Explaining Violence in SA: Some psychoanalytic considerations

Explaining Violence in SA: Some psychoanalytic considerations

van Zyl, S. (1990). Explaining Violence in SA: Some psychoanalytic considerations. Paper presented at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, Seminar No. 9, 31 October.


Presenter: Sue van Zyl

Sue van Zyl is a Lecturer in the Department of Applied English Language Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Date: 31 October 1990

Venue: University of the Witwatersrand, East Campus, Johannesburg, South Africa


One of the prices paid for attempting to say something general about events in the real world is the uneasy feeling that the attempt itself may be quite wrongheaded. While no-one would have any difficulty describing particular events as violent (and in doing so picking out what violent events have in common), descriptions do not amount to explanations, and characterizing the causes of violence on any general level is a task of quite another order.

Confining oneself to recent events in South Africa, and focusing on those to which psychoanalytic considerations most clearly apply, does not make the problem go away but it does ease it somewhat. After all there are good reasons to set a few intellectual scruples aside when the situation is as serious as it is now; more especially when very general accounts of why violence is so prevalent are rife and are often used to dubious political ends.

In particular, it is obviously important not to allow the increase in violence in South Africa since February 2 to be used to justify a return to repressive measures.

The violence in South Africa at present is obviously not the consequence of giving too much freedom to a population 'not ready' to make good use of it. On the contrary, if the question of liberty, in any standard sense of the term arises – and it obviously does – then there is little doubt that violence in South Africa is the result of too little, rather than too much of it and returning to a repressive regime is hardly a serious solution. Nor is it in fact surprising, however disconcerting it might be, that violence should appear so vividly and with such vehemence now – that the ultimate price paid for apartheid should be exacted on it's death bed.

Violent events, despite the smudge of consistency that the word, as words will, casts upon a whole gamut of particulars, do not belong to an undifferentiated class. Not all the violence in South Africa requires explaining (in the strong sense) and some does not require explaining in psychoanalytic terms.

There is for example no need to explain why, when violence is adopted as part of a political strategy, it leads to violent acts. This strategic violence is open to moral or practical criticism but it does not, as violence, call for any explanation.

It is, of course, necessary and legitimate to explain why a particular political organisation chose to adopt armed struggle and at a particular time, but having done so the violence is self-explanatory and in terms quite available to the actors. As rationally chosen action, violence is explained by means of the reasons which are its causes. And unless there is evidence to suggest that these reasons are not the 'real' ones, it is actually the confusion or mystification rather than the violence which needs explaining.

This confusing or disguised violence is also often political in origin and therefore has much in common with that which results when, for similarly strategic (although morally even more questionable) reasons, one political group instigates another to violence because it is in it's own interests to do so.

What distinguishes this violence from the first kind, however, is it's double status. While it too is intentional (and it is to the instigators that one must turn to provide an explanation) the position of the perpetrators should not be overlooked.

While there is every reason to believe that instigation by the Right is one of the major causes of violence in South Africa at present (that the "third force" – the police or armed forces – are often more or less directly responsible for much "black on black" violence) there is also every reason to believe that without the general climate of violence in South Africa at present, instigators would have a much harder time of it.

It is unquestionably important to expose violence which is being deliberately fostered in others without their consent, (and to separate it from that which is chosen by the political actors themselves) but even strategic violence of the disguised kind is easier to account for than the general climate which fosters it.

The most difficult and in my opinion important, type of violence to explain, is that which I would call symptomatic: in other words violence which is political in origin but not politically motivated. Violence of this kind undoubtedly requires explaining precisely because it, like the Freudian symptoms, has, in Donald Davidson's terms, reasons for causes but not those (available to the actors) reasons.

This is not to suggest that strategic and symptomatic violence are unrelated and that anyone looking at the violence in South Africa at present could legitimately continue to keep them apart. But it does suggest instead that any general account of violence in this country cannot ignore the fact that historical, political or sociological accounts alone, nor even a judicious mixture of each, will suffice to explain it.

What is the Theory – So Far?

