Friday, 19 October 2012

How should we at this moment in South Africa make use of contemporary theory?

by Mlamuli Hltatshwayo, 2012

The role of contemporary theory is significant in that it seeks to explain the present through various narratives and discourses. One can argue that the challenge for contemporary theory is to struggle with the current events in its attempt to make sense of them and also to provide a critically analysis of why the events are happening? How the events are happening? And why those particular events are happening at a specific time and space? Furthermore, one may also argue that it is also the role of contemporary theory to philosophically discuss, what Frantz Fanon referred to as the “new politics”, in not only critically analyzing current affairs and the status quo, but also attempting to provide alternative ideas and solutions concerning how to improve the current socio-economic status, at least philosophically (Fanon, 2001: 198). The role of contemporary theory with regard to South Africa is of paramount importance due to the colonial and apartheid history, whose repercussions are still largely being felt by the marginalized and disenfranchised. This means that South Africa as a state, which is rooted in the idea of reconciliation and “ubuntu” in 1994, could be said to have certain subalterns who are still trapped in economic apartheid in that they still don’t have basic service delivery, access to housing and cannot access government grants. Furthermore, one may argue that at this moment, contemporary theory is of significant relevance to South Africa due to the large number of political protests, gender based violence and the violent government reactions to organizations such as Abahlali baseMjondolo who choose to operate outside of the legitimate space of the state, and thus are perceived as a threat. Contemporary theory could be used as an instrument of discourse in not only analyzing current affairs and but also in providing possible solutions (albeit philosophical) to remedy the status quo.

Theodicy and the South African state

Theodicy refers to the biblical notion that God’s plan is too sophisticated and complex for mere human beings to comprehend (Gordon, 2006: 85). This means that were never human beings fail to live up to God’s commands, it is not God’s fault but rather the people themselves who misuse their free will (Gordon, 2006: 86). This theodician type of understanding is also seen in states and the institutions which consolidate it, particularly in how were never certain actions occur, it is not the fault of the state or its institutions, but rather the people themselves who are automatically at fault. The state is perceived as legitimate and democratic, and thus cannot be at fault as a ruling entity. In context to South Africa, the notion of theodicy is seen in how the state and the ruling African National Congress (ANC) with its alliance partners, uses revolutionary discourse so as to revoke emotional solidarity and to position the opposition and those who are critical as “counter revolutionaries” and “forces of darkness” (Mantashe, 2012). An example includes the response of the ANC’s Secretary General Gwede Mantashe to the police shooting at the Lonmin Mine in Marikana, North West, were 34 miners were killed and 78 others were injured (Mantashe, 2012). Mantashe argued that “counter-revolutionaries” were seeking to “undermine the tripartite alliance” as they “hijacked” the entire Lonmin tragedy (Mantashe, 2012). One may argue that rather than discussing the causes of the tragedy, Mantashe chooses to perceive the state as innocent and rather blames both the domestic and international criticism as over reacting and taking advantage of the tragedy. One may admit that individuals such as Julius Malema have taken advantage of the tragedy so as to position themselves as relevant in the current narratives of the leadership struggle of the ANC. However having said that, it should be emphasized that irrespective of the political actors and their objectives in the tragedy, the state itself, as argued by Steven Friedman, should be blamed due to the lack of training of public order police in managing strategically violent protests (Friedman, 2012). Friedman’s argument breaks away from the Mantashe-cum-theodician interpretation of the conflict which blames the opposition and other individuals of taking advantage of the tragedy, and offers an argument that is rooted in Lewis Gordon’s notion that rather than blaming the individual, the state itself is the problem (Gordon, 2006: 85). In this context, one may argue that South Africa can use contemporary theory to better analyze the use of protest as a legitimize source of discontent. In addition, contemporary theory could help highlight the relationship between the lack of dignity of the subalterns and the increase in violent protests as a measure of how modernization has left others behind (this will further be explained in the essay).

