Original Research - Special Collection: Practical Theology

‘Keeping head above water’: A case study in religious leadership in a polluted context

Ian A. Nell
HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies | Vol 70, No 2 | a2619 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/hts.v70i2.2619 | © 2014 Ian A. Nell | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 27 January 2014 | Published: 09 October 2014

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Ian A. Nell, Department of Practical Theology, Faculty of Theology, University of Stellenbosch, South Africa

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‘We must stop wasting our precious water – and also stop polluting it.’ These are the words of Dr Jo Barnes, Epidemiologist and Senior Lecturer in Community Health at the University of Stellenbosch’s Faculty for Health Sciences. Her research involves the quality of water in rivers and its health impact on communities. It is general knowledge that health services are struggling under the burden of diseases resulting from environmental pollution, particularly water pollution. This potentially avoidable crisis is slowly turning into a disaster. The article draws on a case study done in the informal settlement of Sweet Home Farm in Philippi, Cape Town, with the intent of compiling a descriptive empirical report on the way the community deals with human waste. In a next step, interpretive lenses are used to look with ‘deeper understanding’ at the problem of human waste and pollution. After that, the focus shifts to the problem of a theology of human waste, and the article concludes with suggestions on the role of religious leadership and ways in which leaders can play a constructive role in handling the crisis of a polluted context.

Toilets in the modern water closets rise up from the floor like water lilies. The architect does all he can to make the body forget how paltry it is and to make man ignore what happens to his intestinal wastes after the water from the tank flushes them down the drain … Spontaneously, without any theological training, I, as a child, grasped the incompatibility of God and shit and thus came to question the basic thesis of Christian anthropology, namely that man was created in God’s image. Either/or: either man was created in God’s image – and has intestines! – or God lacks intestines and man is not like him. (Milan Kundera, The unbearable lightness of being 1984:132)

Water is life, sanitation is dignity. (City of Cape Town, n.d., ‘Water and sanitation services standard’, Preliminary draft 2, March 2008)


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