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Encoding and decoding social unrest: A semiotic analysis of the ‘Zuma protests’

The word “loot” first appeared in a British colonel’s handbook of “Indian vocabulary”, where the Hindi word “Lut was used to signify plunder, to steal and pillage — in short, to signify the avaricious character of the colonised. So this argot, or slang, has its etymology in a highly racialised discourse that persists to this day. 

Labelling the protestors as looters denies the political consciousness of  those living in precarity, it unconscionably  encodes a criminal stereotype over the poor  and erases any justice claims that motivate their actions. Thus the word  “looting”  is part of the lexicon of racist discourse  and its use for objective social inquiry must be called into question.

The social unrest in July  is a complex phenomenon and may be ascribed to a confluence of three triggers:

  1. Unemployment.
  2. Poverty 
  3. The Jacob Zuma protests, which served as brokerage for the ensuing unrest. In political violence literature the term, “brokerage” is used to signify events that precipitate social unrest.

My brief is to unpack how the looting and unrest was represented  on social media. To do this I take as my foundational premise that language is a means of social construction that both shapes and is shaped by society. Critical discourse analysis is useful  when analysing  texts that may appear neutral on the surface but may be  deeply ideological. I also use Stuart Hall’s theory of encoding/decoding in looking at the hegemonic discourses that shaped perceptions of the looting on social media.   I inquire into how the codes that inscribe  the curation  of news is also an expression of dominant, hegemonic values that advance the interest of  big business,  corporate wealth and  promote congenial images of the state.

In this study  I differentiate between  the visible and the invisible  and look at what was foregrounded and what was backgrounded in these  discourses. The visible looting on television is contrasted with the invisible looting of corrupt politicians, deployed cadres and greedy entrepreneurs of state capture. What was also invisible was  also any concerted effort by law enforcement to stop the  looting. What was visible was police kicking down doors in informal settlements,  confiscating stoves, alcohol  and groceries  with brutal efficiency. Why the police were  suddenly galvanised into action  from a  state of paralysis is a matter of conjecture.

Let’s look at Andrew Harding of the BBC in his  headline news: South Africa riots: The inside story of Durban’s week of anarchy.

Hall’s oppositional reading would raise the question: anarchy for whom?. Whose voice resonates here? To the mostly poor people looting in Makro and Woolworths it was a once in  a lifetime opportunity to stave off hunger for another week or so,   to get  the things only rich people can afford. For these people, Christmas had come early and lasted for a whole week. It is clear that many of the looters regarded their actions as justifiable and legitimate. As one  explained, it’s not stolen. I just took the stuff free from the shop.”

Hall’s reception theory enables us to unpack  the unrest as a contested space of political and class interest. It is also instructive to ask ourselves, who  is doing this naming and shaming in these discourses? It is those with political control,  those who control  the media  and  access to  capital,  those watching from the comfort of their lounges on big screen TV’s,  exclaiming in shock and horror between a Nando’s and its fries,  those holding  privileged positions in the most unequal  society  in the world, woefully mismanaged by a government that promises much but delivers a pittance. 

Hall’s oppositional reading  would claim that the Makros, the Checkers and the Pick n Pays —  the giant corporate multinationals — steal 40 hours every week from thousands of employees who, in return, get the privilege of barely surviving  for another month. I spoke to a cashier at Makro and he lamented that he was paid just R20 an hour. So I ask you, who exactly is doing the looting here? These are the contradictions of capitalism, where shareholders and profit  are valorised and  the worker is trapped in  a cycle of exploitation and low wages from which there is no escape.

The media  portrays  the looting by deflecting attention away from  the justice claims of  those living in precarity.  Why are they doing this? Because they are owned by  power elites who construct our social reality in dominant discourses that  protect their privilege  and wealth.  Karl Marx tells us that in every epoch, the dominant ideas  in society are those of the ruling class.  Like a cheating lover, nothing had changed. Because our  government,  like all governments around the world,  is in cahoots with corporate wealth to guarantee the sanctity of private property and preserve the status quo between rich and poor, by deploying 25 thousand soldiers on the streets for as long as it takes.

 The unrest has politicised   exploitative economic relations and  given  voice to the poor and disenfranchised  in society. It enables us to see looting as a radical challenge to capitalism and its conceits by  drawing critical attention to injustice, systemic inequality and poverty. By shining  a spotlight on the marginalised and forgotten in  our society, looting, then, has taken on a variety of political meanings. It signifies  an  alternative and accelerated path to social justice, and a way to call attention to the reality of unemployment and widespread poverty in South Africa.  In its reporting, the media has backgrounded the relationship between social unrest and poverty and foregrounded the interests of power elites and a state that puts profits before people. The media has ignored the diversity and complexity of the social unrest and  chose instead to depoliticise the unrest as a criminal episode. In doing so, it has laid bare the ideologically distorting effects implicit in its construction of  social reality.

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Ayub Sheik
Professor Ayub Sheik lectures in English education at the Edgewood campus at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He has taught at several universities in the United Arab Emirates, was awarded the Andrew Mellon postdoctoral fellowship at UKZN and was a DAAD scholar at the University of Essen in Germany. His scholarly predilections are academic literacy for postgraduates, narratology, teaching Shakespeare and the supervision of postgraduate students in English education.

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