Spasmodic theory and the misrepresentation of the South African protests

A spasmodic theory refers to the interpretation of events using a framework of the biological. This means that whenever events occur, the spasmodic interpretation views the biological need of the people as having necessitated that particular occurrence. An example could be the rising number of protests that are seen in South Africa. According to the Freedom of Expression Institute, in 2006 alone South Africa experienced 11 000 protests, which was an average of 30 protests per day (Cele, 2007: 4). It is estimated that this figure has significantly increased. Under the spasmodic interpretation, these protests could be blamed on the biological needs of the people, with factors such as lack of housing, lack of water and electricity being explained as possible explanations for the increasing number of protests. An example is South Africa’s Human Rights Commission Deputy Chairman Pregs Govender, who argued that the Marikana shooting has cast a spotlight on working and living conditions, and has brought urgency with regard to the betterment of these conditions (Davids, 2012). One may argue that using a spasmodic theory in analyzing the rise of protests robs us of the thorough analysis of why protests occur, especially at the aforementioned rate. This means that questions like why did the Lonmin miners decide to protest at this time? Why are other miners at different mines who are equally being paid lower wages not resorting to protest then? And what happens when people choose to protest outside of the framework of the state? These questions are significant in understanding the “moral economy of protests” in how the lack of service delivery or the protest over an increase in wages are indicative of the people’s assertion to live in dignity (Arnold, 2001: 85). This means that rather than viewing the increase in protest through spasmodic lenses, which presupposes that water, electricity and housing are central – one could adopt  a “moral economic” approach in understanding that the Right to basic service delivery is attached to the right to dignity, and thus people are fighting to dignify their existence. In this context, one could argue that South Africa should use contemporary theory in analyzing the rise of protests not from a spasmodic view, but rather from a position of “moral economic” in that people must be perceived to be protesting for the Right to be treated with dignity. An example was the Western Cape Provincial government’s decision to build unenclosed toilets to the residents. In this context, contemporary theory should be used to analyze the lack of dignity and disregard that the provincial government was showing to the citizens. Their protest should not be viewed through the spasmodic framework which would presuppose that the people were protesting for the toilets to be enclosed, rather their protest was rooted on the right to dignity and just treatment from the state.

Subalterns who choose to disregard the parameters of the state: What happens?

One should emphasis that in this essay, the term “subaltern” refers to the people, group, organization or religious groups who operate outside of the of framework or parameters of the state. The failure of the state to care of them has resulted in their emergence. One may argue that within a society (particularly in South Africa), there exist two groups: the civil society and the marginalized or lower subalterns. 

The aforementioned seeks to explain that within a society, there coexists civil society and marginalized communities. It should be emphasized at this point that civil society actors themselves could be perceived as elites due to their financial resources and ability to influence and shape public opinion. This was seeing when Secton27 took the Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga, to court due to the Basic Education Department’s argument that the Right to Education was not an immediate Right and was subject to budgetary constraints and other factors (Wittles, 2012). This acts as an example in how civil society has the necessary resources to influence government policy and shape state decisions. Furthermore, one should be aware that civil society itself is working within received ideas, in how its donors and funders dictate the scope of research, what should be research and what sorts of initiatives they choose to involve themselves in. In the aforementioned graphical representation, the arrow between the government and civil society attempts to show the reciprocal relationship that they both share, in how civil society has the ability to shape state decisions, and the government itself can respond to civil society and actually be influenced by its decision. Thus civil society has a legitimate political space and operates within the framework of the government and its judicial authority.        

