Why are South Africans so angry?

Violence is born of our ever-festering collective psychosis. Curbing it requires us to face our colonialism-induced dysfunctional national identity

‘Why are South Africans such a violent people?”

I remember overhearing this question in a crowded bar in Lusaka, Zambia, in 1990 from nonchalant Zambian men looking at newspaper pictures of the Inkatha Freedom Party rampage in Natal and the East Rand.

Why do we unthinkingly resort to violence against anything that irks us?

Never argue over a parking space in a packed shopping mall, he might pull out a gun.

This instinct is most indulgent towards the vulnerable.

We trap women and children; we treat aliens, typically disempowered black Africans, as sub-humans who only understand our message when killed.

The trashing of city streets and university campuses during labour strikes and student protests is accepted as the mildest form of expressing rage.

At least then we are not breaking windows or burning a library.

Endless violent eruptions of service delivery protests have become so common that they are a routine feature of radio traffic reports.

Some street is burning, motorists are advised to avoid such and such suburb.

Even our parliamentarians cannot sustain an uncomfortable debate without resorting to fist fights, violent gestures and language.

Why are we so angry? How did that national jubilation, social cohesion and international admiration that the 2010 Fifa World Cup bestowed on us so easily dissipate?

There is a connection between gender-based violence, our distinctly South African instinctive violent behaviour, and the xenophobic attacks on African immigrants.

It is all in the same stream of a flowing rage of an ever-festering psychosis and dysfunctional national identity.

Read: ‘This is war,’ Ramaphosa says about gender-based violence

It is therefore not surprising that last Friday, on the same day and hour that President Cyril Ramaphosa, in his regalia as president of the ANC, was on a dramatic stage quelling the fires of xenophobic violence in Ekurhuleni, that ANC Women’s League president Bathabile Dlamini was jostling for a place among women storming the JSE in protest against gender-based violence.

Ramaphosa and Dlamini were addressing a violence of the same species, emanating from the same psychological, historical and political base.

Why are we so angry? How did that national jubilation, social cohesion and international admiration that the 2010 Fifa World Cup bestowed on us so easily dissipate?

Who or what are we actually that we so easily permit killing our African sisters unashamedly and still be able to provide excuses for our deeds?

On the 21st Freedom Day – on April 27 2015 – former president Jacob Zuma, referring to the spate of violent Afrophobic eruptions that had marred what was supposed to be a celebration of national emancipation and democracy, mumbled that “South Africans need to be cured. We are sick.”

Exactly a month later, on the occasion of the president’s office budget vote in Parliament, Zuma reiterated: “The horrific incidents of Marikana, the recent attacks on foreign and African nationals in our country, some violent protests, as well as incidents of violent crime indicate that something is wrong ... Recently some of our people burnt a train simply because it had arrived late.”

President Cyril Ramaphosa addressing residents of alexandra at the stadium,there has been service delivery protests in the area Picture: Felix Dlangamandla/ Netwerk24

Zuma’s reference and linkage of South Africans’ proclivity to violence with the attacks on African foreigners was as perceptive as it remains ominous.

But there is much more which precedes this presidential view – barricade a road, burn a clinic, throw a chair at a conference delegate.

Skiet, skop and donder; that is who we have always been, even before the world saw pictures of the daylight hacking of Mozambican immigrant Emmanuel Sithole in Alexandra in April 2015.

We are ready to fall into a mob, ready to kill our African brothers and sisters, as much as we consume daily spine-chilling news reports of court hearings of the rape and murder of toddlers and octogenarian mothers.

We just stand by, watching and puzzled, scratching our ill-fitting Brazilian hairpiece shrouds over a gaping hole on our heads.

In May 2016 I shared a platform at a very poorly attended Africa Day colloquium at the University of Fort Hare with Nigerian colleague Olusegun Morakinyo.

His observation is not only emotionally haunting but punches on our wound.

His academic paper laments that “African nationalism as the modern expression of Pan-Africanism, a sociopolitical identity that transcends narrow ethnic identities and geography, was birthed in South Africa as the South Africa Native National Congress ... The paradox must therefore not be lost that it is in South Africa where commitment to Pan-Africanism is being tested today as we notice from the real and imagined current Afrophobia issues.”

Morakinyo gives us a hint of the nature of the sickness that Zuma, with all his axiological constraints, referred to.

“Pay your e-tolls ... [This is Johannesburg, not some national road in Malawi],” Zuma said.

A symptom of a sickness just there Mr President, right out of your lips like uncontrollable diarrhoea.

We have been taught by the apartheid education system and propaganda that we are not Africans, that we are better than “the Africans up north”.

“This country is turning into Zimbabwe,” is a common phrase around the braaivleis fires.

It is a symptom of dreading becoming what you actually are – an African. Non-African South Africanness is the nature of what is wrong with us.

One does not have to be a psychologist to agree that the psychopolitical state of the society is best characterised by an unresolved pervasive discomfort with the Africanness of South Africa.

This collective state of mind which is embedded in our national psyche, to the extent that it manifests as a dysfunctional self-identity, is akin to a psychosis.

This psychopathology manifests in a range of social and political deviances which have earned post-apartheid South Africa the status of one of the most violent societies on earth.

We have been taught by the apartheid education system and propaganda that we are not Africans, that we are better than “the Africans up north”.

To exacerbate this malady is the dominant liberation ideology ingrained in us and in our later government policies that South Africa is a colony of a special type.

This anti-colonial exceptionalism mutated into the mercantilist view of South Africa since 1994 as “the gateway to Africa”.

A gate is part of the outside perimeter, merely granting access to the property it delimits.

We are an instrumental part of Africa, but not actually an integral part of the continent socioculturally, so the ANC government has taught us.

This capitalistic policy thesis is not only politically delinquent, it has deep psychophilosophical implications.

It does not only say that we do not see ourselves as an integral part of Africa, in fact we do not know who we are.

This exposes the existential misconception in our make-up, a confusion of where we actually are, spatially and culturally, in this world.

Any person with a confused self-identity of this magnitude has a deep problem, has acute mental health issues.

They either suffer from a dissociative identity disorder or a confused complex that randomly sets him oscillating between feelings of superiority and inferiority in relation to others.

In between this personality conundrum is a range of sociopsychotic acts such as the hatred of black immigrants who look like them and thus haunt them about their true nature.

From this you get the confused outburst, the raping of babies, the burning of trains, and the shouting matches in Parliament.

These are the symptoms of a nation sick with an identitarian ailment. A denied Africanness is the root of all our troubles.

This denied Africanness even blunted the goals of our struggle against the apartheid regime.

We easily veered from the Africanist anti-colonial dream for the total liberation of our land; now we are boiling with anger that we still live with economic apartheid and are taking our frustrations out on easy victims around us.

Lamola teaches philosophy at the University of Pretoria. He recently published The de-Africanisation of the African National Congress and the Malaise of Afrophobia in South Africa


Is anger and violence towards the vulnerable a reflection of our self-loathing stemming from an identity crisis?

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