Larry Ray in a 2014 article titled “Shame and the City: ‘Looting’, Emotions and Social Structure” writes: “While emotions such as shame have agential properties, these need to be situated within structural and cultural conditions that are likely to evoke shame”. The semiotic reading of shame into looting requires suspension of signs and referents of ownership, primarily because access to ownership of basic necessities like food is regulated by poverty, landlessness and unemployment.
The signifier of purchasing is thus violently divested of its power, the very moment shame is suspended and is replaced by a justifying narrative of structural inequality on the store shelves. The looting encoded in the collective disorder, as Ray reminds us, “is itself violence that ought to be understood as being communicative and invoking normative justifications, which mediate the effects of shame-rage”.
We are drawing on semiotics as a branch of literary theory in order to contribute to emergent perspectives of shame-rage we have witnessed over the past seven days.
How else can we characterise this spectacle without criminalising poverty and vulgarising the poor? Definitely, without question, all South Africans are currently engulfed in seeking to understand what has caused this moment, what it means and what it forebodes. We are all caught in a moment of watching, and seriously questioning ourselves, everybody and everything. We have always been a people in search of ourselves, feistily contesting the very idea of South Africa.
Overall, many have pointed to the chronic challenges of inequality, poverty and unemployment as the key drivers and instigators of the citizens’ protests that we are currently entangled in. Of course, without a doubt, the never-ending condition of poverty, where a necessity such as a meagre meal for the day is what is struggled for, forebodes anomie, by any score. Furthermore, in conditions of grinding inequality, social and political unrest are well known consequences. Not even the most feared tyrant can contain social unrest in a country with over 70% youth unemployment.
Trust levels, and the belief that the State can and does meet its commitments, are spectacularly low. They have been deteriorating for many years, in fact. The lack of trust in the government was plainly evident this week in that many South Africans questioned whether the government has the situation under control. It could even be the reality that emboldens agent provocateurs who disdainfully think the arm of the state is stunted. And the Phoenix massacre: why would people who respect the rule of law wantonly murder people and litter the streets with dead bodies like that? To top it all, they recorded all this to show a middle finger to the state.
And why should South Africans trust that the government has the situation under control when a long list of hits and misses, and outright failures, is evident even to the most illiterate. For example, Auditor-General Tsakani Maluleke recently told us that for the 2019/20 financial year, out of 257 municipalities, only 27 had obtained clean audits. Even worse, was that an astounding 57 municipalities could not complete the audit, pointing to their inevitable collapse.
There is no way that we can imagine social cohesion in communities where people have lost their businesses and jobs, but are also constantly bombarded with images and videos of well-heeled government officials like myself, who do not deliver even the basic service such as collecting dirt.
At a basic level, South Africans’ social imagination, has over the past two years, been captured by the televised spectacle of the commission of inquiry into allegations of State Capture, corruption and fraud in the public sector, including organs of state. South Africans have seen the top leadership of the party in government appear before the commission giving the backstory of the horror show. The happenings have been humorous at points – memes have been generated – and who can forget the dementia among some of the protagonists?
But beyond this mirth, albeit concerned, we might not have up until now seriously considered the kind of social imagination that this commission, having begun in 2019 and continued through Covid-19, is producing. The commission has also been graced by CEOs, board members and executives, most of whom are yet to undergo what we can refer to as “consequence management”. This has propagated the idea that there are no consequences; people who do wrong will be called before some or other type of commission, get to appear on TV, sometimes answer questions nonsensically and that will be the end of it.
The general perception is that as many normal South Africans lose their livelihoods, others get to benefit and continue as normal; speed-boating through Dubai’s waters, looting slay queens, refreshing in wine estates, flying private jets, turning their bodies into walking billboards of luxury brands and stuffing their children to obesity. We have even seen political leaders yelling “down with White Monopoly Capital!” whilst wearing luxury brands owned by the same WMC. And always, the irony is lost to them.