However there is another group within the subalterns. This group consists of the economically dispossessed and marginalized people who have no voice. One may even take this argument further and say that these people face what may be referred to as “double oppression”, which is the marginalization and disregard that they face from the state and the lack of attention and welfare from the civil society. Partha Chatterjee has argued about the impact of modernization and democracy on developing countries such as South Africa and India (Chatterjee, 2006: 301). One may that due to capitalist development and the advent of modernization in a largely developing state, South Africa’s subalterns have largely “fallen behind” modernization, and thus appear to have been trapped (this will be explained more in the essay). These subalterns who have been ignored by the state, have either formed alternative communities so as to provide their own social security, or have resorted to responding to the state through what Michael Neocosmos has referred as the “national liberation struggle” (Neocosmos, 2008). Those subalterns who have resorted to forming alternative communities include the Khoisan societies who currently reside in the Kalahari Desert (Sapa, 2012). They exist outside of the authority of the state, and as they don’t obtain social security, social grants, access to housing and basic water and electricity (Sapa, 2012).  One may argue that Chatterjee’s notion that the transition from a postcolonial state to modernization – in how the subalterns are left behind – is significantly relevant with regard to the lives of the Khoisan communities. One may take this understanding further and argue that the post-1994 dawning of democracy offered nothing for the Khoisan as they still face similar challenges that they encountered during apartheid. This means that during the process of modernization, there are populations of people who still remain “subjects” and not “citizens”. These “subjects” resort to alternative sources of authority who position themselves as parallel societies as they attempt to fill the socio-economic void left by the government.             
                                                                                One may argue that there is another group within the subalterns who unlike the Khoisan who resort to forming alternative or parallel societies so as to ensure their social security, choose to radically challenge the state in the hope of institutionalizing the “transformation of the lived experience of power” (Neocosmos, 2008). This means that these subalterns are also marginalized and disenfranchised, and have responded to that disempowerment through attempting to change the “character” of the state in making it pro-poor, or sensitive to the needs of the economically dispossessed. An example includes Abahlali Basemjondolo, who, according to S’bu Zikode, are fighting a system that:

makes it impossible for equality. [The current system] makes sure that it divides in order to retain the status quo. It has created its own empire for its own people that matter to it, that are accountable to it. The system itself makes other people to be less, to be not important, not to matter (Zikode, 2009).

One may argue that organizations such as Abahlali baseMjondolo seek to challenge not only the policies of the state, but also hope to change the state system itself. This means that they hope to adopt a different state ideology that does not conform to liberal capitalist democracy, but one rooted in the establishment of equality with dignity. Furthermore, one may argue that this understanding of the state reflects Jacque Ranciere’s notion of looking at equality as a point of departure in politics (Ranciere, 2006: 60). In the above quotation from Zikode, it is significant to note that he is not only concerned about the economic effects that are caused by the elites (Zikode, 2009). He is also concerned about the detrimental effects of the empire in making “other people feel less” (Zikode, 2009). One may argue that this is a Steve Biko approach in viewing political and economic oppression through its effects on the self and thus, it is only through the reconstruction of the self, that other oppressions will cease (Biko, 2004: 20). With regard to Abahlali baseMjondolo, as they choose to operate outside of the framework of the state, they are perceived as “problem people” largely because they refuse to conform to the current status quo, and wish to pursue alternative measures needed for socio-economic emancipation of the people (Gordon, 2006: 85). One may argue that in this context, contemporary theory should be used as an emancipatory theory in South Africa because of the need to commit to an existential mode of thinking. This means that ideas such as people are free and cannot be controlled, subjugated or subordinated are central in not only challenging the status quo like Abahlali baseMjondolo are doing – but in also proposing alternative solutions rooted in the need for emancipation and equality. This means that there is a need to change the perception of organizations who work outside of state parameters to not be perceived as “problem people”, but to rather be given a democratic space to express themselves. Furthermore, an emancipatory theory should be used in South Africa as a tool of including the marginalized communities such as the Khoisan who have resorted to forming parallel societies outside of the domain of the state. These parallel societies should be included in the state and must not be “silenced” through state ignorance and consistent marginalization.

