The Return of the Repressed

By Richard Pithouse · 28 Jun 2011

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Picture: Public Eye Online
Picture: Public Eye Online

The repressed, any Freudian will tell you, cannot be contained indefinitely. It will always return. And if its first murmurings in jokes and slips of the tongue are not heeded it will be distorted and return, with increasing vehemence, as a symptom, a symptom that may come to constitute a threat, even a crisis.

It’s difficult to think of a country that wasn’t founded with blood and iron. If countries have a collective unconscious, ours is hardly the only one that is likely to be rent with the repressed memory of primordial crimes. But the distance between, say, the glamour of Paris and the Caribbean genocide and African slavery that provided the material base for much of that allure is a lot further away in space and time than the relentless violence, dispossession and exploitation on which our society and its towns and cities were founded. 

And the lived reality of race and enduring racism makes the standard ideological move of pathologising the dispossessed a little more difficult here than in some other countries. Of course the state does a lot of work in this regard, and there is a massive civil society and academic effort too.

The innumerable attempts to cast our society as just and the oppressed as inadequate or perverse and in need of the sort of remedial attention that’s unlikely, in practice, to do more than to perform and legitimate inequality have their successes.  But we can all see, viscerally, that while there has been a degree of both deracialisation and expansion of the zone of privilege, most people remain locked out in spaces that were designed, by a racist system, for black people. And most of the people who remain locked out are people whose families were made poor and kept poor by racism.

The fact that a considerable amount of the state’s development energies have, incredibly, gone into expanding the sort of spaces that apartheid built for black people while reducing the quality and size of the houses built has not resolved the problem. Racialised inequality is being actively reinscribed into the material structure of our cities. 

The 1994 deal was struck for various reasons and legitimated in various ways. There were certainly some people who said that property rights and the free market were sacrosanct because they just are sacrosanct. But it was more commonly argued that they were necessary to keep the goose that laid the golden egg happy. In other words, if black people wanted to stop being poor the important thing was that they should keep whites happy. And it wasn’t just whites in South Africa. There were all those investors and tourists too.

Whites got to keep their wealth and much of their power and to feel very noble about being part of a political miracle. They could go to Paris and look anyone on the Champs-Élysées in the eye. There was no direct confrontation with either racism or inequality. And all these years on, despite all the very cool things about South Africa, like, say, Loyiso Gola reading the news or Bakkies Botha moering an Australian, a lot of people are very far from having enough access to the golden egg to be able to live with even the most basic dignity.

For a lot of people the deal is rotten. And for many of those people patience will not be a virtue. In fact patience will be downright dangerous to the point where we can say, without exaggeration, that it could get them killed. This is not the language of hubris. It’s a cold fact that millions of people live in life threatening conditions.

In the rosy dawn of our democracy the police didn’t have to do much repression. In the first five years the work was largely ideological. But since around 1999, perhaps beginning with the struggle of the Anti-Eviction Campaign in Mandela Park in Khayelitsha, there’s been an extraordinary amount of popular protest in South Africa and repression has steadily become a matter for the police as well as all the mythmakers.

But despite the beatings, the stirring exploits on the sports field, the relentless attempts to persuade people that they must become mobile micro-businesses and all the memorialisation of The Struggle, the repressed returns.  But although it always returns it’s not always able to come into the national consciousness as a rational force. Poor people are systemically excluded from our polity – from the media, from civil society and from party politics – and the repressed, even when it expresses itself with perfect lucidity is not generally recognised as having a rational expression. 

The inability of middle class society to hear the speech of the poor as speech, rather than as a moan of animal pain or frenzied threatening rage, is a common phenomenon. A lot of books have been written about this in the democracies of the West. But here it takes on the added burden of race. The poor are often treated, by the rainbow middle class, in ways distinctly analogous to how all black people were treated under apartheid.

But the fact that our elite publics have generally been unwilling to grant equal access to the poor does not mean that the discontent of the poor has been ignored.  Since popular protest began to explode into Zwelinzima Vavi’s ring of fire from around 2004, state repression has been stepped up, party structures have often become a means of social control, sometimes armed, and a startling array of forces and projects have sough to capture some of this popular dissent by appropriating its language.

