Worrier state

Posted by Becca Parkinson - Wednesday, 8 Jun 2022


According to Zymunt Bauman, fear is ‘the most sinister of the demons nesting in the open societies of our time’. Bauman locates fear as a central component of contemporary life, a consequence of the frenetic mediatisation and spectacular inequality of late capitalism: the ‘liquid times’ he famously defined. When considering global media production (and, in some instances, global scholarship), one may assume that this ubiquitous condition is restricted to the so-called ‘developed’ world, that fear is the preserve of the privileged, and that countries and cities in the global south are merely sources for the anxieties that stalk the fevered imaginaries of the north, from immigrants and terrorists to pandemics and environmental threats. Fear, in this analysis, is a particularly modern condition. What, then, does it mean to have our readings of this culture confined to the wealthy democracies of the north? What are we suggesting when we imagine the global south to be a place where frightening things come from rather than a place where collective emotion is experienced?

Worrier State takes this question as its starting point, asking what happens to cultures of fear when they manifest in, and not just about, the anxious environs of South Africa. South Africa is not the most nervous or fearful country in the world, nor is it, despite much media representation, the most dangerous. What is it, however, is particularly legible. With a powerful presence in the global imaginary, a heterogenous media landscape and a storied history of modern racial capitalism, South Africa engages an already-existent set of meanings to reveal how panics about risk and threat manifest among its various constituencies. In this famously stratified society, one of the world’s most unequal, episodes of fear and anxiety feel very different for different kinds of people. From the shrill hysteria of white victimhood and entitlement to the bitter survival of poverty-stricken communities, proximity to power – which often means financial power, which often (still) means whiteness – determines how risk, threat and fear are processed, how moral panics are transmitted, and how individuals and groups define and understand vulnerability, marginalisation and relations to the state.

The book features four case studies. It begins by examining the myth of white genocide, a powerful narrative that defines rural murders of white people as part of a concentrated and intentional war on whites. With its significant reach and resonance for the global far right, the idea of white genocide recasts violence against white South Africans as exceptional, different from and more important than any other forms of violence in this violent country. In doing so it obscures the lives and experiences of other victims of crime, obliquely presenting violence against black bodies and persons as natural, while activating longstanding white folk devils in service of a political agenda that is as much about ownership of land and resources as it is about physical safety. The self-proclaimed ‘minority rights’ groups that foment these notions of exceptional white victimhood weaponise white fear as a way of resisting social change.

Next it considers the so-called ‘satanist murders’ of three young women. These brutal killings were perpetuated by people known to the victims and accompanied by signs of apparently occult activity. Police and press insisted that they were satanic crimes, a diagnosis that drew on a longstanding moral panic around cults, conspiracy, youth deviance and bad religion. Although the killings were in a continuum with South Africa’s ongoing crisis of gender-based harm, the harsh realities of male violence and female vulnerability were barely acknowledged by the media. Equally invisible were the echoes of apartheid violence, with their burnings, their maimings and their bodies in fields. Rather, the press’ assumption that satanism was to blame obscured the gendered and structural nature of these murders. The spectacularity of satanism, its monstrous excess, provided a way for the South African media to disavow knowledge of the real causes – and hence the consequences – of gendered violence.      

The third case considers a particular kind of township property crime, in which thieves known as ‘plasma gangs’ were said to use a combination of hypermodern technology and indigenous magic techniques to break into people’s homes and steal their plasma TVs. Rather than being sold, the TVs were then allegedly broken apart and the ‘plasma’ used to make nyaope, a destructive street drug. The plasma gangs scare pulled into its axis all kinds of pre-existing township anxieties: fears of drugs, drug dealers and drug crime; of encroaching foreigners and corrupt police; of visibility and invisibility. Plasma TVs, markers of economic success and aspirational, performative 21st century consumption, also made people vulnerable to crime and violence. The plasma gangs scare condenses some of the contradictions of global citizenship in the global south, where neoliberal injunctions to buy, consume and display exist alongside conditions of precarity and even danger.     

The final case study examines the community Facebook page of a Johannesburg suburb, zoned ‘whites only’ under apartheid and since then ostensibly democratised. It reveals how the largely white and middle class members of this digital imagined community are subject to opposing injunctions. First there is the desire to be safe, which in the context of South Africa manifests as a demonisation of poorer black people, particularly homeless men and informal workers. Within the arc of the online discussion, these people are seen to be outsiders, to not belong, to contain inherent threat, to require action and the closing of imaginary borders. Second, however, there is the desire to be ‘good’, in keeping with the suburb’s reputation for bohemian tolerance. In these instances white posters seem anxious to display their charity and open-mindedness, although these better impulses are almost aimed at black women and children – the ‘deserving poor’ – rather than the men whose presence so discomforts white residents. 

Worrier State offers these four instances as affective microcosms, revealing that fear and anxiety in South Africa are as potent and as generative as in the global north and find radically different forms in different communities. These are localised but powerful instances of the way in which fear and feeling impact on lived experience, social theories, community-making and identity in this complicated and emotionally demanding place.

Worrier state

Nicky Falkof is Associate Professor of Media Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

Worrier State: Risk, anxiety and moral panic by Nicky Falkof is out now.

Part of our new Governing Intimacies in the Global South series.

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