Defend Truth


Short circuit: Our people are disillusioned, disgusted, disappointed and angry with the new South Africa


Dr Chris Jones is Chief researcher in the Department of Systematic Theology and Ecclesiology, and also head of the Unit for Moral Leadership at Stellenbosch University

As long as the gap between rich and poor in this country remains as large as it is, we will continue to see severe frustration and brutal violence. Without strong moral imagination, vision and leadership, these serious short circuits will lead to violent explosions.

Having watched the recent social unrest, looting and violence, I asked myself: what makes our society so violent? The more I think about it, the more it seems that the root of violence is an intertwined product of people’s history, sighs and yearnings.

Philosopher Johann Rossouw states that there are normally three spheres of society we engage with – the religious, the political and the economic. They all play a structuring role throughout (almost) every society. From time to time, it happens that one of these spheres has a greater impact than the others.

Thus, religion played a dominant role in the Middle Ages, the political in the modern era, while the economy rules in our postmodern society. And because many people are in effect excluded from the latter, their frustration often leads to violence.

Different levels of existence

The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan reasons that humans live on three different levels (or registers) of existence. 

Interpreted and simplified, it means that every human being has an imaginary side. It indicates the ego, an image of how one sees oneself. Second, there is the symbolic side or order of existence. You experience it through, among others, language as a social mediation register.

Third, you get the real side of being human. It is those desires, pleasures, but also fears and anxiety, that unspeakable “thing” that in principle can never really be fully satisfied, erased or expressed in words, but is always present in us.

According to another philosopher, Bert Olivier, one can apply these three levels of existence to the above three spheres of life. In other words, an imaginary, symbolic and real side is found in each of the religious, political and economic spheres.

Let’s take the economy, for example. Here you will find the imaginary, such as the envisioned picture of a successful businessperson; the symbolic is the economic policy, constitution or language that can ensure this businessperson’s success; and the real side of the economic sphere is the desires which cry out in this businessperson – as in other human beings – to be materialised, but which are seldom, if ever, realised.

However, this longing for the material is constantly present in, often consuming, us.

‘Drawing pictures’

How does this relate to frustration and violence in our country? To understand this we have to go back to the political sphere for a moment.

We know that apartheid was traumatic for many South Africans. It was unfair and inhumane, and restricted the freedom of many people.

However, over the years, people have begun to “see” on an imaginary level what a life without apartheid might look like. Pictures of the new South Africa were “drawn”, and many socioeconomic expectations have been created, which have nourished this imaginary side of human existence. In policy or “Struggle” language, on a symbolic level in other words, this new order was communicated to people. This is what has been fought for – better socioeconomic circumstances for all.

But for many this has not materialised – and they are consequently disillusioned, disgusted, disappointed and angry with the way things have turned out in the new South Africa. Due to often dysfunctional schools, many people, especially the young, don’t have enough marketable skills. As a result, they remain poor and unemployed with little chance of achieving economic freedom and independence, and enjoying the benefits that go with them.

Abstract violence

To understand this traumatic and sobering transition from one order to another, it is good to go back to a particular period in France’s history. Without making simple, straightforward inferences, this piece of history tells us a great deal about our own situation.

In 1835, France transitioned from an oppressive monarchy to a new constitutional democracy. But what happened is that one kind of hierarchical violence gave way to another.

The latter form of violence, according to Bert Olivier, quoting Jean-Pierre Peter and Jeanne Favret, is called “the abstract violence of money”. It prevented the newly liberated working class in France from gaining the guaranteed economic freedom. And the most heinous acts were committed during this time, such as mothers killing their children and drinking their blood.

Philosopher Michel Foucault and his research team say in this respect that violence has moved from one order to another. In the one order everyone had a “place”, even though it was within an unjust order, but in the new order they could not find a “place”. They would still have to conquer it. Such psychological insecurity leads to violence.

Imaginary South Africa

Something about the “abstract violence of money” is also true of South Africa. People started dreaming of a new dispensation on an imaginary level. How their lives would change for the better. But for many, it simply did not realise. Former politician Ronnie Kasrils says in this regard: “We have seen the creation of a black bourgeoisie, a minuscule number of people who’ve become capitalists and risen to great wealth.” Many others have been left behind.

Under such circumstances – where people’s dreams do not “come true” – there is usually a serious short circuit between the imaginary and the real.

History teaches us that when people can do nothing about their plight, they usually accept it as a fact of life. In other words, there is not (necessarily) a drive for a better material life. But when people are given hope of a better life (as in our Constitution) by politicians or the mass media and they experience relatively little of it, the revolutionary potential increases because they reach for, or dream of, better living conditions, but without success. 

Reflecting on violence in the US, Norwegian psychiatrist David Abrahamsen says “the American Dream is, in part, responsible for a great deal of crime and violence, because people feel that the country not only owes them a living, but a good living”. He adds that “frustration is the wet nurse of violence”.

Disturbed or frustrated

The symbolic, the language, or let’s call it the “moral law”, is the one thing that can help prevent the above short circuit. It can help mediate a better relationship or balance between the imaginary and the real. Without this, peaceful and loving coexistence cannot take place.

As long as the gap between rich and poor in South Africa remains as large as it is, we will continue to see severe frustration and brutal violence. According to Rossouw, many people with wealth and power have developed “disturbed desires” – in other words, they never get enough – and most poor people have “frustrated desires” –  which lead to feelings of despair, powerlessness, exclusion and humiliation.

Without strong moral imagination, vision and leadership, the above serious short circuits will lead to violent explosions. Without moral character, people would not be able to see others as a mirror image of themselves who also long for better economic conditions. Without this moral law, our fellow South Africans so easily become “things” who are treated accordingly.

This will not disappear with increased police and army presence. We need strong moral/ethical leadership, coupled with economic growth and job creation. We need “distributive justice” and “collaborative development” in order to address the abovementioned short circuits manifesting so clearly in our country. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Charles Parr says:

    The ANC must accept most of the blame for the shattered dreams of the majority of people in this country but the leaders won’t take responsibility because they have been the beneficiaries of their discriminatory policies.

  • Stephen T says:

    A fair point of view, but all of which means nothing when the politicians in power have no fear of losing their jobs if they don’t perform or just get a slap on the wrist when they get caught abusing their power for self-enrichment.

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