Despite the difficulty of the general question of what qualifies as a theory (which nobody but a hardy, full-time philosopher of science would dream of tackling full on), it is surely possible to say that any loosely theoretical account of violence should be able to explain why violence is more prevalent in some circumstances, at some times and amongst some people than in others.

The extraordinarily rich work of this seminar, which has for the most part taken the form of detailed case studies of violent events, has provided the basis for just such an account of violence in South Africa by making it clear where the violence usually is and describing the specific circumstances in which it occurs. However, it seems to me that two factors operating in much of the work so far (other than understandable impatience with theory) have made it difficult to use it as the basis of a more general explanatory account.

The first of these is a more or less explicit merging of conflict and violence – the belief that one is simply the extreme version of the other. This has meant that the much more elaborated theory of the nature and causes of political conflict has been called in to do often sterling work for studies of violence. It then appears that having explained the genesis of the conflict in political or sociological terms and having shown how much of it there was, the small, almost inevitable step from conflict to violence is self-explanatory.

This approach spontaneously devalues psychological explanations by suggesting that as it is the business of psychologists to study affects and individuals, only highly conflicted individuals who behave violently are the province of psychologists. And whether the source of the conflict was political or sociological the psychologists' role is to show how, or even just that, it became extreme.

The second, and equally problematical assumption is that a theory of violence should be a positive one – should therefore provide an account of the specific additional ingredients (be they in circumstances or individuals) by means of which to explain violence. This position is in turn based on the view that individuals are naturally' violent, do not spontaneously attempt to inflict physical harm on others when they themselves are threatened or frustrated. It is then, only when they do resort to violence, that an explanation is called for.

If an the other hand, as is the case in Freud's second topography, aggression or the death drive (Thanatos) is as natural as the libido (Eros), and culture is needed to explain the fact that aggression is regularly repressed or sublimated, then explaining violence becomes (rightly in my view) accounting for its reappearance.

The psychoanalytic position thus reorganises the order of the argument suggesting, crucially, that violence always was and always will be both a political and a psychological question: political because some force external to the individual is required to keep it at bay, and psychological because violence both originates and remains present in individuals. However, what psychoanalysis implicitly recognises as well, is that the parts played by the political and psychological have not remained constant.

Perhaps the psychoanalytic position requires some elaboration.

Fundamental to the Freudian account of the relation between the individual and the society – or culture and nature – is the concept of conflict. While the Freudian premise most remembered is that of internal conflict (the so-called psychodynamic theory which conceives of the psychic apparatus as necessarily divided) what is sometimes forgotten is that Freud's account of the divided individual is based an a more fundamental conflict – that between nature and culture, between the body in nature subject to the pleasure/unpleasure series and the person in culture functioning in accordance with the reality principle.

For Freud it is not merely that man in culture is necessarily at odds with man in nature (precisely because the body in culture is not equivalent to that in nature) but that the body in nature and the two agencies which represent it, do not go away or become themselves socialized. They are crucially merely repressed. The ego, for Freud, unlike that for psychological humanism, may become a more or less successful slave to three masters but never becomes the master of three slaves.

Culture for Freud is minimally the constraint, (hopefully the sublimation) of the libido and the death drive. In practice, the whole of psychoanalysis turns on demonstrating how strenuous the process of constraining the death drive and the libido is and at what cost this constraint is achieved. As the psychopathologies, including those of everyday life, constantly remind us, civilization is for Freud necessarily discontented. Violence is never domesticated let alone eliminated; it is only held at bay. A positive theory of violence is needed only by those who believe that individuals have that within them which is on culture's side, that the child at first violent grows less so, the psychic apparatus heals.

For psychoanalysis, by contrast, the persistence or reappearance of violence must be attributed to the failure of those conditions needed to achieve it's initial or continued repression. And these conditions, while they always have and always will be central to any understanding of violence, have not always been of the same kind or even in the same place.

From Punishment to Discipline

In the opening pages of Discipline and Punish (1977), Foucault presents an almost unreadable account of the slow torturing to death of the regicide Damiens in Paris in 1757.

