Dashiki Dialogues: Violence is at the heart of who we are
To be South African is to partake in one grand violent spectacle.
In fact, to be surprised by riot police felling protesting miners at Marikana or tear-gassing toyi-toying workers or students at demonstrations – even to act surprised by news reports of smash-and-grabs and other crime stories marked by apparently excessive violence – is to confess one’s detachment from the current reality.
I want to charge that there’s a touch of hypocrisy in the outpouring of performed outrage that often follows such reports.
The raucous, fiery and often deadly public protests taking place all over the townships or mining and industrial complexes is only one manifestation of our magnus violentia, (great violence).
These eruptions are only media-memorialised expressions of what we carry out latently in our everyday existence.
I’m fascinated even by the way some of our poorest of the poor celebrate a pause in their hunger.
Consider the abuse implied by a S’khothani teenager spitting custard in the face of a would-be rival.
Here the act of self-affirmation takes on a vulgar, violent imposition.
This performance or declaration of self-actualisation requires a spectacular vanquishing of others.
It is not unlike the troublesome contrast one experiences when crossing Marlboro Drive on the M1 highway.
The statement of opulence made by the fêted lights of Sandton City’s high-rises comes into proper focus when seen against the putrid squalor of Alexandra, a township just five minutes away.
At the first breath of our new dispensation in 1994, by failing to materially economically equalise the historically dispossessed with those who have historically enjoyed unjust privilege, was to commit us all to a perpetual state of conflict.
There’s a Setswana proverb that captures the idea best: Molomo oo jang o roga omong.
It loosely translates to: “The mouth that eats, insults the other.”
The other mouths here are those against whom the apparent stability of our status quo imposes violence.
These are automatic creations of the systematic violence inherent in our social condition.
Slovenian scholar Slavoj Žižek referred to the automatically “excluded and dispensable individuals” who constitute the ranks of the homeless and unemployed.
Our country’s specific history of dispossession and the complex global march of capital commits us to this violent reality.
By retreating into our gated communities and exclusive bars and restaurants, we only register our complicity in this systematic violence.
Sometimes even our daily language becomes an act of violence, wrapped up in dialogues that insist and demand polite behaviour from others with dashikis unlike ours.