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Violence and crime are ubiquitous in South Africa today. Nevertheless, few of the many discussion programmes or media commentaries succeed in providing an illuminating perspective on it.

By contrast, Johann Rossouw’s use of the three structuring societal spheres — the religious, political and economic — that occupy different positions of dominance and subordination in different historical eras is illuminating. He observes that the religious sphere was dominant in the pre-modern Middle Ages, the political sphere in the modern era, and that the economic sphere occupies the dominant position in the postmodern era. The centre of power in the contemporary world is therefore global neoliberal economics. Rossouw’s explanation of the sources of crime in South Africa depends crucially on this.

His illuminating analysis notwithstanding, however, a psychoanalytical conceptual framework would contribute substantially to the clarification of the virtually incomprehensibly violent nature of crime in South Africa since 1994. To this end, Lacan’s three “registers”, namely the imaginary, the symbolic and the “real”, are eminently suitable.

Each person has, firstly, an imaginary side to her or his personality — one’s “self” or ego. Secondly, every person has a symbolic (linguistic) side — a name through which you fit into family structures, which, in turn, fit into society in a specific way. Thirdly, one has a “real” side to one’s personality — not in the ordinary sense of “real”, but in the sense of that which cannot be expressed in language: the “thing” within you that resists comprehension.

Another psychoanalytical concept that has to be used here is “trauma”. In Lacanian terms, it means the disintegration of the symbolic and imaginary horizon (conceptual framework) by means of which people understand their world. A parent who loses a child in a car accident, or a hijacking incident, experiences the full impact of trauma — an initial, paralysing condition of shock, followed (or accompanied) by a kind of blind “repetition” or reliving of the event.

This paves the way for the difficult symbolic “integration” of the traumatic event into one’s life. Trauma, whether personal or collective, therefore forces one to search, via language and imagination, for meaning in something experienced as senseless — something that could occur in the sphere of the religious, the political or the economic.

Collectively, South Africans have experienced two successive traumas. First there was the imposition of apartheid on black people, something that was manifested in a symbolic framework of its own, no matter how morally deplorable it may have been. Then, in 1994, South Africans had to face another “trauma” in the sense of an inescapable transition to a radically different socio-political symbolic framework, in the guise of a democratic Constitution.

This required of citizens to leave the old order of apartheid behind, and henceforth to think and act in terms of the newly sanctioned democratic symbolic order. Here the present priority accorded to the economic sphere plays a crucial role. With the embrace of global, neoliberal economic principles in South Africa, those people who possess the fewest economically marketable skills are also the most vulnerable. In the course of reconfiguring the symbolic social order, doing so in economic terms is prioritised, the accompanying political noises concerning the “rainbow nation” notwithstanding.

Moreover, a relatively small percentage of the population is (and can be) actively engaged in economic activities that are susceptible to the economy of globalisation, which typically requires information — and communication — technology skills. The rest, mainly illiterate and unskilled workers, fall through the cracks.

This is the crux of the matter: with the “normal” connection between the psychic structures of the imaginary, the symbolic and the “real” they are separate, yet interdependent and necessarily connected. This is indispensable for normal, “healthy” interpersonal social relations. But under the social conditions sketched here, where the economic predominates ruthlessly, a short-circuit occurs among the three registers, in so far as the symbolic sphere cannot fulfil its indispensable function, of mediating in a comprehensive, community-creating manner between the imaginary and the “real”. Why?

The imaginary order refers to the particular ego or self, which has as its counterpart the “other ego” (one’s “neighbour”). The “real” aspect of one’s psyche pertains to the ineffable “thing” in each person — that which cannot be symbolised, and which is therefore not susceptible to “the law” as it is inscribed in the symbolic order. The symbolic order refers to the “universal” domain of language and concepts, which is simultaneously the sphere of norms and of the “moral law”. Without the symbolic no sense of community or society is possible.

In South Africa, the register of the symbolic (in conjunction with the other two) is indispensable for the cultivation of a new sense of community. Failing this, a short-circuit occurs between the other two — that of the ego (imaginary) and of the “thing” (the “real”). Consequently, instead of being able to see the “other ego” as my counterpart who is, just like myself (ego), subject to the moral law (symbolic), thus preventing the “thing” and the imaginary from fusing, this is precisely what happens. Symbolic mediation disappears, and the other ego is experienced as mere, inhuman “thing”, corresponding to the “thing” in the self, which manifests itself in the shape of monstrous acts. Under such conditions people become desensitised to the imperative, to treat others as moral beings.

This explains why criminal acts in South Africa are inhumanly horrific and brutal — why parents burn or mutilate their children or each other, and why hijackers kill, maim or burn their victims. As long as the severely limited, “exclusive” economic sphere is prioritised in an effort to secure a new symbolic sphere in South Africa, the present slaughter will continue.

The attempts made in several other places to contribute to the construction of a new symbolic sphere are not sufficient to counteract the necessarily fragmenting nature of neoliberal economics, which is a process conducive to fragmentation, not community formation. A concerted effort to construct an inclusive symbolic sphere (a “shared vocabulary”) is the only possible solution, as long as this is not construed as an all-encompassing ideology.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


Bert Olivier

As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it...

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