On 2 March 1757, Damiens the regicide was condemned "to make the amende honorable before the main door of the Church of Paris", where he was to be "taken and conveyed in a cart, wearing nothing but a shirt, holding a torch of burning wax weighing two pounds"; then, "in the said cart, to the Place de Greve, where on a scaffold that will be erected there, the flesh will be torn from his breasts, arms, thighs and calves with red-hot pincers, his right hand, holding the knife with which he committed the said parricide, burnt with sulphur, and, on those places where the flesh will be torn away, poured molten lead, boiling oil, burning resin, wax and sulphur melted together and then his body drawn and quartered by four horses and his limbs and body consumed by fire, reduced to ashes and his ashes thrown to the winds." (1977:3)

No more than eighty years later the rules for the house of young prisoners in Paris read like this:

"Art. 17. The prisoners' day will begin at six in the morning in winter and at five in summer. They will work for nine hours a day throughout the year. Two hours a day will be devoted to instruction. Work and the day will end at nine o'clock in winter and at eight in summer.
Art. 18. Rising. At the first drum-roll, the prisoners must rise and dress in silence, as the supervisor opens the cell doors. At the second drum-roll, they must line up and proceed to the chapel for morning prayer. There is a five-minute interval between each drum-roll.
Art. 19. The prayers are conducted by the chaplain and followed by a moral or religious reading. This exercise must not last more than half an hour.
Art. 20. Work. At a quarter to six in the summer, a quarter to seven in winter, the prisoners go down into the courtyard where they must wash their hands and faces, and receive their first ration of bread. Immediately afterwards, they form into workteams and go off to work, which must begin at six in summer and seven in winter.
Art. 21. Meal. At ten o'clock the prisoners leave their work and go to the refectory; they wash their hands in their courtyards and assemble in divisions. After the dinner, there is recreation until twenty minutes to eleven.
Art. 22. School. At twenty minutes to eleven, at the drum-roll, the prisoners form into ranks, and proceed in divisions to the school. The class lasts two hours and consists alternately of reading, writing, drawing and arithmetic."(1977:6)

This startling change in the nature, style and function of society's handling of criminals occurs in a period in which, according to Foucault, the entire economy of punishment was replaced by a new theory of law and morality, one which began with a move away from the use of a violent public spectacle of physical pain and ended in an orderly attempt at reform carried out in the privacy of a closed institution.

It is not, of course, that the spectacle of punishment is disorderly while the process of reform is ordered: the difference is that one is the slow, controlled spectacle of the destruction of the body, whereas the other is an even slower re-training, almost a reproduction of it.

What strikes one at once is the familiarity of the second procedure. It is the more ritualized and concentrated form of what families and schools do less formally to this day.

And what is equally striking is the sense that here too the reformation is officially for the benefit of those upon whom it is practised, whereas the spectacle of punishment is primarily for the benefit of those who look on. Violence is part of a regime of visibility and of retribution, an external form of force implemented directly on the body which makes a spectacle of the suffering of the condemned in the presence of those who must be dramatically reminded of their duty and of what awaits them should they fail in it.

Foucault makes it clear that the modern form of power, the gentle way in punishment, is not the product of some noble impulse but is a necessity brought about by historical changes which made the feudal form impossible. A now familiar account would show that the public spectacle demanded an audience, one proximate in space and time and sufficiently docile not to intervene. The crowds at hangings must be small, close by and in awe of those who exercise power. Punishment must literally be seen to be done.

With the dissolution of feudalism and the emergence of the consolidated nation states, power came to take a new relation to individuals.

Unlike all previous forms of social control which turn on the direct or literal and subsequently dispersed and metaphorical form of kinship, disciplinary power depends not on organizations above and outside the individual but hinges on those functional at the individual level and within.