Partisan and counter-partisan in South African politics

According to Grant Farred, after the Second World War, there was a new nomos in how racism could no longer be justified (Farred, 2004: 601). This means that because of the Jewish Holocaust, “racism” could no longer be legitimized as a measure of systemic oppression. In context to South Africa, this was seen in how the Apartheid government was collapsing as it was perceived as functioning under an outdated ideology. In the contemporary period, one may argue that the new nomos has emerged as a combination of the division between the rich and the poor, inequality and class. It should be emphasized that due to the post Cold War unipolar triumph of market capitalism, these nomos are universal and as a result, are legitimate and justified. Furthermore, contemporary South African politics are rooted in the partisan and counter partisan relations. By partisan, this refers to the division and political separations under the notion of “us” and “them”. One could argue that these divisions are not only political, but are also connected to the resources of the country, in how those who fall on the partisan side of the ruling party, usually get financial government contracts. An example is the breakaway union, the national Transport Allied Workers Union which was formed from the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (Sapa, 2012). Rather than tackling the factors that caused the union to split, Congress of the South African Trade Unions (COSATU) Secretary General Zwelinzima Vavi, took a theodician approach in not blaming the state (or COSATU) but rather deemed the union’s existence as the single “biggest onslaught waged by the bourgeoisie against the living standards of the working class” (Sapa, 2012). This means that for Vavi, it’s either the workers are with COSATU and its allies and work within the framework of the union, or they are an “onslaught” on the rights of workers.                                                                                                    Furthermore the division between the “friend/ enemy” is governed by conformity to the system, in that whoever chooses to work outside its framework is immediately positioned as counter-partisan. An example was the Nedbank chairman Reuel Khoza’s criticism that South Africa has “strange breed” of leaders who are incapable to deal with “the complexity of [the] 21st century governance and leadership” (Kamhunga, 2012). The ANC’s response positioned Khoza as what could be referred to as a “problem person” who due to his challenges at Nedbank, seeks to divert attention. One may argue that this response positioned Khoza as counter-partisan due to his non conformity in airing his views and dissenting from the pro-government discourses that usually characterizes the business community. In this context, one may argue that contemporary theory could be used to challenge the status quo, in refusing to be categorized as either “partisan” or “counter-partisan”. These categories rob us of the thorough analysis and debates about the state and its decisions. Due to these categories, one cannot engage in political discussions and offer authentic solutions because of the repercussions in how the use of labels such as “counter revolutionary” and “bourgeoisie” are used as linguistic weapons designed to silence the secondary or alternative views.  Thus in this context, it is the role of political theory in South Africa to deconstruct these categories and allow authentic debates rooted in the understanding of contributing meaningfully to the development of the state and the lives of its people.
Due to the historical injustices of the past, contemporary theory should be used in South Africa as a measure of attempting to create alternative solutions and constructive criticism needed for the development of the state. Furthermore, contemporary should be used as a measure of analyzing the use of protests as a means to dignify the live of people, rather than being perceived as a threat that seeks to destabilize the functionality of the country. In addition, the subalterns who operate outside of the framework of the state must be made to be included, so as to also contribute to its development. Contemporary theory could help in this regard in discussing socio economic and historical repercussions of silencing their pasts through consistent exclusion and marginalization.


Arnold, T. C., 2001, Rethinking Moral Economy, The American Political Science Review, 95 (1): 85-95.

Biko, S., 2004, I Write What I Like, Johannesburg: Picador Africa.

Cele, S., 2007, The right to protest: A handbook for protestors and police, Johannesburg: Freedom of Expression Institute.

Chatterjee, P., 2006, The Politics of the Governed, New Delhi: Pauls Press.

Davids, N., 2012, Why the people are angry. Available at:

Fanon, F., 2001, The Wretched of the Earth, London: Penguin Books.

Friedman, S., 2012, Not enough to look for scapegoats for Marikana. Available at:  Date of Access: 05 August 2012.

Gordon, L., 2006, Not Only the Masters Tools, Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.

Kamhunga, S., 2012, SA’s “strange breed” of leaders a threat to democracy. Available

Mantashe, G., 2012, Mantashe: Marikana breeds counter-revolution. Available at:   Date of Access: 05 August 2012.

Neocosmos, M., Civil Society, citizenship and the politics of the (im)possible. Available at:               Date of Access: 03 September 2012.

Ranciere, J., 2010, The Idea of Communism, London: Vorso.

Sapa, Khoisan leader given state funeral despite last wishes. Available at:

Vavi, Z., 2012, Cosatu claims breakaway unions onslaught on working class. Available at:

Wittles, C., 2012, Section27 preps for textbook case. Available at:

Zikode, S., 2009, To Resist All Degradations and Divisions, Available at: