THIS was once again a tough time in South Africa, overshadowed by the Albert Street fire in Johannesburg, but also one in which farm attackers sang Kill the Boer while attempting to murder, and South Africa aligned itself with a series of despotic governments.
There's a word, apophenia, for the tendency to see connections where there aren't any, and these three news events seem different. But then there's Thabo Mbeki, who still makes headlines because he was, after all, a president. In this time too, he declared in the same breath that someone is trying to make the current system fail and that singing Kill the Boer is no longer necessary.
Mbeki is known for his partial understanding, or, to be more precise, where the rest of us know less than 100%, he believes his grip on things is so strong that sharper analysis than his can arise only from malicious intentions against him. It's easy to dismiss his recent statements as typical paranoia, especially when you remember things like The List, which supposedly contained sleeper agents in the government ready for a coup by far-right whites in the early 2000s.
What Mbeki probably does see is the peculiar reluctance of the ANC and all its allies to govern, something epitomised by Cyril Ramaphosa's presidency. There has been endless reporting on Ramaphosa's slowness, apparent indecisiveness, clumsiness and passivity, without any sign that he or the ANC take the criticism to heart.
It remains a mystery where this comes from. A common friend tells me Cyril the Silent was always a man for “process" and made many of his comrades in the 1980s labour movement grind their teeth about it. One can argue on his behalf that our new democracy is still too young for institutionalisation to be completed and that the incremental development of processes and protocols — such as how to get rid of an incompetent public protector — should still be prioritised.
But that there might be something else behind Ramaphosa's approach is suggested by a school in political philosophy, the relatively unknown “biopolitics", in which certain ideas of thinkers such as Aristotle, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben were developed. It's these ideas that also make it possible to include farm murders and the new illiberalism in international politics in the same analysis.
At its root, biopolitics is based on Aristotle's distinction between “bios" and “zoe", where the former tends more towards something like a way of life (hence “biography") and the latter to the mere life of humans as just another natural being (as in the “zoo"). In the Greek culture of his time, this distinction coincided with that between those who could engage in politics (wealthy men leading a strictly prescribed life) and those who devoted their lives to the patriarch's household (women and slaves who kept things running without too many rules, hence today's laissez-faire economy, derived from the Greek word for household, “oikos"). Life was reduced to something over which the patriarch had absolute control — at his command, slaves, children or women could be killed.
Broadly speaking, this power over life and death was echoed for thousands of years by aristocratic rulers in feudal systems, with the absolute right belonging to the king, until it gradually passed into the hands of the managers and administrators of human lives (judges, soldiers, clerks, juries, and so on). With the advent of modernity, according to Foucault, the governance of people was replaced by the governance of populations.
We experience this today in the daily bombardment of information in the form of indices, surveys and concepts such as life expectancy and child mortality. All these records share a paradox: while they provide an increasingly abstract overall picture of a country, they have more and more to do with just a trace of human biological life — as an individual, you are reduced to a number in a mass of bare life where your “bios" makes no difference.
The price of democracy
This pale, grey surrender to the routine of massive bureaucracies is seen by most of us as the price to pay for democracy and a maximum variety of freedoms guaranteed by a doctrine of human rights — which thinkers like Francis Fukuyama have seen as the end goal of political history in the sense that we can no longer justify any despotisms or fascist forms of government.
Agamben is the one who spotted the worm in the liberal apple: that there is no substantial difference between democracy and contemporary dictatorships. The worm's name is sovereignty, the inevitable residue of all political orders in Western history, stretching back beyond the absolute power of kings to ancient times and the patriarch's dominion over his slaves.
Sovereignty rears its head when Cyril the Silent, the process man in camouflage attire, appears as the Covid state of disaster is declared; it also emerges when the EFF leader responds to a question from an AfriForum representative, asking if he can alleviate his fear of a “not-yet" genocide by declaring that he won't support it in the future: we don't let the Boeremag dictate to us.
The tragedy of the modern democratic sovereign is that constitutional democracy, in particular, closes the last door to absolute dominance — it's the constitution or the congress/parliament that rules. He actually becomes just a chairperson of meetings and a symbol. But for the sake of efficient governance, he must sometimes acquire powers for the times when protracted deliberation delays decisions too much. Agamben uses the concepts of Benjamin and Karl Schmitt on the state of exception for this.
During states of exception, democracy and many aspects of the rule of law are suspended. However, Agamben focuses on the fact that the sovereign makes the decision to suspend the law, and that the legal processes of the states of exception simultaneously suspend his position. The state is then controlled, as it were, by an empty chair. And how does the sovereign prove that his power exists and that he is in charge? By using violence and restriction, over which he gains a monopoly.
Every head of state a potential dictator
And so, every head of state remains a potential dictator. The rule of law seeks to compensate for this by insisting on the norms and values that underpin democratic laws. In advanced democracies with strong institutions, heads of state such as Boris Johnson don't go much beyond hosting parties; in semi-democracies like Russia, someone like Vladimir Putin wields so much power that he can initiate the apocalypse.
