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Going to waste


Serge Ntamack ponders the movement of humans-as-waste in a globalised world, in which developed nation states transact the displaced and dislocated as they do hazardous cargo.


Sometimes, in Cape Town, when there’s no traffic on Lower Main Road, Observatory, the silence in the early hours of the morning allows one to contemplate the random instances of waste along the pavement. Among the cans, plastic bags, empty alcohol bottles and cigarette stubs, it is not unusual to see a wasted individual – man, woman, even child – sleeping, interrupted only by the repetitive beep of the waste removal truck.

On 20 August 2006, it was not the truck that woke the people of Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire. Instead, it was foul-smelling toxic waste, offloaded from a ship – originating in Amsterdam and chartered by Trafigura, the Dutch oil and commodities company – and dumped at various sites around the city. The fumes caused more than 30,000 people to suffer from nausea, headaches, breathing difficulties, stinging eyes and burning skin. Seventeen deaths were found by an Ivorian court to be directly related to the dumping of the waste.

That type of waste is very different from what we are used to seeing on Lower Main Road when daylight replaces the nightlife. But sometimes, what’s in plain sight conceals a darker truth. The event in Abidjan resonates deeply here – maybe not so much on the pavements of Observatory, but certainly in the economic framework of South Africa. In 2000, long before the dumping of toxic waste in Abidjan, South Africa agreed to import 60 tons of hazardous waste from Australia, despite being in the forefront of a global ban on such imports by developing countries and a signatory to several international consensus decisions on the matter.

South Africa and Côte d’Ivoire, however, are not the exceptions. Throughout Africa, from Nigeria to Somalia, similar practices have been observed. Destination countries such as these share the burden of the environmental fallout linked to the technological gains made by developed countries.


Regulation of waste

In an attempt to regulate the potential environmental effects of improper practices in the globalised business of waste management, the 1989 Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, and the 1991 Bamako Convention on the Ban on the Import into Africa and the Control of Transboundary Movement and Management of Hazardous Wastes within Africa were ratified by 147 and 25 states respectively. These two conventions are legal instruments aimed at controlling the movement of hazardous waste across borders. They define waste as “substances or objects which are disposed of or are intended to be disposed of or are required to be disposed of by the provisions of national law”. Achile Mbembe expands this definition, arguing that, conceptually, waste should include the human itself as “a waste product at the interface of capitalism and race”.

In terms of Mbembe’s definition, the regional settlement arrangement that Australia signed with Papua New Guinea on 19 July 2013, which states that unauthorised maritime arrivals in Australia will be sent to Papua New Guinea for assessment and, if found to be refugees will be settled there, falls, in theory, within the scope of the Basel Convention. Although Mbembe’s definition is not acknowledged within the ambit of the Basel Convention, the 1951 Refugee Convention – a legal instrument enabling states to deal with the high numbers of refugees and displaced persons who were by-products, so to speak, of World War II – lends it more credence.

It follows, then, that displaced persons and refugees can also be seen as excreta of war. Excrement, as we know too well in Cape Town, stinks and is not pleasant to be around, forcing one to take action either by distancing oneself from it or by getting rid of it. Although the regional resettlement arrangement between Papua New Guinea and Australia does not itself eliminate the flow of potential refugees into Australia by sea, this arrangement nevertheless allows the Australian government to manage the exposure of its territory and citizens to the excreta of war, capitalism and other waste-producing mechanisms, who arrive on its shores from troubled places such as Lebanon, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq.


Human waste and the humane

If we understand peoples’ exposure to toxic waste in Abidjan as a violation of human rights, then it could be argued that the exposure of Australian territory and citizens to potential refugees is also a violation of citizens’ civil rights and of a state’s territorial integrity. It is clear that humans as waste nevertheless have rights de jure, so it is important to consider how the scale of rights is calibrated, de facto, in a given country.

In the case of Australia, the current government gave assurances that the implementation of its arrangements with Papua New Guinea would be consistent with its international obligations. But many human rights organisations stress that Papua New Guinea doesn’t have the material capacity to absorb the potential refugees rejected by Australia, and is not likely to respect refugees’ rights. In other words, Papua New Guinea can be seen as a territory where humans-as-waste, with inferior rights or without rights, are dumped. As a result, Papua New Guinea is the epitome of the so-called less-developed country, where the socio-economic features of the majority of the population match well those of the potential refugees, or economic migrants, who are deemed ineligible to settle legally on the land of the more developed neighbour.

Following the same logic of transaction, it is also with the aim of managing the exposure of the “Jewish state” to what it labels “illegal economic migrants” that the Israeli government has recently been discussing a deal to send some of its Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers to Uganda. Uganda, it is claimed, will receive aid and weapons as part of the deal, but Ugandan officials have denied the existence of any agreement of this nature.

Whether in the agreement between Australia and Papua New Guinea, or in the alleged deal between Israel and Uganda, there is a transaction between a developed country and a less-developed one whereby the former proposes to provide part of the financial and technical resources needed for the processing of humans-as-waste – or surplus humans – in the latter’s territory. Protests by human rights organisations against this type of agreement often target the receiving country’s incapacity to process this human waste matter in a way that permits it to retain some of its basic rights. These rights are simply a binding version of what is currently acknowledged as “humane” treatment, in terms of both compassion and benevolence.

Yet less attention seems to be paid to the fact that territories like Uganda and Papua New Guinea are de facto permanent refuse dumps for human waste, shaped by their particular relationship with technic-ownership and application of knowledge-, and in relation to technic as constitutive of what it means to be human. The human rights organisations’ observations that this “type” of country lacks the capacity (financial and technical resources and, to some degree, a human rights environment) to process human waste can be interpreted within the context of postcolonial racial relations. In this light, these enunciations perpetuate colonial power through their emphasis on the incapacity of non-Western people to be autonomous and of non-Western territories to be industrialised. Thus, humans-as-waste become a collateral of the humane.


Being human

Are we reaching a dead end when, along and beyond the pavements of our cities, the humans-as-waste and the humane fuse, and simultaneously confuse what we arrogantly hold as a title: human? It may be unwise to search for the answers to this question in the soup of ideas that generates the concept “human”. Instead, we should cast a sober gaze on what is going on around us, on what we are allowing ourselves to become: the raw material of, the tool of, the engineer of, or architect of. Then we might grasp that being human is not initially a humane project. Rather, it is a potential within us all, irreducible to waste, yet too often wasted in what we somehow choose to be about. It is a potential which haunts or lives within our practices and creations.


Serge Ntamack

Researcher: South African Chair of Development Planning and Modelling

Sculptor and Author: Works of art

Read more about Serge and his view on being a futurist


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