Violent Bubbles

What do you think of when the word ‘violence’ is mentioned? Physical confrontation. Blood. Gore. Death. But what is your understanding of slow violence? According to Rob Nixon, slow violence refers to a kind of long-term violence that we cannot necessarily see, and therefore, do not consider to be violent (2011:2).  Our “flickering attention spans” allow for the “spectacle-driven media” to focus on other things, while these calamities “patiently dispense their devastation” (Nixon, 2011:6). This photo essay aims to discuss the pollution in the Hennops River as an example of slow violence through a photo essay.


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These common household products keep us and our houses clean. We use shampoos like Organics and Pantene to wash our hair, soaps like Lux and Sunlight to wash our bodies and toothpastes like Colgate and Aquafresh to keep our mouthes clean and smelling fresh. We use dishwashing liquids to wash our dishes after a tasty meal and we use foam bath when we take a bath so that we can hide underneath the bubbles, away from the rest of the world. Then we put on some nice, clean pyjamas that have just been washed with high foam washing power or Ariel. But where does it all go once it has gone down the drain?



Is this image not reminiscent of a lovely, warm bubble bath? Or maybe it reminds you of light and fluffy clouds in the sky. Either way, it is a rather calming picture to look at because generally people like to be clean in a clean environment. It is when things become messy and dirty that people become uncomfortable.


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If we zoom out of the picture a little bit, we are able to see that this is not a warm bath or the cottony sky, but instead we see that it is the Hennops River that has been contaminated by cleaning products. The sad thing is that this is what the river looks like on a good day. I have lived in this area for a very long time and I cannot remember a single day that there has not been foam in the river. If only I could capture the stench that comes from this river in an image. Faecal coliform bacteria and E. coli of >100 000/100 ml are found to be present in the river, along with many other toxic chemicals such as, fluoride, phosphates, sulphates, sodium and chloride (Huizenga, 2004, ii). So not only are we exposed to extremely high levels of bacteria, but these toxic chemicals can have catastrophic effects on our health in a few years from now. For example, fluoride has been found to cause many serious illnesses such as increased risk of cancer and thyroid disease. It is also said to contain many neurotoxins and lower people’s IQ’s. I would say that sodium lauryl sulphate and sodium laureth sulphate are definitely present in the water, as they are used as foaming agents in shampoos, soaps, toothpastes and detergents.  Thave been linked with cancer because of their corrosive properties.


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Along with the bacteria and toxic chemicals in the water, a lot of rubbish can be found all around the river banks. This is most likely as a result of the people living in Tembisa, who just dump all sorts of garbage into the water, as this is where the raw sewage originates from too. If you live in Pretoria and think that this does not affect you, you are wrong. This water runs into the Rietvlei Dam, which is where we mainly get our water from, and the water is never completely cleaned before it reaches our glasses.


Hopefully this photo essay has used the case of the Hennops River to demonstrate Rob Nixon’s notion of slow violence. As Humanities students, it is our responsibility to use a sense of imagination and creativity to bring to life a situation of slow violence through text and image.






Centurion Rekord. 2015. Hennops a ‘river of faeces’. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed: 23/04/2016].

Centurion Rekord. 2015. Mountains of foam on Hennops River. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed: 23/04/2016].

Huizenga, J.M. 2004. Natural and anthropogenic influences on water quality: an example from rivers draining the Johannesburg Granite Dome. I-74. Available from:

Kramer, S. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and Sodium Laureth Sulfate. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed: 23/04/2016].

Natural News. 2012. Some deadly side effects of consuming fluoridated tap water. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed: 26/04/20016].

Nixon, R. 2011. Slow violence and the environmentalism of the poor. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.



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