We can call these the Steinhoff, VBS, Fidentia, Transnet, Estina and Eskom elite looting clubs.
Again then, can we draw a looting continuum of the elite and the lumpen (without offending Marxist purists, I use lumpen colloquially)?
The lumpen and elite loot, alike. They do this proportionate to their proximity to power and resources that can be looted and their varying degrees of (or lack of) sophistication.
In boardrooms and air-conditioned high-rise offices, capitalism has structured its own sophisticated, and importantly, legally tolerated system of looting. The elite loot millions and more, using sophisticated instruments at their disposal, including the ability to fix tenders, extort rents, move money offshore or dodge the taxman. There is always a mob that aids in looting. Funnily, this mob is called professionals. They are executives in corporations, they are lawyers, money traders and accountants. They are also government officials with long titles. These are the functionaries in this complex system of looting.
Elite looting is deadly but less chaotic than the vandalism we witnessed this week. Rather, it is systematised through the misappropriation and misallocation of resources. Poor audit results. All fancy, professional and legally tolerated words that mask looting. And theft. These are of course resources that could stimulate productive activities to benefit the poor and unemployed.
We are able to see the elite looting because they won’t keep quiet about what they can buy. They can’t help themselves. So, all of us see them, and watching them becomes our sport as they show off their spectacular rituals of conspicuous consumerism at golf estate club houses, VIP tables of night clubs, vintage car auctions, social media and reality TV shows.
Drawing on the social capital diffused through this network, the elite structure and legalised sophisticated schemes that swindle money from governments (tenders), the stock exchange (insider trading), consumers (price fixing), revenue authorities (tax evasion), central banks (illicit financial flows).
Global capitalism is awash with these examples. We have seen professionals parading as the fixing mob in major corporate loots from Enron to Steinhoff to Transnet to VBS, with chaotic repercussions. Without forgetting the foremost example of this, where these sophisticated hooligans collapsed the global financial system in 2008.
As we have witnessed in the current horror, the lumpen do loot, but because they are attracted to those commodities otherwise unaffordable through grants and working-class wages or mashonisa debt, they grab from the shops nearby. They smash and grab anything they can carry – from food to coffins, pigs to cake, and napkins to beer. Yes, they looted toilets, blood banks, mannequins and coffins too – a carnivalesque of Bakhtinian imagination. I could almost hear those bigots from Mpumalanga saying: “Look they are looting coffins but they said it is anti-African culture to be put in a coffin whilst alive.”
In the event that the poor expropriate from the affluent in a chaotic but collective manner, the stable signifiers of stability are disrupted, physically and symbolically. Looting thus becomes a replacement ritual, as Richard Cothren writes, without care for order but primarily about expropriation, a simple “model of conflict between two regimes in which each is trying to confiscate resources from the other”. Fire follows absurdity.
Must we agree to decolonise the word looting so we can distinguish between looting warehouses for electronic products, clothing, liquor and meat from looting a state-owned entity or listed companies? Imagine the low-level workers who earned a living from KPMG, Bosasa and all the shops and warehouses that have been looted and burnt: all are now without livelihoods.
We will be mistaken to close this without reflecting on the sociology of the tragedy. It is evident from all the visuals that this was not a “peasants’ revolt”. Luxury sedans and bakkies were lined up, loaded and driven to their secure homes where the security agencies are unlikely to do searches when they perform khipha iricidi (show the receipt). Sorry to traumatise my friends from Msinga and Ladysmith who survived the nightmare of khipha isbhamu (a police unit that broke doors and bones looking for illegal firearms). In both proportion and value, the middle class took more than what the poor grabbed this week. Their luxury sedans and SUVs came to their aid, pillaging on live television.
Once again, let us nuance the shame-rage, dissect the root causes and fertilisers of the horror show, and formulate practical and bold responses. Papering over the cracks of racial inequality by scapegoating through labelling will be like cursing the storm instead of harvesting the water when we know that drought is imminent. DM