WAYS OF WASTE
by Huda Tayob
Over one year, in 2019-20, the IAS and the UCL Urban Laboratory interrogated the theme ‘Waste’ across the arts, humanities and social sciences. The start of the pandemic in early 2020 however meant that many of the planned events and the programme of research could not take place and it was then that the book project Wastiary was born.
Three years later, the Wastiary is an illustrated volume of short contributions, the themes of which are prompted by each letter of the alphabet and the numbers 1 to 9. They are written by researchers from across the arts, humanities and social sciences, reflecting from their various disciplines and perspectives upon the multiple meanings and manifestations of waste.
The echo of the bestiary resonates widely in the Wastiary, this compendium of ‘beastly’ objects, creatures and artwork. Most vividly, the ‘beast’ evokes how waste cannot be tamed,
confined or managed.
To celebrate the launch of the Wastiary, three chapters will be published on Think Pieces as well as other contributions that are inspired by the subject of waste.
Last train to Kinshasa, last train to Kinshasa …
It was 2015, and I was talking to Anthony, a Zimbabwean activist and refugee, in the city centre of Cape Town. It was a hot, dry day and we met in the Cape Town public library, sheltering from the sun in the cool nineteenth-century interiors. Over the past few months, while collaborating on research, we had spoken frequently about the damaging effects of xenophobic violence in Cape Town, violence often called Afro-phobia as it particularly targets Black Africans from other parts of the continent. On this January afternoon, Anthony was recounting his own experience of Cape Town in 2008, when xenophobic violence spread throughout South Africa during the winter months of May and June. He had fled to South Africa with his family in 2003 to escape political violence in Zimbabwe. He spoke of the weight of fear, before moving to South Africa in 2003, and then the uncanny and unexpected recurrence during the winter of 2008. At the time, he was staying in Imizamo Yethu township in Cape Town, where he was an active community member and school teacher. He described the unexpected blow of having his home looted and burnt, of leaving in a hurry never to return. He spoke of mistrust, growing suspicions and a heightened feeling of foreignness after 2008; of some South Africans who protected his family, and others who threatened his children. Being marked as ‘foreign’ in South Africa has meant being a disposable Black body and nothing more, like many others. Yet midway in our conversation, while talking about the constant fear and feeling of being alien and strange, he described his experience a few days earlier at Salt River railway station in Cape Town.
It was an early evening, and he was taking the last train home, to Bellville – the area in Cape Town he had moved to following the violent displacement of 2008. Bellville had offered a temporary safe haven to many people like Anthony fleeing violence, and continues to be a longer-term space of refuge. As he was rushing to board the train to Bellville, the conductor called out ‘last train to Kinshasa, last train to Kinshasa …’; that was his train. As Anthony recounted, the conductor had referred to the same suburb the previous week as ‘little Mogadishu’.
Perhaps this is what xenophobia does: it combines the meaning of Cape Town with Kinshasa and Mogadishu, a strange and alien new construct formed in part by an apartheid history of modernist Whiteness, post-apartheid urban violence, and the streets of some, any, African city. These are cities untethered from their countries, displaced. ‘Mogadishu’ and ‘Kinshasa’ are standing in here for somewhere else, some place Black and African. These are places associated with dirt and waste, marked by failure and the detritus of history. The naming and calling out evokes the dark underbelly of xenophobic violence that resurfaces periodically in South African cities, which demarcates those darker African cousins as superfluous, available to be discarded. As Françoise Vergès reminds us, there is a long history of black and brown bodies, made disposable and superfluous, as waste. She writes, “The word ‘waste’ usually refers to rubbish, but it is important also to consider the phrase ‘laying waste’. Slavery, colonialism and capitalism have laid waste to lands and people.”3 This is an anti-Blackness encoded into how the nation and home operate, and the very language and grammar of belonging. 4 Postcolonial states have not been immune to this structure.
For Anthony, the conductor’s shifting terminology was a reminder that he and many others were visibly identifiable as not belonging, as darker-skinned; a reminder of previous threats and violent events. It was a reminder that ‘Bellville’ has come to mean a foreign space, part of the African continent associated with dirt and informality, in contrast to the pristine beauty of Cape Town ‘proper’. Yet Bellville, for Anthony, is also the space of refuge and safety formed in the wake of xenophobic violence. Refuge is a complex space. Fiston Mwanza Mujila reminds us in his novel Tram 83, writing of an unnamed African city, that “our trains have lost all sense of time”5, and we might add here, perhaps they have lost their sense of place too. Yet, while recalling the extractive and colonial practices associated with railways across the African continent, Mujila also remembers that there might be a glimmer of another world in these spaces too, for “according to the fickle but ever-recurring legend, the seeds of all resistance movements, all wars of liberation, sprouted at the station, between two locomotives”.6
The Wastiary. A Bestiary of Waste was edited by Albert Brenchat-Aguilar (The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL and former IAS Events Curator & Communications Officer), Timothy Carroll (Principal Research Fellow in Anthropology, UCL), Jane Gilbert (Professor of Medieval Literature and Critical Theory, UCL), Nicola Miller (Director of the IAS) and Michael Picard (International Environmental Law, University of Edinburgh and former IAS Junior Research Fellow). It will be launched officially on 31 October 2023 with a launch party at the Institute of Advanced Studies. To attend the event, please register here.
HUDA TAYOB is currently lecturer in Architectural Studies at the University of Manchester. Her research focuses on minor, migrant and subaltern architectures, centred on the African continent and Global South. She is cocurator of the open access curriculum Race Space & Architecture and lead curator and project manager of the digital exhibition Archive Forgetfulness.
Collage: Nina Mathijsen, Collage X, 2021. © takeadetour.eu. Courtesy of the artist. The lead image is a detail of this collage.