Implicit in Foucault's account of the birth of disciplinary power is it's necessity and what it is tempting to call the genius, of the disciplinary solution. With the breakdown of feudalism and the emergence of consolidated nation states an essentially localized and hence direct form of power must be replaced by one operative in an indirect mode, across as it were, time and space. Individuals now exist outside the direct sphere of influence of those in power so that the ideal becomes the Christian form in a conscience that is always with you. As a result the individual becomes the practise of social control and the principle tribute to the form of individuality itself.

The change which Foucault charts may be encapsulated as that from a form of power exercised violently upon the body from above and after the event, to one which operates from below, from within and preferably in advance.

The Rise of the Psychological State or the Politics of Self-control

The novelty of Foucault's account is to demonstrate (but not necessarily to approve) the fact that modern power is essentially psychological in form.

In the place of the external forms of policing and punishment, disciplinary societies have both external and, essentially, internal, agents of control. As external forms become, for practical reasons, increasingly less viable so the role of internal control becomes increasingly more important. In consequence, external power concentrates all its efforts into producing individuals in the form which it requires – that in which it's continued influence can be guaranteed because it has been handed over (apparently in its own interests) to the most reliable agent, one who is, moreover, perpetually present.

The sanctions of medieval and renaissance states, which used to be operated by those explicitly in power, are now allocated to those less obviously in control – to those directly responsible for the initial formation of individuals, the parents, and subsequently, to those now, hopefully well-formed individuals themselves. In place of the external imposition of bodily force, modern power breeds, as every obsessional knows, a creature capable of being as cruel to itself and as horribly constraining as others could possibly be.

Perhaps the most important upshot of the change from punishment to discipline, is the production of a self believed to be a type of work or project. The Christian conscience, transformed by Protestantism, finally takes a fully secular form when the individual is enjoined to see himself as constantly falling away, not so much from God but from himself – that self to which he owes ultimate allegiance. That to which the modern subject is instructed to be constantly vigilant is not a principle outside the self but one (necessarily potentially flawed) safely housed within.

In place of the father, God the Father and the earthly lord, we have their internal counterpart – the superego.

Importantly this economical and apparently humanitarian move, characteristic of democracy, can only be made at the expense of nature.

Modern power begins with a more or less systematic attack upon inheritance. What Foucault calls ascending power directly correlates power and privilege upon that which exists prior to the individual and is given by birth. Feudal power affirms and regularizes that which is contingent upon features in existence prior to the individual. Hierarchies of power are determined by a divinely ordered nature. God has created the world hierarchically so that the order of both culture and nature is what people are born into and do not make.

Modern power, by contrast, must delimit and constrain that which comes before the individual, that which previously guaranteed and reinforced his or her social position. The rights of birth, formerly reinforced by culture, no longer flow from the differentials of natural law but are attendant upon humanity itself. The specific duties and obligations attached to a particular place in the hierarchy are replaced by a generalised obligation to that essential and equal humanity which inhabits all people alike.

Ironically, accompanying this duty, the first appropriation by power of the equality of men, is the surreptitious instruction to produce a new inequality. Modern subjects, in embracing their liberty, take on the task of rendering this potential equality actual and the inevitable inequality which results is justified because those who gain power are seen to have earned it.

Whereas for feudal powers those who attempted to exceed what God and nature decreed, or were unwilling to assume their proper and defined place in the hierarchy, warranted punishment. The subject most inimical to modern power is he who refuses to comply with the primary duty, that to the self as an actualised principle of humanity alone.

Any refusal to acknowledge equality, to embrace one's humanity and in so doing take responsibility for it and its inevitable failings becomes problematical. Likewise any return to the manifest partiality of God, nature or birth threatens equality precisely because it somehow frees one from the burden of being both in charge of, and finally responsible for oneself. This, in turn, reveals the Achilles' heel of the politics of self control, the recognition that not all that is the self may be controlled.

From Bond to Contract – or All upon Oedipus

What is distinctive of a psychological form of power is that unlike its feudal predecessor, it is called upon to operate two different forms of exchanges between individuals. While in feudal organizations an essentially external form of control functions as it were across a series of concentric circles of increasing circumference but of essentially the same features, modern individuality is constructed by means of a double and discontinuous procedure. The individual is inducted into the social by means of one operation of exchange upon which a second of a different form is superimposed. What is demanded, then, is a competence in both but not a confusion of the two.

