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Anarchy in the RSA: A spirit of revolt without revolution


Jaco Barnard-Naudé is Professor of Jurisprudence and Co-director of the Centre for Rhetoric Studies in the Department of Private Law at the University of Cape Town where he conducts research and teaching in critical post-apartheid jurisprudence. In the United Kingdom, he is the British Academy's Newton Advanced Fellow in the School of Law at Westminster University and Honorary Research Fellow at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, University of London. He is a board member of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) and of the Triangle Project, Cape Town

The combination in the postcolony of extreme poverty with the consumerist injunction to enjoy is a recipe for the explosions that we are seeing in our cities and towns at the moment.

In her famous book, On Revolution, Hannah Arendt wrote about the distinguishing feature of the human being: the capacity to begin, to bring something new into the world. Arendt called this the concept of “natality” and linked it to revolution as follows: “Violence is no more adequate to describe the phenomenon of revolution than change; only where change occurs in the sense of a new beginning, where violence is used to constitute an altogether different form of government, to bring about the formation of a new body politic, where the liberation from oppression aims at the constitution of freedom can we speak of revolution.”

The current situation of looting, arson and general destruction in South Africa has nothing to do with revolution, nor with protest (although, as we shall presently see, there is nonetheless an unconscious, subliminal protest message conveyed by these events). Commentators who have rushed to opine that the “objective conditions” of revolution are now present in South Africa, have clearly failed to appreciate the basic fact of revolution – that it consists in bringing into being something altogether unprecedented, something positively new.

The situation today is infinitely different from the student protests that shook higher education in South Africa and the country as such, during 2015-2017. These protests were different, precisely because, on the whole, they had as their aim a new beginning, whether one calls it “decolonisation” or “free education”. The protesters of 2015-2017 had a positive message to deliver to their post-apartheid masters. As such, they were in the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s sense, an instance of “hysterical” discourse; “hysterical” not in any pejorative sense of the word, but “hysterical” precisely because they amounted, via a set of positive demands, to a ceaseless interrogation of the master, whether this master was university authority, the minister of higher education or the president.

It is true that the protesters of 2015-2017 delivered their message sometimes violently, but the violence that sporadically erupted during the #FeesMustFall campaigns was not only used in an effort to constitute an altogether new order, a revolution, in higher education – in the worst cases, violence, or what Richard Pithouse called the “turn to burning”, in fact signified the growing weakness of a movement that, on the whole, had an assertive utopian aim: the decolonisation of higher education, including free education “in our lifetime” as the students often put it.

The looters of our current moment, have no positive message to deliver, no new beginning to propose. Despite the sense that the unrest was sparked by the demand to release Jacob Zuma from prison, which at least looks like the rudiments of some form of a positive demand, this has itself now been drowned out in the day-to-day orgies of destruction and violence, in the business/busy-ness of looting itself. Neither can it be said, as some would claim, that “Radical Economic Transformation” (RET) signals what the utopian aim is here, since RET has largely stood for forms of, and has taken place by way of, looting itself, namely of the state through tactics that involves widespread corruption and State Capture, geared at benefiting a small elite as opposed to the people at large. In the current situation, we see no slogans on placards, no advocacy, no writing on the walls, only anarchy and chaos. Looting and burning as a form of social unrest is not new, nor specific to South Africa. There have been many cases here and abroad, especially since the dawn of the new millennium, where people have taken to the streets in this seemingly “senseless” undertaking of destruction for its own sake.

But should we complacently dismiss these lootings, this new turn to burning, as nothing but the performance of a spirit of naked nihilism that seems to have engulfed the country? Is there, after all, something in this unrest that we can learn about the world we live in? It is no doubt true that the Covid-19 pandemic has been hardest on the poorest of the poor – it has profoundly exacerbated deprivation, destitution, hunger, unemployment and homelessness. Are the riots, then, a sign of a people so desperate, so frustrated, that they see themselves as having no other choice but to act out the fact that they have nothing left to lose?

Slavoj Žižek proposed in an article on the London riots in 2011 that such riots are not easily understandable in Marxist terms, precisely because they do not carry the signs of the emergence of a revolutionary subject. Instead, he proposes that they fit much better the Hegelian notion of “abstract negativity”, of “those outside organised social space, who can express their discontent only through ‘irrational’ outbursts of destructive violence”. Žižek believes that these forms of riot confirm the rather mundane, now commonplace assertion that we live in a post-ideological era, an era in which nothing is demanded any more, a time of “zero-degree violence”.

“Opposition to the system can no longer articulate itself in the form of a realistic alternative, or even as a utopian project,” Žižek writes, “but can only take the shape of a meaningless outburst.”

So, not only does the riots tell us that we live in a world in which opposition to the dominant ideology – to the only game in town being advanced late capitalist neoliberalism – is no longer considered possible; they also tell us that many people today no longer believe that there is any value in formulating and collectively working towards an alternative to the degradations of this ideology, by coming up with a (counter-)utopian programme of action directed at a concrete result: “the formation of a new body politic, where the liberation from oppression aims at the constitution of freedom”, as Arendt wrote. 

As indicated above, RET can hardly be considered a version of the people collectively working towards an alternative that would secure their liberation from oppression – it is a profoundly cynical strategy of neoliberalism itself, aimed at ensuring that the already rich will just get richer at the cost of the poor. One does not have to have read Hegel on the ethical state, to understand that “State” Capture is always already a capture of the very institutions that stand – against the market – the best chance of alleviating the poverty of the people, of liberating them from need.

