/ 15 July 2021

Making sense of the South African ‘volcano’

Topshot Safrica Politics Unrest
Smoke rises from a Makro building set on fire overnight in Umhlanga, north of Durban, on July 13, 2021 as several shops, businesses and infrastructure were damaged in the city, following four nights of continued violence and looting. (Rajesh Jantilal/AFP)

The eruption of a volcano is only the visible part of a process that has been going on in the Earth’s crust long before the eruption. It is not possible to fully understand volcanic eruptions as separate from these preceding processes and any attempt to do so leads to a skewed and singularised account of the complexities of the processes that caused the eruption. Using the volcano as a metaphor, in the wake of the current protests, riots and looting in parts of South Africa, many opinions and perspectives raised are aimed only at these visible eruptions. However, understanding the processes leading up to what is eventually made visible and felt is an important part of a holistic account of the current spate of violence in the country. 

As a visual and cultural studies researcher and lecturer, part of my job is making sense of visible, cultural and sociopolitical contexts, using existing writing and theoretical perspectives. Apart from the academic merits of this exercise, it is a grounding practice that helps to provide nuanced perspectives to narratives that are often flattened and skewed by news media and social media sources. 

There are helpful texts in providing perspective and understanding in the wake of the protests that started last week after the jailing of Jacob Zuma. Three of these are particularly valuable, but in no way encapsulate the varied readings, implications and complex contexts of a tumultuous South Africa in 2021. 

Slavoj Žižek on the 2011 UK riots

In 2011 in the London Review of Books Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek wrote about the violent London riots triggered by the shooting of 29-year-old Mark Duggan by the city’s metropolitan police. Žižek notes both conservative and liberal reactions against this unrest as inadequate. 

He argues that conservative factions rejected the riots and vandalism completely, calling for pure discipline, hard work and responsibility to end the unrest. The flaw of this reaction was that it ignored the desperate social situation that instigated these reactions in the first place. On the other hand were the liberal leftist reactions calling for social programmes and increased social integration. The issue with this reaction was that it accounted for objective causes of the riots, but ignored the subjective accounts of those who took part in the unrest. 

In the context of current violence in South Africa, an exclusive focus on either of these reactions would be just as inadequate. In situations like these there is a tendency to pick sides and then to diminish information around multifaceted circumstances to make this choice of two seem natural and absolute. Instead, “truth” and “reality” are plural concepts, and cannot be minimised to binary stances on extremely complex situations and the contexts that triggered them. 

Žižek shows that the targets of unrest in the UK in 2011 were shopkeepers and business owners from the rioters’ own neighbourhoods. He writes: “The truth is that the conflict was between two poles of the underprivileged: those who have succeeded in functioning within the system versus those who are too frustrated to go on trying. …  The conflict is not between different parts of society; it is, at its most radical, the conflict between society and society, between those with everything, and those with nothing, to lose.” 

A 2020 Nids-Cram report published in July last year reported on the early social and economic impact of Covid-19 and lockdown on South African citizens. This report found that South Africans saw an 18% decline in employment between February and April 2020 – job losses were concentrated on the already disadvantaged. Further, 47% of respondents reported that their household ran out of money to buy food in April 2020. The results of the report were sobering, and a year that saw various stages of lockdown to fight three waves of Covid-19 infections have only worsened the brooding social and economic situation. 

Žižek argues that the riots in the UK were “a manifestation of a consumerist desire violently enacted when unable to realise itself in the ‘proper’ way – by shopping.” He says that these actions read as an ironic protest against materialist consumer culture that required citizens to prove themselves by spending money, but that the economic situation of the protestors did not allow them to comply with this social rite of passage. This may hold true for a frustrated number of South Africans too who, for many years now, have been left on the economic margins, and do not have the means to take part in a citizenry of consumption. 

Žižek neither condemns nor condones the UK riots with this argument, but merely highlights it as a valid point in understanding the full picture surrounding these events – the same may be achieved in a South African context.       

Frantz Fanon on the role of violence in the postcolony (1961)

In Wretched of the Earth, postcolonial theorist and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon writes on the role of violence in the change of a country, society and people from colonised to decolonised. Fanon certainly does not call for arbitrary violence. He argues that without a violent overthrow and removal of former oppressive regimes, some of the roots of these forms of power will remain even when colonial power is not in official power anymore. 

In a South African context, the same can be argued of apartheid power and its structures. Many of the current social and economic failures in South Africa are a result of the corruption and constitutionally unacceptable behaviour of politicians in recent years. At the same time, as Fanon would argue, a strong house cannot be built on a weak foundation, and many current problems in South African society are a result of the roots of apartheid power and structures that have never been radically removed. 

The effects of both of these continuing presences have been acutely felt in the time of Covid-19. In December 2020 Stats SA launched a data visualisation dashboard that maps the vulnerability of South African communities’ to the spread of the virus, based on a variety of risk indicators and aggravating factors. According to this platform, seven of the nine South African provinces are most vulnerable to Covid-19 due to a lack of sanitation. This means that in seven of the nine provinces people are susceptible to the spread of the virus because they do not have a toilet or other sanitation facility in their dwelling. In two of these seven provinces this risk factor is combined with a lack of access to running water in the dwelling. 

At the same time, the Western Cape and Gauteng, as economic hubs of the country and home to the largest clusters of white populations, are indicated as mostly vulnerable to the virus due to the age of the provinces’ citizens. This indicates a social and economic chasm, reflecting traces of the country’s past that continue to make itself present in the growing unequal distribution of privilege in South Africa. This helps to account for the invisible processes leading up to the grievances visualised by the current wave of unrest and violence. 

Alan Paton’s Cry, the beloved country (1948)

Paton’s classic novel, published in the year the apartheid government came into official power, provides a literary social protest against those structures that would eventually give rise to apartheid. Reading the novel in 2021 is jarring, as so many of the issues Paton draws attention to in South African society are still relevant and topical (Fanon would argue that this is why violence has a necessary role to play). 

There is a scene in which John Kumalo makes a speech about the South African labour situation and the decent compensation of workers in the mining industry that is particularly significant. While the speech is directed at the gold mining industry of Johannesburg, this may be argued of any current South African business. This writing bears particular significance post-Marikana, especially considering the critique levelled at President Cyril Ramaphosa in both current protests and those seen at Marikana in 2012. 

Kumalo says: “We ask only for those things that labouring men fight for in every country in the world, the right to sell our labour for what it is worth, the right to bring up our families as decent men should. They say that higher wages will cause the mines to close down. Then what is it worth, this mining industry? And why should it be kept alive, if it is only our poverty that keeps it alive? They say it makes the country rich, but what do we see of these riches? Is it that we must be kept poor so that others may stay rich?” 

If this is the plight of a working class man, the cause of the 32.6% unemployed people in South Africa may be that much more desperate and drastic. These reactions are read in relation to calls for the nationalisation of mines and resources as attempts at offering a larger portion of South Africans a part of what their labour produces. 

Žižek writes that “when something happens just once, it may be dismissed as an accident, something that might have been avoided if the situation had been handled differently; but when the same event repeats itself, it is a sign that a deeper historical process is unfolding.” The current protests in South Africa are not isolated incidents, neither locally nor globally (Cuba, Hong Kong and others protesting Covid-19 lockdown measures). 

Protests sparked by a lack of service delivery, access to housing, community safety and labour compensation have been rife in South Africa in the past couple of years. This is arguably an indication of an event repeating itself, a sign that a historical process is making itself visible. At a time like this, superficial attempts at maintaining eruptions will not suffice. Instead what is needed are deep structural changes to provide sustainable solutions in order to avoid future eruptions.