In attempting to explain the means by which the psychological subject is acquired it is necessary to recognise it's essentially feudal foundations. While the modern adult must be sane and independent enough to sustain contractual relations, the earliest configurations of the self are forged in an essentially insane, non-contractual field.

Chronologically, and therefore psychologically prior to the contract the subject is produced by means of a different set of relations, those which recapitulate at the individual level the feudal history of the group. Contemporary individuality therefore has a feudal past on both the historical and the personal levels which is finally superseded on both. The differences between the modern and the feudal may be represented as those which distinguish the bond (of which the filial is the prototype) and the contract, the contemporary arm of legal exchange. If the psychological subject is expected to sustain both exchange forms, it nevertheless cannot acquire the second without the instrumentality of the first.

The extraordinary spectacle which opens King Lear, a work significantly written in the renaissance but concerned with the fate of a feudal kingdom, outlines the nature and limits of the bond.

In the opening scene, Lear, wishing to divest himself of the responsibilities of kingship, instructs his daughters to declare their love for him so that he might reward their declarations of love with proportionally rich amounts of land. Cordelia, called upon to speak of her love "in order to gain a third richer than her sisters", remains silent, revealing the essentially flawed form of Lear's demand. In the place of her sisters' extreme and stylised declarations, she speaks of her love for Lear as in accordance with her bond: "I love your majesty according to my bond; no more no less … . You have begot me, bred me, loved me: I return those duties back as are right fit, obey you, love you and most honour you" (Act 1, Sc 1, lines 90-100).

Cordelia's words capture the essence of the bond, making it clear that bonds are forged in childhood, based upon blood or kinship ties and grounded in need. They grow as the products of the gifts of life and of love and offer honour and loyalty as rightful returns for care and protection. Crucially, bonds are embodied in inequality – that of the kind necessarily found between parent and child, lord and serf, man and God. Their currency, if it is currency at all, is that of exchanges in kind and of service, their affects those of love, devotion and honour.

As extensions or reiterations of the filial, all bonds are non-contractual in essence and cannot, as Cordelia makes clear, appropriately be equalled with quantitative forms of exchange precisely because they are founded upon gifts which can never be measured and therefore can never be repaid.

Unlike contractual exchanges, bonds allocate rights, obligations and duties differentially. Whereas contracts accord unequal rights to both parties, bonds constrain the rights of the younger or weaker party bringing, as it were in mitigation, privileges not expected in the contractual form. Parents and kings are entitled to obedience, can physically punish and constrain their children or subjects, and demand both service and loyalty. Subjects and children, on the other hand, are entitled to protection and nurture. What distinguishes bonds from contracts is that attendant upon the bond is a right to violence in the interests of nurture, in contemporary terms in the interests of training or education. Crucially, while violence (punishment) may be codified, it is never wholly out of sight.

However, while modern societies do not dispense with the social use of violence altogether, its field, the regime of the bond, is strictly chronologically delimited. The bond, and therefore constraint and punishment by violent means is, at least ideally, confined to pre-contractual relations, to families themselves and to pseudo-familial relations like those in schools where educators are significantly in loco parentis.

Confining the regime of the bond chronologically, however, does not neutralize it or undermine it's importance. Quite the contrary. The family structure which would previously be extended and supported by a series of similar and more encompassing forms of social organisation must now function in an arena contracted in both time and space, both historically and geographically as it were, must carry the entire weight of producing a subject in accordance with demands of the contract.

Whereas in feudal organisations a form of power external to the family acted as a continuum able to reinforce it, the family now becomes not only the first but also the last legitimate external site of cultural transmission.

In psychoanalytic terms the means by which the necessarily feudal form of power operating within the family is replaced by that of contractual power can quite accurately be described as the resolution of Oedipus. The ideal itinerary of the psychological subject takes the form of a direct move from one nuclear family (the prototypical small group) to another. It is a journey which begins in a triangular relation to the father and mother as couple, (as the objects of Oedipal wishes) and is only completed when, Oedipus resolved, the subject enters another nuclear family, becomes a member of the parental couple and thus the object of someone else's Oedipus.

Because it is no longer possible to extend the family, the primary feudal group, into a larger but still essentially feudal structure, the first social configuration must produce singlehanded, a psychological subject no longer in need of external control – it must produce that is, an individual capable of maintaining the form of the social internally, that is an individual capable of a very large measure of self-control.

The full ideal adult form of the psychological subject is, in other words, to be child to no one and parent to no one but your own children.

That aspect of Freud's account of the resolution of Oedipus which is most regularly remembered concerns the destiny of the libido – the substitution of the particular parent as love object for another parent who is like him or her in one essential respect only (although in practice in many others) and that is gender. Perhaps more important, however, is that the resolution of Oedipus (classically described as predicated upon a separation of identification and desire) is also a prerequisite for the acquisition of a superego. Freud reminds us that to be Oedipalised in the pejorative sense is not merely to make libidinal object choices along the lines of the parental prototype but to act and evaluate only in accordance with direct parental injunctions.

In other words, the resolution of Oedipus is a prerequisite for the possession of a superego in the internal position. In Oedipus the superego is strictly absent because external and in the parent. It is only, in Freud's famous phrase as heir to Oedipus that it becomes internal and thus the person's own. Unlike in the feudal form of the extended bond where the familial is never wholly exceeded or replaced, in exiting Oedipus the psychological subject becomes subject to the contractual form.

The State Against the Group

Attendant on the confining of feudal power to its necessary operation in families alone is modernity's obvious suspicion of group forms which are always more or less feudal in character. Those formations which explicitly or implicitly continue to function along familial lines (that is, are based upon ties more specific than those of common humanity such as blood or shared ideals) are always in opposition to the state, precisely because they reintroduce or attempt to maintain nature.

The modern state's difficulty with the ancient and essentially excessive connections established by way of common blood or by religious or political affiliations is matched only by the charm and fascination which they continue to have for individuals. It is not for nothing that comrades, monks and members of the Mafia all call each other "brother" and refer to those who lead them as "father". And not insignificant either that where shared blood is not literally the case a mingling of blood is often ritually enacted.

The extent to which group affiliations, grounded in the bond, threaten to undermine the abstract contractual relations which characterize the operation of state power is symbolically expressed in the loyalty which they engender, one which necessarily acts beyond legality. As the state well knows, the conscientious objector, the wife who would perjure herself rather than betray a husband or child, and the political prisoner who would endure torture rather than name a comrade, all attest to the inherent subversiveness of the bonds which bind groups in ways which states can seldom achieve.

In Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921), Freud explains the difficulties which groups present in somewhat different terms. Emphasising, as might be expected, their distinctive psychological character he focuses on the fact that in groups, individual judgement (in the sense of rational and ethical choice) is impaired and self-control is diminished. Significantly in so doing he also suggests that in groups it is (as every human rights lawyer knows) individuation itself which is in fact threatened.

Freud accounts for the heightened affectivity characteristic of groups on the basis of their being a circumstance in which the members have a shared (but frustrated) libidinal investment in the leader and an identificatory bond with each other. As in cases of sexual and romantic love, the leader (or love object) is idealized or overvalued by the group member, an impairment of judgement of a different but equally characteristic kind.

Under these conditions individuals give over the otherwise (ideally in modern societies) internalized superego as the site of ethical judgement to the leader much as they might in love or hypnosis, to the beloved or the hypnotist.

The absence of will located in the individual – because allocated to the one admired or adored – necessarily represents a failure of self-control, one which endangers the social process and places the abstract principle of order represented by the state, in jeopardy by conceding concrete persuasive force to a specific, potentially fallible, leader.

Perhaps most disturbing to the state is the more or less conscious recognition that the existence of the group not only represents a threat to the social order but, crucially, also gives the lie to the belief that the state can or has given its citizens all that they need without their having to look to either the solace or the power of the group to get it. It is, in other words, only to the extent that the rights accorded to individuals do not in fact, as the state must assert, guarantee those of specific groups that the ghost of the group returns to haunt the state and accuse it of having made false promises.

Because modern power gambols not only upon Oedipus but upon its resolution, the return of the group is always as symptomatic, and as unwelcome, as the return of the repressed.

The Psychopathology of Apartheid

Commonsense quite rightly suggests that social ills of many kinds detrimentally affect mental health in ways very similar to those in which they affect physical health, and that any country which has more than its fair share of poverty, political instability and injustice is also likely to have more than its fair share of pathology. And as South Africa is clearly an especially pointed example of an unjust, unhappy, and unstable society, it is widely believed to be a especially pathogenic.

However, although this is undoubtedly true, and for reasons psychological commonsense could easily provide, it takes psychoanalysis to single out the kind of pathology which is, in my opinion, unique to South Africa.

For Freud all societies present the conditions of possibility for both neurosis and psychosis. Because individuals are not born with the attributes culture requires of them, and do not spontaneously give up those provided by nature, the process of enculteration easily can and often does go awry. But while only a sentimental naturalist believes that civilization is not necessarily discontented, nobody but a cynic or fascist believes that it is necessarily pathogenic.

If all societies provide the conditions of possibility for pathology, only those which do so structurally rather than contingently are pathological.

This internal criterion has the real advantage of not allowing one to call a society of which one does not approve pathological' and the apparent advantage of producing a non-historical criterion to go by.

However, it is not that easy. History always has the last word and it soon becomes clear that in order to identify a recurring contradiction it is necessary to isolate at least two regular, potentially contradictory elements which the psychopathic is what is at issue, would presumably be those of the self and society.

Expressed in more specific terms a coherent concept of the psychopathology of apartheid turns on whether it is now, and always was, possible think of inalienable psychological rights and if so how they might be violated. Luckily while the second criterion cannot be met the first can.

If, on the basis of Discipline and Punish (1977) it can be argued that power today (but not previously) is psychological in form, then it is simultaneously possible to characterize a potentially contradictory relation between the demands of the political and the forms of psychological – between the kinds of men and women society wants and these it actually gets.

This in turn hinges on demonstrating that an unjust modern state is uniquely pathogenic because it cannot for necessary rather than contingent reasons produce subjects in the position it itself enjoins. In other words, to describe a state as psychopathological would mean showing that in a particular political configuration the form of the individual it makes possible is not that which it wants and must have. Where a viable form of individual relation to what is outside the self depends upon a particular prior relation to the self, then but only then, is it possible for a society to be pathogenic.

Three things regularly generated by apartheid reveal I's essential psychopathology.

Agents without superegos

In psychoanalytic terms the simplest way to demonstrate that a political configuration was pathogenic would be to show that it demands that, but it impossible for, individuals to resolve Oedipus. And this precisely what apartheid South Africa does.

This structural contradiction should not, it is important to remember, be seen as equivalent to the accidents which Oedipus is necessarily heir to. The point is not to redescribe neurosis or simply to refer to the fact that in the normal vicissitudes of the history of the drive much can go wrong. Nor does it add very much more to say that certain quantities of libido, certain kinds of fathers or mothers, may make Oedipus more difficult to traverse successfully. What counts is whether something above and beyond particular individuals and particular families stands in their way.

A rehearsal of some of the details of the logic of Oedipus may be useful here. Oedipus, in Freud, is a mechanism by means of which identification and desire are separated. The boy child is called upon to give up the first object (the mother) and to substitute her with another object of the same gender. A prerequisite for the substitution is that he should identify in this with the father – be like him in order to have someone like her.

Identification is essential in this because, as we know from Freud, it is only on the basis of an identification that the child not only achieves a stable gender identity but also a superego which marks an Oedipal resolution.

