SABC: Tongaat Mall Collapse: The Boomerang Effect

Richard Pithouse

In 1961 Frantz Fanon described the colonial world as “cut in two”, divided into “compartments …. inhabited by different species”. For Fanon the creation of different kinds of spaces was central to the creation of different types of people and their ordering in a hierarchy of value. He concluded that the ordering of the colonial world must be examined to “reveal the lines of force it implies”, lines of force that “will allow us to mark out the lines on which a decolonized society will be reorganized”.

Almost twenty years after apartheid our society remains divided into different kinds of spaces in which people are treated in very different ways and given, whether in principle or practice, different kinds of rights. The former Bantustans remain different kinds of spaces to the rest of the country and in the cities people are treated in very different ways, and their lives ascribed different value, in the suburbs, townships, shack settlements and transit camps. Some of this can be ascribed to the general lack of political imagination on the part of the ANC and most of its critics. And it is always exacerbated by the seduction of the technocratic ideal and its inevitable displacement of the political – the collective posing of questions of justice. When the actions of both the state and its citizens are automatically framed in terms of ‘service delivery’ even when, say, the issue at hand is a struggle over a land occupation, the political is eviscerated. And when any struggle that manages to break out of the ‘service delivery’ straightjacket is likely to be presented as criminality or conspiracy mere access to the political, which has more or less been rendered a heretical aspiration, becomes a struggle in itself.

One of the lines of continuity that stretch from the present back into apartheid, and indeed before apartheid, is the way in which the lines that mark out these different spaces are policed, by the state and private power, with violence. Another is the sheer contempt with which some people’s lives are received and their aspirations spurned. When people in a shack settlement are beaten by the police, their children die of diarrhoea, their homes burn year after year and their attempt to participate in the agora is blocked at every turn, and often by civil society and the media as much as the state, and all this passes as the unremarked-on backdrop to everyday life we are dealing with a society structured in contempt.

This contempt extends far beyond the failure to recognise the equal value of each of us. It extends into the very biology of life. It is a woman in her sixties who loses an eye to a rubber bullet during an eviction. It is a teenage girl with a police bullet in the back of her head, or her front teeth knocked out as her head is smashed into the road by the state. It is an old woman who falls on a steep muddy path while carrying a bucket of water back to her shack and hears a bone in her leg crack before she feels the pain. It is a young man, once bright eyed and excited about life, who sinks into the dull rhythm of addiction, with its ever tighter circles, after years of frustration and humiliation. It is the father driven to destroy himself, and the love that has held him for years, in a drunken paroxysm of defeat. It is the mother of his children, beaten in her home, broken in her very centre by her inability to keep her son in school and then, after he is sent to prison, collapsing into stabbing abdominal pain and crushing headaches that no doctor can make sense of. It is strong people, good people, driven into madness. It is sickness after sickness. It is death – the constant ubiquity of death.

In a lecture given in Paris in 1975 Michele Foucault argued that “the first function of racism”, which he defined as “primarily a way of introducing a break into the domain of life that is under power's control: the break between what lives and what must die” is “to fragment, to create caesuras within the biological community”.

The divisions that order our society now, that mark out the enduring lines, lines of force, between those who count and those who don’t are enabled by a clear set of continuities with  colonial and apartheid racism. Perhaps most striking is the fact that the people that they consign to lives made amidst the relentless structural degradation of their humanity are overwhelmingly black. But although there are aspects of the current order that merit the designation neo-apartheid it is still not apartheid. We have to take full measure of the ways in which the enduring division of society into different kinds of spaces, imagined to be inhabited by different kinds of people to which radically different value is ascribed, serves the narrow and predatory interests of a set of constituencies, sometimes in alliance and sometimes in conflict with each other, that have a direct stake in the ongoing reinscription of exclusion and domination. These constituencies certainly include the old enemies – white power and capital. But they also include the middle classes in general, traditional authority and the political class as well as the business interests intertwined with the political class.


The contempt, the utter contempt, with which poor people are treated in South Africa is coming soon, to a mall near you.

In Durban it is not unusual for lifelong ANC activists to refer to the party as ‘not the real ANC but a mafia’. It has also become routine for people who challenge the way in which the party has turned the local state into a vehicle for the private accumulation of wealth and power to fear that their lives are at risk. This fear is often entirely rational. The same politicians who drone on in technocratic development jargon in some kinds of space make public threats in other kinds of spaces. In some kinds of spaces political violence, including assassination, has become an acknowledged part of the repertoire of political engagement.

For the political class, and their allies in what is often all too charitably called business, the exploitation of both enduring structures of oppression, and oppressed people, to accumulate political and financial power is often presented and defended as the redemption of the suffering and struggles of the past. Critics are often dealt with as if they were a threat to the struggle of the people as a whole, as if they were traitors to the nation. But while this politics of the synecdoche is a useful ideological manoeuvre for the predatory elite that have captured both the state and the right to represent and even incarnate both the struggle and the nation the allegation of betrayal is made with increasing frequency and vehemence from below.

Yes despite this contestation people like Jay Singh and Shauwn Mpisane have received contract after contract from the eThekwini Municipality. In the case of Singh this is despite his history of bribery, his criminal record, his documented corruption, the plethora of plainly dubious deals, the millions and millions that have flowed from the public purse into his private wealth and that of his family, and despite his litany of failures to turn public money into public goods – the debacle with the bus service, the thousands of RDP houses that are simply uninhabitable. This is not an oversight. It is not a technical matter. It is a political choice. It is a choice that was made and has been remade again and again. It is a choice that, while it has been lamented from time to time, has seldom been opposed with serious intent because it is imagined that its consequences will be borne in that other space, that subordinate space, that different space, where a different type of person is imagined to live. A state that produces an Italian sports car in uMhlanga and a leaking, cracked RDP house in a permanent marsh of sewerage in Phoenix, or an assassination in Cato Manor, has been deemed not just acceptable but even, in the eyes of some very powerful people, redemptive. Jay Singh may finally go down with his mall but there is nothing to suggest that the mode of governance that has generated such wealth for people like Singh, or Mpisane, from the public purse is going anywhere.

In 1955, in his now classic essay Discourse on Colonialism, Aimé Césaire, the great Martinican poet and intellectual, argued that colonialism:

based on contempt …. and justified by that contempt inevitably tends to change him who undertakes it; that the colonizer, who in    order to ease his conscience gets into the habit of seeing the other man as an animal, accustoms himself to treating him like an animal, and tends objectively to transform himself into an animal.

He called this the “boomerang effect of colonization” and argued that colonisation is never innocent nor something that can be carried out with impunity. It calls, he declared, “for its punishment”. Césaire insisted that in Europe “cruelty, mendacity, baseness, and corruption have sunk deep into the soul” with the result that the barbarism first practiced in the colonies had returned home in the horror of Nazism: “they tolerated that Nazism before it was inflicted on them …. they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimized it, because, until then, it had been applied only to non-European peoples.”

What is done to those other kind of people, in that other place, always comes home. The contempt, the utter contempt, with which poor people are treated in South Africa is coming soon, to a mall near you.