/ 4 August 2021

Visible and invisible violence in present day South Africa

Topshot Safrica Unrest Politics Economy
A member of SAPS shoots rubber bullets to disperse a crowd looting outside a warehouse storing alcohol in Durban on July 16, 2021, after protestors clashed with police following a week of unrest in South Africa. (Photo by GUILLEM SARTORIO / AFP)

On 15 July the Mail & Guardian published my article offering a reading of the recent unrest in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng through the lens of three key texts. After seeing this unrest unfold and following the escalating taxi violence in the Western Cape, I thought of other ways that these events might be understood. The aforementioned article focused significantly on social and economic structures; this current one attempts to offer a supplementary perspective, more focused on the agency of the individual in conversations about the current tensions.

This article is structured in terms of the different forms of violence that Slovenina philosopher Slavoj Žižek touches on in Violence: Six sideways reflections (2007). A benefit of understanding violence as multifaceted is best described by Žižek: “At the forefront of our minds, the obvious signals of violence are acts of crime and terror, civil unrest, international conflict. But we should learn to step back, to disentangle ourselves from the fascinating lure of this directly visible ‘subjective’ violence, violence performed by a clearly identifiable agent. We need to perceive the contours of the background which generates such outbursts.” In other words, we need to be able to look past very visible forms of violence that plague our society to come to terms with the invisible violence that makes the more visible forms possible in the first place.

Visible/subjective violence

Subjective forms of violence are those instances or eruptions for which a clear offender may be identified. When one person punches another, the violent act of the punch has a clear actor and victim. The act is immediately understood as violent, while the offender is understood as criminal, and the relationship between offender and victim is straightforward.

Because this form of violence is very visible, it is also the form of violence that is easiest to recognise and grasp. We see instances like this on a daily basis via news media coverage of war or violent protests. Another way to access this mediation is through popular entertainment — think of the lure of television shows such as Game of Thrones, Tarantino films, or first-person shooter video games. This form of violence is easily transformed into modes of entertainment, as it is so visible and visceral. 

On the other hand, while this form of violence can be explicit and gruesome, it is only the visible portion of brutal systems and processes that operate in the background, which are more difficult to locate, address and represent. One example of this is gender-based violence: it is easier to identify and persecute the visible offender than it is to address a patriarchal social structure in which the subjugation of women is normalised, enabling violence to visibly erupt.

In the context of South Africa in recent weeks, subjective violence was seen playing out in the protests and lootings in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng in which many people were killed and livelihoods destroyed. The same kind of subjective offenses were seen in the escalating taxi violence in the Western Cape in which intimidation and the death toll keep rising. As my previous article revealed, many opinions and perspectives raised in the wake of these turbulent events were aimed only at these visible conditions, as they are more readily recognisable, and easier to comment on and superficially control. While these conditions are traumatic to experience and live through, understanding the invisible violence leading up to what is eventually made visible is an important part of a holistic account of the current spate of visible violence in our country.

In Violence: Six sideways reflections, Žižek shows that to focus only on visible outbreaks serves to “distract our attention from the true locus of trouble, by obliterating from view other forms of violence and thus actively participating in them”. In other words, to focus on pure visible eruptions of aggression, and not consider the background processes, is to be complicit in a violence done towards people or a situation. Individual agency can thus be affected to ensure a holistically less violent society in not accepting visible violence at face value, but to probe and attempt to understand the invisible processes that enable and cause aggression to erupt. Focussing on these processes in individual responses and reactions is important, but also when looking for where to locate possible solutions to violent conditions.

Invisible/objective violence

In contrast to subjective violence, objective violence has no clearly identifiable agent or offender. Objective violence is often overlooked in the background of outbreaks of visible aggression. But as Žižek reminds us: “It may be invisible, but it has to be taken into account if one is to make sense of what otherwise seem to be ‘irrational’ explosions of subjective violence.” The visible manifestations fundamentally need invisible processes to enable and perpetuate in the background, and both need to be recognised in any full account of “violent” events or circumstances.

