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Protest and phatic communication: An account of a South African conversation

“Are you going to write about this week’s protests?”, the writer asks as the waitress takes away his empty plate from the table in the Newlands restaurant where they have been enjoying a sunny Cape Town Sunday lunch.

“No”, the professor of private law replies tersely. “What’s the use?”, he thinks to himself, before continuing: “I have written the same thing many times, over and over again. The political authority in this country simply does not want to get the basic point that I have been making. It was a similar thing at Marikana, it is the same thing in the poo wars, it is the same thing almost everywhere where there is revolt today, be it Istanbul, Brazil or the Cape Town CBD. Sometimes it is just more visible than elsewhere. I’ve told you this before.”

“But isn’t it worth writing about this (again) simply because you cannot be silent”, the writer replies. He can see that the professor is not quite himself today. He looks a little pissed off, in fact.

“But I can be silent, Samantha Vice has been telling us that this is in fact the best thing for us to be as white people in this country today: silent”, the professor says as he throws a crumpled piece of white paper that he had been rolling between his fingers in frustration, onto the white table cloth.

“You don’t believe that! And you know very well that Vice’s argument is more nuanced than that. She asks for consideration, respect, humility, measured outrage based in reason and rationality. Surely, what you have been saying meets this criteria?”, answers the writer.

“I don’t know. People say I am outrageous, idealistic, childish”, the professor replies, deftly.

“Well, at least remind me then. I have been trying to make sense of this myself. It’s been a while since we talked.”

”As you know, the argument is not mine. It is Slavoj Žižek’s. From his book, Violence. I just see what he sees wherever I find myself in this country. And, as far as I’m concerned, before we do not come to terms with this basic point, everything else we say about the protests may as well be left unsaid. Žižek conceived the argument in the context of the Paris Riots of 2005, relying as he so often does, on Lacan. His first point was that the riots were marked by a palpable absence of any positive utopian vision.”

“Do you mean that the riots constituted acts of senseless violence?”, the writer asks again.

“Not at all. Unless you mean with ‘senseless’ that they managed to make the symbolic network of corrupted liberal capitalism tremble at its core. In that sense, ‘senselessness’ by no means constitutes powerlessness but indeed and on the contrary, great displays of power. For these acts are indeed acts of a violence that can be very powerful, even revolutionary. You see, Žižek’s point is that these protests in fact constitute a very precise form of acting out, what Lacan described as the ‘passage a l’acte’ or the passing to the act. It is a form of blind acting out against the Big Other of symbolic authority that carries with it an unbearable frustration brought on by a profound sense of not being seen. Simply and in the first place these protests are forms of phatic communication. They are directed at the basic level of recognition, an effort to gain visibility, as Žižek puts it. A way simply of saying ‘we are here, can you hear us, can you see us?’.”

“Are you saying that the people who instigated and participated in the lootings were doing so because they were frustrated with not being seen and heard?”

“Yes, I am saying that. It is rooted in a helpless frustration with not being seen, not being heard as human beings by the authority that governs over them (which also explains why there is all this talk of ungovernability). Think about it, when you have been saying the same thing to the same people for years and years (‘we want houses, we want electricity, we want schools, we want public transport’) but have been time and again plagued by a justified and overwhelming feeling that the addressees are not even hearing what you are saying, let alone acting on it, wouldn’t you at some point draw the conclusion that you and them are speaking two different languages, that they do not understand you, that they are blind to you. Wouldn’t you then, in rage and frustration, conclude that there is no other option left but, quite literally, to speak a different language — the language of throwing things, of disarrayed and misappropriated objects?”

“I get what you are saying, but how does this help anyone? The looters directed their anger against their own — poor shopkeepers, city dwellers and so on.”

“Because it exposes to the forces of law and order the naked real core of the system of ‘inevitable’ capitalism that they so vehemently defend and consistently sugarcoat — the so-called ‘logic’ and ‘reason’ of ruthless competition and self-assertion at the heart of capitalism: Darwinian survival of the fittest. In that exposure lies the opening of a space and in that space lies a truth: that the true challenge today lies not in the ‘provision’ of, here and there, subject to ‘budget constraints’ and ‘available resources’, housing, toilets and services, but rather, and much more uncomfortably, in totally transforming the system, the socio economic order itself, which, in the first place causes people to behave in the self-destructive manner that we have seen this week in Cape Town.”


  • Jaco Barnard-Naudé is Professor of Jurisprudence and Co-director of the Centre for Rhetoric Studies in the Department of Private Law at the University of Cape Town. In the United Kingdom, he is the British Academy's Newton Advanced Fellow in the School of Law at Westminster University and Honorary Research Fellow at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, University of London. He is a board member of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) and of the Triangle Project, Cape Town.


  1. PrettyBelinda PrettyBelinda 4 November 2013

    I agree with the Prof, service delivery protests have been coming along for a very long time…decades in fact….from the old dispensation right into the new. Both systems are not working for the poor and marginalised.

    I vehemently disagree with grassroot leaders who play to the tune of political authorities by putting the lives of working men and women in danger. There are genuine community activist who work tirelessly everyday to assist with change processes and building social cohesion which is not based on looting or destroying the livelihood of thebpoor. This conduct sows division and entrenches conflicts which are born out of poverty. We having a big problem with leadership in political structures who have absolutely no passion for real development….power hungry individuals really negative, the type of people we dont need in leadership at this timeb or ever.

  2. Daniel Berti Daniel Berti 4 November 2013

    Nice article.

  3. Mikhail Dworkin Fassbinder Mikhail Dworkin Fassbinder 4 November 2013

    Remember how the liberals scorned the Occupy movement for posing no “alternative,” in the sense that they advanced no ideology? (Occupy showed little interest in Dialectical Materialism, and saw European-style “Social Democrats” as offering no more that capitalism with a human face.) But the liberal critique misses the point. The Occupy movement was more akin to street theatre than “politics” as ordinarily understood. The idea is to break down the extant structures of repression, to open up creative space for a new ideas, and, perhaps, enjoy an interregnum of experimental anarchy before the New Order (whatever it may be), emerges organically from the chaos.

  4. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 6 November 2013

    How many ‘revolutions’ are really worth taking seriously? People don’t voice their disgust at the polls and when there are protests, it’s a handful of middle class people who watch too much Zeitgeist films.

    It’s akin to social terrorism: There isn’t a ‘silent majority’ out there who aren’t being heard. There is a minority of people with political ideologies that most people find ridiculous, which is why they don’t get the votes. But now they want to end up in the news to make their causes seem more popular than they really are.

    What should government realistically do about service delivery protests? The wheel turns slowly and government is rolling out services to people, albeit very slowly. If we aren’t happy with the way government does these things, we should vote for another one.

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