Agamben points out that such grey areas, or borderline cases, or liminalities, permeate all democracies. Take, for example, euthanasia: we attempt to limit sovereignty by requiring that terminally ill individuals stay alive for as long as possible, but when it becomes impractical (due to costs or scarce resources), someone has to make the decision — and it falls to the “buck stops here" man, the head of state, to whom the parties involved can usually send a final petition for or against life.
Someone who has been kept alive at great expense in a coma for decades serves to illustrate a core idea in Agamben's thinking: bare or mere life, which harkens back to the Greek “zoe". He goes a step further by claiming that such “bare life" doesn't arise on its own but is created precisely so that the head of state can define it — I am the one who decides how and when human lives can be reduced to their bare minimum.
Agamben bases this idea on the Roman concept of the “homo sacer", which legal scholars have grappled with for centuries. “Sacer" is the root for both “sacred" and “unclean, neglected, malignant". One Roman official attempted to explain in a frequently cited statement: “The people you may kill, but not sacrifice." These lawbreakers, Agamben explains, do not fit the contemporary view of what a human should be and would have been unsuitable for sacrifices like those in the proto-communities of the empire. They fall within the law because the empire rules everywhere, but are disqualified when it comes to state rituals. Today, this can be anything from court cases (where the freedom or life of the guilty can be sacrificed) to military service (where lives can be sacrificed).
From werewolves to zombies
The most obvious examples are people who are declared fair game. You can hunt them down and claim temporary sovereignty over their ultimate fate (Wanted: Dead or Alive). They are typically demonised, portrayed as weak individuals without the right to life and highly dangerous, toxic, almost unnatural beings. Hence the slew of figures from werewolves to zombies that captivate us in one movie after another.
In South Africa, for centuries, the homo sacer was black people, who had to make do with the barest of lives but at the same time had an almost supernatural power as irrational, machete-wielding components of the “swart gevaar”. In Europe, it was Jews, and Adolf Hitler was the one who made explicit the hidden logic of the marginalisation and fair game declaration of Jews with the “final solution", in which he made the final decision that prepared bare life for him in the concentration camps.
Today, we have the EFF's demonisation of the Boer figure. Ernst Roets is an unpleasant firebrand in his own way, but he is not irrational, and his admittedly aggressive statements are at least based on reasonably thorough research. To brand him as part of the Boeremag — the “wit gevaar" composed of fanatical, whip-waving racists — is a rhetorical move aimed at the demonisation of a potential homo sacer.
EFF and ANC politicians are not responsible for farm murders. What makes Mbeki's recent statement against Kill the Boer so exceptional is not any implication of this — it's not what he's talking about as if it were part of the country's subversion — but that similar statements have been so exceedingly rare in the almost 30 years of the phenomenon. But farm murders fit what Agamben calls the paradigm of a homo sacer because anyone can become part of a separate paradigm with unique characteristics, from astronauts to zama-zamas (illegal miners).
When farm residents are reduced to a bare life of torture and restraint in circumstances where their use of weapons is curtailed by the law and police and legal practices, it creates the kind of liminal area that gives the head of state and his inner circle the opportunity to define themselves. ANC heads of state have largely responded with silence and indifference.
Even worse, their indifference is endorsed by a chorus of urban commentators and researchers who participate in the demonisation of farmers, all farmers, as inheritors of an evil system, as backward due to their alleged genetic racism, as possessors of a second-rate ethnic (Afrikaans) culture. This endorsement is supported by the paradoxical, grotesque concept of murder as “ordinary crime".
Piet Croucamp and Stephen Grootes are among the members of the commentariat who are beginning to understand that this hidden game of sovereignty, or the quest for it, creates paradigms that can become entrenched in any part of our society. Each paradigm has its own dynamics and definitions that make them difficult to compare with each other. Croucamp points out the potential consequences for women; in Daily Maverick, Grootes discussed the promotion of xenophobia.
Well, not much more needs to be said after the heartbreaking scenes in Johannesburg's city centre and the horrific deaths of dozens of people. Apophenia is difficult to prove here. Albert Street's passbook office was the epicentre of the apartheid system, the sausage machine that expelled millions of homo sacer in Egoli. The building then became a dump for the homo sacer that every woman in South Africa threatens to become until it was inhabited by the hopeless among the hopeless of foreign refugees, themselves marginalised by their own governments.
Of course, not everyone. The fact that the Johannesburg mayor and the minister in the presidency, Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, used the opportunity to lump all the individuals together, including dozens of South African citizens, and immediately demonise them as foreigners not entitled to a decent life, shows how deeply Agamben's homo sacer paradigms are embedded in our government. Indifference to everything permeates the entire administration of the country — this anti-ubuntu is what undermines and causes the government to fail, Mr Mbeki.
The ANC has continually washed its hands of any responsibility, and as a result its hands have now been scrubbed away. It can do nothing more.
For the government to align itself with countries such as Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Ethiopia, which ruthlessly exterminate or persecute their own marginalised demonised populations by the hundreds and sometimes hundreds of thousands with impunity, is not an anti-Western gesture of perversity; it is logical and inevitable because this is how our politicians want to define themselves — as rulers of shantytowns, camp buildings and dilapidated farms.
♦ VWB ♦
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