginings of my anxiety.
I charged into a cubicle, unstrapped my bag and sat down on the cold metal bowl. Before I released my clenched rectum, I completed the perfunctory check, found no toilet paper: not even a cardboard tube. I ripped my pants up, replaced my backpack and checked the next stall. Nothing. My stomach rumbled in protest and I tightened my sphincter in response.
I checked all 13 stalls. Not one was even equipped with a roll holder.
I considered wiping with an item of clothing – a shirt or some socks – and then discarding it. I mentally combed through my clothes, but every item in my bag had its function – I could jettison nothing. Unfortunately on this trip I had decided to travel light; a small 5kg backpack was all I had, fulfilling my role as an agile hobo.
For 30 minutes I wandered around manically. Cocaine and booze oozed out of me, muddying my brain with anxiety and confusion.
I walked in circles, tethered to the train station that had no toilet paper, trapped in its 500m radius. My mind circled as the people circled and I circled, feeling self-consciously aware that to them I was a mindless bum circling in his mania, without direction or purpose, searching for the unknown.
But I had a purpose, and it was becoming more imminent.
I rushed into a pharmacy and for some reason the confinement of an inside space caused my bowels to instantly release. A wet fart sprayed against the back of my pants. All I could do was hope it didn’t seep through. I grabbed some tissues and ran out without paying.
At the train station, shit covered the seat of my chosen cubicle. I attempted to rub it off with some of the tissues, but it had long dried and was in need of industrial products. Apathetic and desperate, I sat down on the shit and shat my shit.
With my mind and intestines cleared, I realised that I was now bound to the toilet and unable to explore areas with unknown bathroom locations.
Bored of Cape Town’s CBD, the dilapidation of the train station, the noisy construction and the bad memories, I decided to head to the V&A waterfront. I heard from some backpackers that this was the wealthy tourist hotspot, so I went hoping amenities would be in abundance.
My predictions were correct, and luckily so, because in the 30-minute walk my body had created another sloppy mess that needed disposing of.
The toilets were located beside a classy restaurant full of whites clinking wine glasses, wearing sunglasses and laughing with heads thrown back on straight-backed chairs.
Inside the bathroom, the floor was scuffed and muddy, and on the back of the door were a few sharpie tags. The porcelain was warm from the previous butt and I had to wipe some piss stains from the seat, but I felt relaxed in the familiarity of a middle-class bathroom. Compared to the train station, I was shitting at the Ritz.
Judging by the occupants of the bathroom – blacks in uniforms, waiters and cooks fixing hair, washing hands, entering and leaving, dallying about – I had found the worker’s toilets. Where did the whites do their dirty business?
Free once more, I decided to continue walking around the waterfront. With long clean boardwalks and restaurants with white tablecloths and white customers and kitsch novelty stores with Nelson Mandela biographies and memorabilia, the waterfront seemed to have successfully separated itself from the rest of Africa.
Even though in South Africa the conversion rate had elevated me to the upper-class, I still felt an aversion to spending any money in this affluent district, so I merely ambled around until another wave of diarrhoea forced me into a bathroom.
This roulette roll landed me in the diamond museum. Here, I spent the rest of my day. The toilets were simply magnificent. The stalls had varnished wood trimmings, like the inside of a luxury liner, and were polished and unscathed. The lights glowed a soft yellow and the basins were big enough to bathe a baby. They also had a personal cleaner who, without ever leaving the entrance, constantly mopped the muddied footprints that pushed in and out.
Each toilet would flush for an extra two minutes, ensuring that all the mess had successfully drained from the bowl and providing the next customer with fresh porcelain to defecate onto.
I decided to spend the rest of my day at the café below the toilets. I read my book, drank cups of tea, did a few poos and watched the people.
The majority of customers were white working professionals. They would walk in, observe the rows of jewellery from behind the bullet-proof glass, watch the promotional video on sustainable diamond mining and then buy a coffee from the café, head into the suit tailors, the small art gallery, the boutique gift store and leave again. I never saw any of them buy anything.
A large group of blacks with Southern American accents flooded in. They sat around and obnoxiously yelled and cajoled with one another. They treated the South African blacks with disdain, complaining and hassling the waiters and waitresses. Their insolence reached such depravity that had I been more confident and not already on the verge of shitting myself, I would have said something gallant.
I stayed in that café for four hours, venturing back to the toilets with every wave of crumply stomach. Each short journey into the royal facilities abated my anxiety, gently replacing it with joy and relaxation.
All I had to do was wait. My white South African friend was picking me up at 6 o’clock that night and had promised to take me to all the best spots in Cape Town. Penthouses, vineyards and mansions on the beach, he was pumped –
But I just hoped they had nice toilets.