The combination in the postcolony of extreme poverty with the consumerist injunction to enjoy is a recipe for the explosions that we are seeing in our cities and towns at the moment. That the situation was triggered by the imprisonment of someone who is alleged, at least, to have given absolutely no ground relative to his enjoyment is, of course, the irony of ironies.

Žižek argues that what we see in these kinds of riots is not at all the so-called human reduced to “beast” as right-wing racist, conservative ideology would have it. Rather what is revealed to us by riots of this kind is “the stripped-down form of the ‘beast’ produced by capitalist ideology” itself – the reduction of the human to nothing but a being who must consume or die. As a result of decades of neglect, now exacerbated by Covid-19’s ravages, many poor people see in these riots simply an opportunity to satisfy their devastating need (hence the looting of bread, nappies and other necessities of life). In these cases, the riots show us the dark underbelly of neoliberalism as more and more the production of what Giorgio Agamben has called “bare life”, life left to its own devices, a life consisting of nothing more but the daily struggle to survive physically, to sustain oneself by whatever means that may present themselves.

Moreover, in a world dominated by the capitalist superego’s injunction to Enjoy!, it is as if, in moments like these, those who are deprived of the means of such enjoyment are unconsciously at least voicing an ironic kind of protest against this very injunction to enjoy, consume, live large. As Žižek writes of the London riots: “more than anything else, they were a manifestation of a consumerist desire violently enacted when unable to realise itself in the ‘proper’ way – by shopping. As such, they also contain a moment of genuine protest, in the form of an ironic response to consumerist ideology: ‘You call on us to consume while simultaneously depriving us of the means to do it properly – so here we are doing it the only way we can!’”

The combination in the postcolony of extreme poverty with the consumerist injunction to enjoy is a recipe for the explosions that we are seeing in our cities and towns at the moment. That the situation was triggered by the imprisonment of someone who is alleged, at least, to have given absolutely no ground relative to his enjoyment is, of course, the irony of ironies. But Zuma’s imprisonment was only a catalyst, the substance that enabled the ingredients of an already mixed recipe to react. As much as the riots then reveal in one sense the way in which we live in a post-ideological world in which many perceive that there is no alternative worth fighting for any longer, they also reveal to us what Žižek calls the “material force of ideology”: the very real force of the prevailing domination of capitalist consumer ideology in a profoundly impoverished (in all the senses of the word) post-apartheid South Africa.

Finally, it is worth noting the psychoanalysis of this moment. The riots represent instances of what Lacan called passage à l’acte (passage to the act), acts in which the demonstrative accent consists in a violence that is aimed at the renunciation of the symbolic order we all inhabit, but which is strictly an “implicit admission of impotence”. This is why the above explanation of the objective conditions for the riots cannot simply be regarded as an apologia for them. As Žižek writes, the edumbration of the objective conditions for violence is never enough because “[t]o riot is to make a subjective statement, implicitly to declare how one relates to one’s objective conditions”. In the end, personal responsibility, though profoundly impacted upon by objective conditions, cannot be simply obliterated by those objective conditions – there is a minimal gap between objective conditions and personal action or inaction. For instance, there are countless poor South Africans who, having all reason for it, nonetheless refrain from taking to the streets and the shops.

To conclude, the depressing thing from the perspective of the left (if there is still such a thing), is the total absence in this moment of any positive utopian alternative for the postcolony. Instead, the leadership of the so-called ultra-left has instead resorted to a strategy of incitement and paranoid conspiracy theories. In the meantime, the ideology of the right and the centre is unwittingly provided with causes for even more support, as many angry South Africans resort once more to the racisms and xenophobias for which the “rainbow nation” has become so well known. At the same time, as the looting and the burning continue in the streets, despite the deployment of the army, very few seem to have noticed the truly devastating nature of the problem: that South Africa is becoming a country that is literally eating away at itself. In a spirit of revolt without revolution, those who loot and burn destroy the means of livelihood of other precarious South Africans, South Africans with whom they have every reason to be in solidarity – what we are witnessing is thus strictly a confrontation of society with society. In such circumstances, the revolutionary decolonisation that the students of 2015-2017 fought for, seems an ever diminishing possibility. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Terri Van Schaik says:

    The anniversary of the storming of the Bastille was Tuesday. The difference is that the proletariat were trying to free the wrongfully incarcerated which in the end, after having to endure the reign of a further 2 monarchs, marked the changing of the guard. France become a republic. I’m not so sure the majority of those people taking to the streets and reverting to what they did were thinking too hard about how things were going to shape the world to the degree that it did. The considered instigators mayhap.

  • Helen Swingler says:

    Fascinating insights. Thank you, Jaco. The supreme irony of the poor being duped by those who would keep them poor – and under the banner of ‘radical economic transformation’. The poor have been sold down the river once again, first by apartheid, preceded by centuries of oppression, and now by a regime that promised liberation. But it means nothing when you have no food or legitimate means to secure a living. This is the ugly face of State Capture and its enablers who have knowingly and ruthlessly eroded this nation (while under oath to protect it), its institutions and its economy and the dignity and survival of its poorest.

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