Understanding the South African “volcano”
The eruption of a volcano is only the visible part of a process that took place in the earth’s crust long before the eruption. It is not possible to fully understand volcanic eruptions independently of these previous processes and any attempt to do so leads to a biased and singled out account of the complexity of the processes that caused the eruption. Using the volcano as a metaphor, following the ongoing protests, riots and looting in parts of South Africa, many opinions and perspectives expressed are aimed only at these visible eruptions. However, understanding the processes leading to what is ultimately made visible and felt is an important part of a holistic account of the current wave of violence in the country.
As a researcher and lecturer in visual and cultural studies, part of my job is to make sense of visible, cultural and socio-political contexts, using existing writing and theoretical perspectives. Aside from the academic merits of this exercise, it is a core practice that helps provide nuanced perspectives to narratives that are often flattened and distorted by news and social media.
There are useful texts to provide perspective and understanding following the protests that began last week after Jacob Zuma was imprisoned. Three of them are particularly valuable, but by no means summarize the varied readings, implications and complex contexts of a tumultuous South Africa in 2021.
Slavoj Žižek on the British riots of 2011
In 2011 in the London book review Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek wrote about the violent riots in London triggered by the shooting of Mark Duggan, 29, by the city’s Metropolitan Police. Žižek notes that the conservative and liberal reactions against these disturbances are insufficient.
He argues that conservative factions have completely rejected riots and vandalism, calling for sheer discipline, hard work and responsibility to end the unrest. The flaw in this reaction was that it ignored the desperate social situation that had triggered these reactions in the first place. On the other hand, the reactions of the liberal left calling for social programs and increased social integration. The problem with this reaction was that it captured the objective causes of the riots, but ignored the subjective accounts of those who took part in the unrest.
In the context of the current violence in South Africa, an exclusive focus on either reaction would be equally inadequate. In situations like these, there is a tendency to choose sides and then diminish information about multifaceted circumstances so that that choice of two feels natural and absolute. Instead, “truth” and “reality” are plural concepts and cannot be reduced to binary positions on extremely complex situations and the contexts that triggered them.
Žižek shows that the targets of the unrest in the UK in 2011 were shopkeepers and traders in rioting quarters. He writes: “The truth is that the conflict was between two poles of underprivileged: those who managed to function within the system versus those who are too frustrated to keep trying. … The conflict is not between different parts of society; it is, in its most radical form, the conflict between society and society, between those who have everything and those who have nothing to lose.
A Nids-Cram Report 2020 published in July of last year reported on the early social and economic impact of Covid-19 and the lockdown on South African citizens. This report found that South Africans saw an 18% drop in employment between February and April 2020 – job losses were concentrated on those already disadvantaged. Additionally, 47% of those polled reported that their household was out of money to buy food as of April 2020. The report’s findings were serious, and a year that saw various lockdown milestones to tackle three waves of Covid-19 infections have only gotten worse. the gloomy social and economic situation.
Žižek argues that the riots in the UK were “a manifestation of a fiercely enforced consumerist desire when it could not come true the ‘right’ way – by shopping”. He says these actions read as an ironic protest against the materialistic consumer culture that required citizens to prove themselves by spending money, but the economic situation of the demonstrators did not allow them to comply with this rite of social passage. This may be true for a number of frustrated South Africans who for many years now have been left on the fringes of the economy and cannot afford to be part of consumer citizenship.
Žižek does not condemn or condone the British riots with this argument, but simply points it out as a valid point for understanding the full picture surrounding these events – the same can be achieved in a South African context.
Frantz Fanon on the role of violence in the postcolony (1961)
In The damned of the earth, postcolonial theorist and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon writes about the role of violence in changing a country, society and people from colonized to decolonized. Fanon is certainly not calling for arbitrary violence. He argues that without a violent overthrow and the removal of the old oppressive regimes, some of the roots of these forms of power will remain even when colonial power is no longer in official power.
In a South African context, the same can be said of the power of apartheid and its structures. Many of the current social and economic failures in South Africa are the result of corruption and constitutionally unacceptable behavior by politicians in recent years. At the same time, as Fanon would say, a strong house cannot be built on a weak foundation, and many of the current problems in South African society are the result of the roots of power and apartheid structures that fail. have never been radically suppressed.
The effects of these two continuous presences were felt hard during the time of Covid-19. In December 2020 Stats SA launched a data visualization dashboard which maps the vulnerability of South African communities to the spread of the virus, based on a variety of risk indicators and aggravating factors. According to this platform, seven of the nine South African provinces are the most vulnerable to Covid-19 due to a lack of sanitation. This means that in seven of the nine provinces, people are at risk of spreading the virus because they do not have toilets or other sanitation facilities in their homes. In two of these seven provinces, this risk factor is combined with a lack of access to running water in the home.
At the same time, the Western Cape and Gauteng, as the country’s economic hubs and home to the largest white population groupss, are indicated as being primarily vulnerable to the virus due to the age of provincial citizens. This points to a social and economic chasm, reflecting traces of the country’s past that continue to manifest in the growing unequal distribution of privileges in South Africa. This helps to account for the invisible processes leading to grievances visualized by the current wave of unrest and violence.
Alan Paton’s Cry, the beloved country (1948)
Paton classic novel, published the year the apartheid government came to formal power, provides a literary social protest against the structures that would eventually give rise to apartheid. Reading the novel in 2021 is shocking, because so many of the issues Paton draws attention to in South African society are still topical and topical (Fanon would say this is why violence has a necessary role to play ).
There is a scene in which John Kumalo is making a speech about the labor situation in South Africa and the decent pay for workers in the mining industry which is particularly significant. While the speech is addressed to Johannesburg’s gold mining industry, it can be supported by any current South African company. This writing takes on particular significance after Marikana, especially given the criticism leveled at President Cyril Ramaphosa both in the current protests and those seen in Marikana in 2012.
Kumalo says, “We only ask for the things that hardworking men fight for in every country in the world, the right to sell our labor for what it’s worth, the right to raise our families as honest men should. make. They say higher wages will lead to mine closures. So what is this mining industry worth? And why should he be kept alive, if it is only our poverty that keeps him alive? They say it makes the country rich, but what do we see of this wealth? Do we have to stay poor for others to stay rich?
If this is the fate of a working class man, the cause of the 32.6% of unemployed in South Africa perhaps much more desperate and drastic. These reactions are read in connection with calls for the nationalization of mines and resources as attempts to offer more South Africans a portion of what their work produces.
Žižek writes that “when something happens only once, it can be considered an accident, something that could have been avoided if the situation had been handled differently; but when the same event is repeated, it is a sign that a deeper historical process is taking place. The current protests in South Africa are not isolated incidents, neither locally nor globally (Cuba, Hong Kong and others protest against Covid-19 lockdown measures).
Protests sparked by a lack of service delivery, access to housing, community safety and labor compensation have escalated in South Africa over the past two years. It is undoubtedly an indication of a repeating event, a sign that a historical process is making itself visible. At a time like this, superficial attempts to keep the breakouts going will not be enough. Instead, what is needed are profound structural changes to provide lasting solutions to prevent future breakouts.