The banalisation of cruelty and the repetition of often brutal and traumatic events – the Marikana massacre, deaths at the hands of an increasingly paramilitarised police force, the proliferation of bureaucratically induced and popular forms of xenophobia, countless and horrific incidents of rape, an expanding culture of venality, corruption and theft, the rebalkanisation of society and the resurgence of racism, the undisciplined and violent nature of citizens’ protests – have led many, here and abroad, to wonder what kind of social order, or figure of freedom, or even of the human, is being constituted in South Africa.
A few decades after the formal end of apartheid, are we witnessing the emergence of something radically new and insidious, or simply a return to the same shameful, hideous and brutal lie – this time with a black skin and a black mask? Is it true that so many sacrifices, so much hope and so much potential have, at the end, come to this?
Frantz Fanon – a key analyst of post-struggle syndromes – believed that a result of the deep injuries inflicted on those who had been the victims of white supremacy was their inability to project themselves forward in time. Crushed by the misery of the past, their historical consciousness had been severely crippled. They had developed a propensity for compulsive repetition and a profound disbelief in their capacity to shape their own future.
For Fanon, repetition was the way death inhabited thought and language. To stop repeating, the whole social and psychic structure had to change from the bottom up. This is how a new concept of life, of freedom and of the human could be reinvented, the theatrical world of masks destroyed and a new world of pure intensities instituted.
It may be that South Africa is still struggling to exit the world of masks. To be sure, it is far from falling into the category of “failed states” and to pretend that nothing has been achieved in almost 20 years of freedom is patently dishonest. But nor is the country decisively moving towards what can be legitimately expected from it and what it could become.
It is not going backwards, either. At best, it is going through oscillations, twists, folds and turns. At worst, it is in a stationary state, and in some areas of social and political life almost close to stasis. Undoubtedly, this is not unrelated to the nature of the transition away from apartheid.
Indeed, the single most important transformation the end of white minority rule has brought is the turning of South Africa from a society of control into a society of consumption. This shift is happening in the absence of structures of mass production and in the context of an armed citizenry – the majority of whom is propertyless.
For almost 20 years, the ANC has struggled to find the proper formula to establish its hegemony over such disparate and fragmented social formations. It could not simply reproduce the apartheid model of control. The latter mostly aimed at tracking black people’s mobility. By regulating their relationship to space, it could extract their labour at a very low cost. By multiplying microenvironments of enclosure, it could forcibly separate people from each other by law, or tightly regulate connections between them across the colour line.
Black people’s capacity
Under white minority rule, to govern was fundamentally about the modulation of brutality. As a mode of governance, brutality performed three crucial functions.
On the one hand, it weakened black people’s capacity to secure and sustain social reproduction both generationally and on a daily basis. They could never acquire enough of the basic means necessary to produce a sustainable life: food, shelter, health and, more importantly, knowledge and learning capabilities.
On the other hand, apartheid brutality was somatic. It surrounding the black body and made it prisoner, while allowing it to enjoy various temporary microfreedoms. It manifested itself in the way one’s body was treated once captured by the state (the police, the military, the prison, the court) or caught in the webs of private apparatuses of extraction (the mining compound, the farm).
Finally, this form of brutality systematically targeted its victims’ nervous systems and tended to deplete them of the capacity to engage in meaningful symbolic and creative work. Their world of symbols and their world of imagination could only shrink.
Distracted by their misery as well as by the work of power, their psychic energies were constantly scattered. In order to survive, they were forced to repeat daily the same gestures, the same speech and the same rituals.
Post-apartheid South Africa has not taken proper stock of the extent to which these three forms of brutality have been internalised and are now redeployed in a molecular fashion in our public and communal existence.
We can track their dynamism at almost every level of our social and psychic life and interactions: in the intimate spheres of daily existence; in the structures of desire and sexuality; in the irrepressible lust for commodities; in the small encounters with our bureaucracy; in the behaviour of the police; in the manner and style of crime; and in the language of politics itself.
Society of consumption
South African politics and culture are in a profound state of crisis because we have taken the entitlement to consume to be the form and ultimate substance of democracy and citizenship.
The conflation of democracy and consumption is not typical to South Africa. The shift from a society of control to a society of consumption is nevertheless happening here – in a context of acute privation for the majority of black citizens and in the absence of structures of mass production. Ours is a democracy with a majority of propertyless citizens in a country historically shaped by the contradiction between the rule of the people and the rule of property.
Even the emerging black middle class is not entirely certain that whatever it owns today (a house, a car, a fridge) won’t be taken away tomorrow. This sense of precarious ownership is a key marker of its psyche as a class in the making.
The ANC has understood that control today can no longer operate in the time frame of a closed system, as during the years of white minority rule. In the South African version of capitalist democracy, control is now free-floating.
This is the ominous calculation made by the current ruling political elite and increasingly by the owners of capital too: that mass poverty and propertylessness, plus high levels of inequality, crime, or even taxation, might lead to unruly protests, episodic strikes and ever more incidents of violence. But they need not lead automatically to a radical overthrow of the current political or economic dispensation.
In this unique historical moment, post-apartheid hegemony might better be cemented through a skilful modulation of relative instability and the instrumentalisation of disorder and indiscipline. If necessary, the liberation movement itself will foment indiscipline and controlled disorder in order to better use it as a means of “outing” its enemies, crushing its internal opponents, drying up the sources of their sudden enrichment, intimidating the populace and cementing its hegemony.
South Africa has entered a new period of its history: a post-Machiavellian moment when private accumulation no longer happens through outright dispossession but through the capture and appropriation of public resources, the modulation of brutality and the instrumentalisation of disorder.
Characterised by a wave of nostalgia for the environments of enclosure that ensured predictability under white minority rule, the cultural climate in the country clearly favours this path. More than we dare to recognise, South Africans are overwhelmingly attached to the mental, affective, spatial and psychic frameworks of segregation. This attachment to anachronisms has been partly fuelled by high levels of crime and has led to the rebalkanisation of society.
It is a direct response to the country’s transformation into a nation of privately armed men with a police force in military garb and affect, hundreds of private security firms and a citizenry divided between the few who can pay their taxes but do not vote for the ruling party and the many who support the ruling party and depend on it for various kinds of grants.
This is the mixture of clientelism, nepotism and prebendalism so prevalent in the immediate aftermath of African decolonisation. Increasingly exposed to all kinds of risks to their lives, many now believe that each individual can be his or her own police, or that most disagreements are better settled by force. Yet an armed society is anything but a polite – a civil – society. It is not a political community. It is hardly a democracy.
It is mostly an assemblage of atomised individuals isolated before power, separated from each other by fear, prejudice, mistrust and suspicion, and prone to mobilise under the banner of either a mob, a clique or a militia rather than an idea and, even less so, a disciplined organisation.
South Africa’s experiment with freedom will be short-lived if we let brutality turn into the privileged means mediating the relationships between putatively free and equal citizens on the one hand and the state and the market on the other. The gun is a brutal and undemocratic form of communication.
If we let this happen, the rule of the people will not only turn into the rule of property. The rule of property will quickly turn into the rule of the gun.
Achille Mbembe is a research professor in history and politics and a co-convenor of the Johannesburg workshop in theory and criticism at the University of the Witwatersrand. This is an excerpt from a lecture he delivered at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research on March 18