The outbreaks of violence associated with community protests have come to trouble the public imagination. The images of anger and fury made visible through the media have disturbed many South Africans, and perhaps rightfully so. The burning of public property, social disruption, and interpersonal acts of violence have raised questions about the meaning and purpose of this violence, as well as the motives of those who are held responsible for initiating violence and, in particular, the burning of health, social and educational facilities. But what are the questions we should be asking?
Much media coverage has doubted and questioned the legitimacy of public protests as a form of engagement with power and against power. Some reports in the mainstream media, and sections of social media, have tended to suggest that those who burn are not of us; instead, they are imbued with criminal, dubious and pathological characteristics. They are cast as acting outside supposedly acceptable norms of behaviour; here we see the dominant structures wanting to once again tell the poor and downtrodden how to behave, and express their frustrations and demands for social justice. The dominant script is not only alienating, but insists on prescribing how and when people should articulate the rejection of such alienation.
The dominant public discourse seems to implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, dehumanise the suspected perpetrators of public violence and specific burnings. Of course, we all need to be held accountable and responsible for our choices and actions. By the same token, we ought to be asking questions about the socio-political structures and ruling psychology that is predicated on violence that continues to exclude the majority from the country’s resources and the governance of these resources. Is this not violence? Why do so many among us continue to be partial in our framings of violence? Whereas violent protests are constructed as unrestrained, excessive, extreme and criminal modes of engagement, we continue to be subjected to insidious forms of violence by many of those whom we entrust with the governance of this country, its natural resources and socio-cultural legacies.
Even though we do not see a visible bonfire and the ashes of the insidious flames, are we witnessing a burning of the legacy of centuries of struggle? Are these invisible bonfires not burning the rich leadership traditions that embody integrity, morality and a deep honesty? We seem to be overtaken by a callousness and disregard that burns people’s aspirations for a better life. We are burnt each time a public official or politician shows us the proverbial finger when questioned about the arms deal, Marikana massacre, corporate contracts or tenders for coal and mining, for instance. Why don’t we regard the use of the courts, and legalised and institutionalised protocols to delay and evade justice, transparency and accountability as acts of burning; perhaps we dare not call them burnings. What should we call the many acts that deny the poor, the marginalised, women, workers and students meaningful participation in matters of governance and daily living?
What shall we call and do about the ruling psychology that underpins and preserves structural violence; the ruling psychology that naturalises extractive relationships and presents acquisitiveness, consumption and accumulation as the natural outcome of political power and authority. The ruling psychology that confers disciplinary and psychic authority to neo-liberalism naturalises the commodification of relationships with the environments, animals and other humans. Thus, the ruling psychology as disciplinary power is enacted to justify the capture and dominance of natural and communal resources for the benefit of a few as a normal outcome of the supposedly everyday social and economic activities.
The ruling psychology seeks to manufacture commodified subjects whose survival and barest forms of livelihood are connected to a politics of patronage; a patronage that insists on a blind loyalty and everlasting gratitude to an elite that selectively mobilises customs, rituals and the memory of struggle and comradeship. Hollow and ritualised public pronouncements by political officials and corporate representatives are meant to acquire allegiance and appease the anger of the marginalised. There is an emotional disconnect between the ruling elite and the worlds of the “wretched”.
Returning to the issue of fires raging everywhere, then: who and what are we really burning? What should we burn and what is worth igniting, preserving and growing? Are the burnings perhaps a manifestation of our disgust and deep sadness at the scale of betrayal by our public and corporate structures and the officials who make these structures work, and are heavily invested in entrenching these structures? Perhaps considered in the context of a deeply troubling ruling psychology, then, the outbreaks of ferocious acts of violence assume meanings and dimensions that we seemingly don’t quite understand yet.
How do we lead ourselves out of the raging anger? Anger in itself may not be a problem. We should instead worry – if we are not already worrying – about the anger that points to the profound absence of trust in our public institutions and political practices that naturalise lies, cunning speech and acerbic language; that chastise and even kill the poor for their supposed lack of patience, public demands for recognition and a better life. I’m afraid as long as our social structures, economic arrangements, public spaces, myths, public narratives and memorials do not mirror and hold who we are as a people living in this southern part of the globe and give substance to our struggle for humanisation, the visible and invisible fires will persist. The alternative is to desist the othering and join contemporary movements and spaces to reassert our capacities to imagine and create an inclusive, fair and compassionate society. DM
This opinion piece was prepared as part of the 6th annual International Conference on Community Psychology, held at the Durban International Convention Centre last month.
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Professor Mohamed Seedat is Conference Chair: 6th International Conference on Community Psychology and Head of the Institute for Social and Health Sciences, University of South Africa. He is also Director of the Medical Research Council; University of South Africa Violence, Injury and Peace Research Unit.
"Look for lessons about haunting when there are thousands of ghosts; when entire societies become haunted by terrible deeds that are systematically occurring and are simultaneously denied by every public organ of governance and communication." ~ Avery Gordon