Because objective violence is invisible, it is often ignored in pursuits of justice aimed only at visible and subjective offences. In the example of gender-based violence, to address objective brutality one would aim to dismantle patriarchal social structures, instead of persecuting visible subjective offenders who are really more a symptom than a cause of violence in the holistic sense. Objective violence is not easy to address as it functions invisibly, and to bring it to book is to disentangle and dismantle entire social structures and conditions. One may think of it as breaking down an unstable wall of a house in order to fix a crack and avoid future ones, instead of just superficially filling the visible crack but not addressing the invisible root cause.

There are two broad kinds of objective violence to be identified in Žižek’s writing, namely systemic and symbolic violence. Systemic violence is often categorised by itself, but I included it here as objective violence as it does not have clearly identifiable offenders.

Systemic violence

Systemic violence can be defined as the systematic ways in which social structures harm or otherwise disadvantage individuals. This kind of structural violation is subtle, often invisible, and no one specific person can be held responsible for it. This is mostly because a clear perpetrator cannot easily be identified, but also because this responsibility entails an entire destruction and dismantling of the very societal fabric that makes visible violence possible. Such a destruction constitutes what Frantz Fanon would deem a necessary violence – see my previous article. Keeping with the previous metaphor of the damaged wall, the faults and weaknesses in the foundation of a building can be likened with the function of systemic violence. These weaknesses damage the walls, and present as cracks — the only visible symptoms of faults in the foundation.

In the context of South Africa in recent weeks, the eruption of visible forms of violence were preceded and enabled by systemic violences that are more difficult to locate. These include joblessness and poverty, that in turn can be traced to exploitative capitalist economic conditions. Other contributing conditions are the traces of apartheid ideology and systemic power structures,  the foundations of which were removed before a “rainbow nation” post-apartheid South Africa was built on top of this crumbling structure. Furthermore, unequal access to service delivery, education, basic sanitation and water and electricity are examples of violations of human rights that disenfranchise and marginalise a large portion of South African society. This demographic inevitably and largely coincides with the racial structures and divisions inherent to an apartheid foundation. These invisibly violent situations can only be endured for so long before a group of people will resist their conditions in visibly violent ways.

Suggesting opportunities for individual agency in addressing systemic violence is tricky. Any simplified advice will deny the complexity of social systems and structures, and may constitute a violence itself towards this complexity and all those immediately affected by it. However, one role individuals can play in resisting systemic violence is to advocate, support, and vote for conditions beyond the systems that privilege only themselves.

Invisible/symbolic violence

Symbolic violence is possibly violence in its most basic form, represented in everyday language. Žižek refers to this as “the relations of social domination reproduced in our habitual speech forms”. He explains this view thus: “Language simplifies the designated thing, reducing it to a single feature. It dismembers the thing, destroying its organic unity.”

Before the very visible and visceral violence of the Rwandan genocide, Radio RTLM broadcasted incitements of violence. These broadcasts included calls for violent acts, but more significantly used the kind of language that made visible violence against Tutsi people seem natural and justified. Tutsi people were referred to as cockroaches, reduced to a subhuman life form in a simplified and singularised metaphor. Nazi propaganda was also known to linguistically and visually reduce, dehumanise, and objectify Jewish people prior to the Holocaust. Parallel to the visible 2008 xenophobic attacks in South Africa, non-national people were vilified as ‘makwerekwere.’ This label constituted an invisible and intangible objective violence on which other more visible forms could be stacked.

In the context of South Africa in recent weeks, the racialised violence following the protests and looting in KwaZulu-Natal can arguably be traced to the kind of language that groups of insurgents use to speak about each other. Dehumanisation in violent action functions only when stacked on top of dehumanisation in more symbolic forms that precede physical and visible action.

Important potential for individual agency in this regard lies in resisting symbolic violence and being aware of the language used when speaking of other people, races or ethnic groups. Žižek warns that tolerance is the ostensible outcome of this kind of awareness: “To tolerate other people is to crystallise their differences as a point of contention that must be respected, but not necessarily accepted.” But for Žižek, even respect and non-violence are not enough to participate in a future in which violence in all forms is resisted.