Opinion article by Prof Joy Owen, Head of the Department of Anthropology, University of the Free State (UFS). 

Unbidden, the spectre of a failed state haunts the contemporary imagination of South Africa. State responsibility and accountability have been piecemeal, and the citizenry of South Africa is left to fend for itself, as organs of state have grounded to a halt due to historical missteps in securing our physical and knowledge infrastructures, and contemporary endemic mismanagement of vital resources.

Many have warned us of the spiralling road to purgatory – Justice Malala, the Arch, Kader Asmal, Thabo Mbeki, Athol Williams: and many social phenomena have been harbingers of a South Africa in violent transition – the Marikana massacre; roiling xenophobic attacks that have maimed particularly African transnationals; rising unemployment, particularly among the youth, and the militarisation of the state in ‘defence of order and the rule of law’ during COVID-19.

In this firepit of uncertainty exacerbated by a lengthy state of emergency in response to a global pandemic, South Africa’s destitute have been embattled psychologically, physically, emotionally, and financially. Survival, life, is not guaranteed.

A multivalent and multipronged response has been constrained, as various government departments lack the political will, knowledge, and sense of deep responsibility and accountability towards the people.

The gravity and sheer overwhelm that comes with recognising this thin knife-edge we are teetering on, has led to South Africa cycling between mass inertia and rabble-rousing rebellions, literally and otherwise, that agitate for a reorganisation of the social order.

How do we uphold the value of life

Operation Dudula, like many other social movements in the country, foregrounds the vast, seemingly insurmountable obstacles we face in living lives of and with dignity in South Africa.

They respond to the question, ‘How do we uphold the value of life, no matter race, creed, nationality or religion, when we as South Africans are annihilated on the throne of a hetero-patriarchal, capitalist democratic state that has lost favour among those who matter – the people?’

Listening closely to the rhetoric from the face of Operation Dudula, Nhlanhla Lux Dlamini, one hears the lion roaring; and like so many before him, he uses hyper-masculine and performative tropes of protector, provider, hustler, and gangster as swirling metaphors tempered by ‘the rule of law’ to assert that South Africa is for South Africans.

Using unsubstantiated claims that pit illegal foreigners against local South Africans, the messiness and complex contextual nature of criminal activity, inclusive of intent, range of crimes, and the identity of perpetrators, are reduced to legality or illegality of citizenship.

Yet statistics do not support the suggestion that crime is being driven by illegal foreigners or undocumented migrants; the leading majority of our male prison population is South African.

While the existence of Operation Dudula is becoming a sustained and vocal threat to the veneer of ‘business as usual’ in the country and to the lives of non-nationals, there are seeds of potential cast among the operation’s challenges. However, this potential will be wasted and destroyed if we do not recognise and collectively respond to the

1) inter-related and inter-dependent nature of South Africa’s contemporary state of affairs;

2) power inherent in an active citizenry that understands that I am my brothers’ and sisters’ keeper, irrespective of socially constructed, performed, and maintained markers of difference; and

3) collective psychological and emotional trauma that undergirds our interactions with each other, and ‘the other’.

We are a country in trouble

Our xenophobic responses to perceived and real threats in South Africa over the past two decades confirm that stereotyping and scapegoating are part of rudimentary attempts to eradicate these threats to self, and to effectively disarm them.

However, history also shows that annihilation of the other does not secure one’s self. Instead, the sublimation and vanquishing of the other has detrimental effects on a thinking-feeling human being whose righteous logic of ‘being right’ cannot withstand the internal reckoning that will come from annihilating another.

As Hemphill states “… (e)ach death and each riot activate another memory of another life lost without justice or reason; this is how trauma unhealed haunts and accumulates, re-emerging and reanimating the body. It does not disappear”.

We are a country in trouble. We are a world troubled. And if we are to survive this as a collective, not as divided parts of the collective, we will have to critically question and consciously resist years of indoctrination and socialisation that assert that ‘might is right’; that fighting and going to war (on local and on foreign soil) is a righteous endeavour if one does so to protect sovereignty of land, borders, bodies, and ideologies.

The revolution will not be televised, for it is an internal one. We have no map to chart the way forward as old-world orders dissolve; as the earth implodes under the heaviness of human waste and damage; and as humans continue to live desperate lives separated from the life-giving forces of nature and the divine feminine.

Moving forward, those resident in South Africa will have to fashion new social compacts that uphold the sovereignty of individuals and their right to dignified life, supported by collective and individual interventions that supersede the state.

Ordinary citizens will have to free themselves from mental shackles as they actively reroot and reroute themselves in ancient philosophies and ways of being that extend beyond one originary myth.

We will have to trust and grow the potential that exists within an uncertain world and trust the humanness within self and others to guide us to each other; to draw closer when every fibre of our being rages against that shattering of physical, and ideological distance.

We are not without ordinary examples of this work. My research and those of my students among African transnational migrants, demonstrate alternative ways of interacting that support rather than degrade the financial, emotional, and spiritual well-being of citizen and non-citizen.

Born out of need, acts of connection and micro-resistance reorder, question, and negate the jarring and dissonant narratives and realities of difference that were part of South Africa’s foundations.

Through love, kindness, and mutual support and guidance, South Africans and other nationals reframe the reality of living in South Africa, exposing an ethic of care and commitment to a collective well-being that is not based on socially constructed forms of inclusion and exclusion, or politically orchestrated forms of responsibility.

The existence of Operation Dudula, and the Gift of the Givers, for example, confirms that we have work to do across generations in this country. Our work includes the painstaking process of healing our individual and collective psyches and the re-envisioning of a future that is supportive of all life. We need to serve life and make our country and “the world safe for human differences” (Benedict).

The time to evolve, consciously, is upon us.