“If you do not approve of our methods and tactics of protest, then you are neither with us nor are you for our cause.” This slogan sets a pre-condition for solidarity with a struggle. It requires that one accepts, in good faith, the methods used to advance a struggle. This pre-condition exposes a weaponised logic which locates the legitimacy of these very methods of protest not in some external standard of value but rather in the passionate intensity of those advocating for these tactics. For example, burning a library is no longer held to some external standard of value but rather the burning itself is legitimate to the extent to which the passions of the protesters warrant it.
As public discourse has tried to delegitimise this “burn, burn, burn” protest action, a novel defence has entered the public imagination: black rage. It is said that “you cannot make me angry and then want to set parameters on how I should animate my anger”. In the name of black rage it is claimed that all protest action becomes endowed with legitimacy and acceptability. But what is this black rage exactly?
The socio-political model that is used to structure society in South Africa, across many spheres of SA society, is based on having an entity which is endowed with a concentrated form of power. Examples of such entities of concentrated power are the South African Police Service, university management, the government, conglomerates, etc. This entity is a de facto centre of action and exists in duality with multiple peripheries. The peripheries contest for attention of the centre to ensure they get their share of positive impact. In other words, the centre is by way of design subject to the influence of the peripheries. For much of recalled memory in South Africa, blacks have existed as a periphery whose influence at the centre has been marginal. This marginalisation became institutionalised in the cultures of various institutions and arms of government in South Africa.
Because the marginalised periphery is not given audience by the centre, the actions of the centre tend to become, at best, paternalistic to the marginalised periphery or, at worst, very oppressive to the marginalised periphery. This state of being doubly, marginalised and having to endure continual violence of oppression, gives rise to a psychological state called black rage. I define black rage as the psychological state born from the combination of being marginalised into silence and having to endure the continual violence of oppressive conditions.
To understand black rage as a legitimate defence we need to look at three aspects of its action: (1) black rage as motivation for action, (2) its capacity to nullify culpability of individual as a moral agent and (3) black rage as a mitigant for the punishment of wrongful behaviour.
In the first point, I fully agree that black rage is a motivating force in getting people to demand changes in their world. As someone once eloquently put it to me: “only gatvol people change the world”. I unconditionally accept black rage as a legitimate genesis for some form of action – but not just any form of action.
On the second point, black rage should not be seen to nullify an individual’s capacity to be a moral agent. That is, nullify an individual’s capacity to be held culpable for his or her actions. Black rage should not be understood to be some spirit which possesses an individual and thus turns that individual into a zombie which is incapable of thinking. If we accept the zombifying nature of black rage we set ourselves on a slippery slope to anarchy. To be explicit, I reject the zombie powers of black rage.
Thirdly, once someone’s (protest) action has been found wrongful, can black rage be a mitigant for punishment? Yes it can. However, if the original action is done with expectation of mitigation of punishment then this creates a moral hazard. How then do we ensure that people do not behave like zombies if they know a priori that it is precisely the zombie-like nature of their behaviour that will serve as a mitigant for punishment?
The point about black rage as a mitigant for punishment is often further emphasised by saying that during the 1980s people burned things and this form of protest was then accepted. Was it because the struggle was against whites and apartheid? This line of argument is tragic not only because it wants to fashion protesters as zombies who do not have moral agency but rather, unwittingly, it denudes protest action of its capacity to be a catalyst for change. How?
SA has made great strides since 1994 although there remains much to be done. There has been great legislative and cultural progress, even though certain institutional cultures of yesterday stubbornly remain. The use of yesterday’s forms of protest, paradoxically, asserts that protest action of yesterday was not effective precisely because it has not changed the context enough to warrant new forms of protest. The tragedy is that, by refusing to acknowledge the progress that has been made, you denude the very protest action of its capacity to be a catalyst for progress.
The weaponised logic of having the intensity of a protest action be its own criterion for acceptability, its own internal standard of value and its own source of legitimacy, is not progressive. To the extent that black rage continues to serve as a tool of this weaponised logic, it becomes counter-productive.
Protest action should meet some external standard of value and criterion for acceptability. It is sheer laziness to assert that burning libraries and schools is the only option.