In recent years and months Jacob Zuma, Helen Zille and the international NGOs paid to simulate a pliant appearance of popular power have all been appropriating bits and pieces of the language that have developed in these struggles. The last election was all about elites contesting for the right to represent the poor. Julius Malema is certainly not the first person amongst our various elites to try to capture the representation of popular dissent. In fact he’s a little late in the game. But while all the others appropriate only the parts of the language of popular struggle that can be deployed in a manner that turns it into a demand for the perfection of the current system Malema is speaking to demands that cannot be realised within the current system. And as the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said “Words wreak havoc when they find a name for what had been lived namelessly.” 

The havoc that Malema is wreaking is not because he has a political genius for articulating the aspirations of the masses. And it’s not because there are not perfectly articulate grassroots activists all over the country. It’s because amidst all his buffoonery he is giving a name to a truth that has up until this moment been largely repressed in most of our interlocking elite publics. That truth is that our celebrated deal has failed most of us. The goose that has been so assiduously protected is still laying, but those golden eggs haven’t been shared out.

Now that someone with a considerable degree of political power is giving a name to this reality and trying, albeit for the narrow interests of a predatory political class, to politicise it the game of pretending that we inhabit an unfolding miracle, a miracle for all, is up. Something has to give.

The time when business could be conducted as usual has passed. The fact that this now has to be recognised is a good thing. But what gives has not yet been determined and there are real risks that the new deal, which is now inevitable, will take the form of the degeneration rather than the deepening of our democracy.

The more or less infinite permutations of the possibilities with regard to the details of a new deal can be broadly grouped into two tendencies that, juxtaposed, produce a single question. Will we ensure that democracy effectively confronts poverty or will we allow a predatory elite to manipulate the implacable and urgent moral claims of poverty to confront democracy?

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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Lee Cahill
27 Jun

The Emperor Has No Clothes

Another excellent and fearless analysis from Richard Pithouse. Personally, I've taken a lot of heat in recent months for saying that SA's much-vaunted democracy isn't working, so I'm pleased to see someone of Pithouse's calibre is also saying that "our celebrated deal has failed most of us" - because it has. The sooner we acknowledge that the emperor has no clothes, the sooner we can figure out what to do about it.

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TheDrake Verified user
27 Jun


"Will we ensure that democracy effectively confronts poverty or will we allow a predatory elite to manipulate the implacable and urgent moral claims of poverty to confront democracy?"

Who are your "we"?

The results of the 2011 Local Government Elections confirmed that by far the majority of the voting public or "poor" are quite content and satisfied with the work of what you call the "predatory" elite.

Moreover, the presidency of the ANC-YL is also serving the racist objectives of the National Democratic Revolution as well as the communist inspired and out-dated Freedom Charter with so much gusto and accuracy that they were also re-elected for another term by their constituency namely the politicized "jobless and poor youth" and future leaders of the country. The ANC regards the peaceful political settlement as well as the Constitution, 1996 as redundant and are destined to undo both at their earliest convenience.

They are the ones that want to unilaterally re-shape our mutual destiny and the terms for the survival of the marginalized minorities and not the other way round.

This clearly do not represents any "new deal" but is merely a new impetus to the redundant communist policies contained in the existing Kliptown Declaration or Freedom Charter of 1955 which rightfully should not have any place in the post-minority colonial and apartheid-rule SA and especially not in the equal opportunity multi-party constitutional democracy that we agreed to build from 1994 onward.

I sincerely hope that the white liberal fraternity in the country under the leadership of the DA and some academics do not regard themselves to be the sole representatives of all the minorities in the country and therefore superior enough and in a position to negotiate any

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Lee Cahill
27 Jun


Whoa TheDrake - some pretty intense rhetoric there!

Has it occurred to you that the repressed people of this country may just be voting for the ANC because, despite its very evident failings, they feel it's the only party/movement that will ultimately ensure greater social-economic equality and inclusion? Neo-liberal policies certainly aren't going to achieve that - and the country's poor people understand that better than most. They also know that part of the reason they remain excluded from a more equal dispensation is because so many concessions were made to the neo-liberal agenda during the consultative process between 1994 and 1996.

On the other side of the coin, I do believe the point Pithouse is trying to make is that the democracy project in SA, as it stands, has basically failed - partly because predatory elites have been enabled by the concessions that were made at CODESA.

The challenge, I believe, is for an active citizenry to start pressurising the state for a new consultative process that will address some of the very real flaws in our system of government, and which will allow for the development a new, more direct form of democracy.

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TheDrake Verified user
27 Jun

We have a people problem - not a constitutional problem

@Lee Cahill

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