This identification in turn presupposes that the child is given someone who can sustain that identification to provide him or her with a means by which the form of wishes may be related to the form of actions. In other words in which the child not only recognises what the parent wants but sees the form of action necessary in order to realise those wishes. The parent as the model then must literally embody the way in which wishes, themselves invisible, may be coordinated upon the visible field of actions.

What is important in determining whether a society can be pathogenic then turns on whether anything on the political or social level affects the possibility of making the necessary identification.

This is a difficult question, finally dependant upon a detailed account of the mechanisms involved in identification. However one thing is clear – where a group of people who must act as models are regularly in a position in which it is almost impossible to act upon their wishes, the continuity between wish and action which is required of the object of an identification is absent.

And it is equally true that this is precisely the position in which black people find themselves in South Africa. An unjust society, in depriving people of the right to live, love and work where they are born, systematically undercuts the very relation to rational action which is required of an adequate object of identification. The parent therefore cannot provide the child not just with a desirable model on the level of content (something which may accidentally as it were happen to any child) but one of the necessary form and in doing so produces not a child with the wrong superego but, centrally, no superego at all.

The controversial psychopathy of so many young black South Africans, and the attendant ability to commit violent acts without apparently suffering remorse can be explained in just this way.

Groups without leaders

If the disconcertingly violent character of South African youth is true, and it almost certainly is, then one as general, and no less true or disconcerting is that which points out that much of the violence in South Africa at present occurs both in or under the auspices of the very groups supposedly waging an honourable battle for human rights.

While the state's responses to the group are, as we have seen, usually ambivalent, esprit de corps, school spirit and religious sing-a-longs alike make it clear that not all groups are anti-social, at least on the level of content. But it is also true that no society can tolerate groups of a certain form.

And in this South Africa is once more necessarily pathogenic because it harbours all of the preconditions for the formation of groups and none of those for their proper, that is non-violent, operation.

Much of the violence in South Africa now originates in groups of people drawn together by shared misery who look to a common cause with a common leader to help them be free of their oppression.

As Freud makes clear in Group Psychology, the only way in which any group avoids the very real risk of becoming an always violent mob, depends upon the identification between members being sustained by a strong and visibly impartial leader. Crucially both leaderless groups (which are by definition ones without superegos, in effect mobs) and those with a partial leader are deformed.

For Freud the only way in which a group formation can be stabilized is under the auspices of a rational and impartial leader who can act as the superego common to all members and in being just also guarantees that the heightened affectivity and suggestibility of the members does not turn to violence upon others and finally to self-destruction.

The particular inconsistencies and injustice of apartheid South Africa make it impossible for it to provide these conditions. Group action is manifestly needed, but the rights (such as that to picket) necessary to ensure orderly and productive group functioning based on psychological solidarity, are withheld.

The imprisonment and banning of black leaders, the suppression of trade unions together with a myriad other personal and legal abuses have simply multiplied the occasions on which group action becomes psychologically and politically necessary without providing any of the mechanisms for rendering it "safe".

In addition apartheid South Africa allocates the possibility of effective leadership along racial lines to a single group, one which, moreover, has the least need of them. White leaders in South Africa cannot possibly be seen to be just and impartial and no group which has real interests which cut across racial groupings (such as the working class) can identify these common interests along non-racial lines.

The upshot is, that if Freud is right and groups today are always as ominously close to psychopathology as they seem, then South Africa in doing everything necessary to their formation and nothing necessary to their stabilization, and has in effect bred that very violence which it so vociferously claims to be defending.

Citizens without rights

On achieving majority the modern democratic state traditionally accords, as a matter of course, those born within its borders two sets of allied but not identical rights; those of a citizen and those of a contractual subject. What distinguishes South Africa from other states and calls its even nominal status as a democracy into question is the fact that it does not grant citizens rights (and seriously curtails the contractual rights) of some people born within its borders on the grounds of race or colour alone.

The manifest injustices of such a system are multiplied when it is remembered that while many black people are born, reach maturity, work and buy in South Africa – and are therefore expected to comply with the obligations governing contractual adults – they are never granted the rights and privileges to which white adult citizens of South Africa are automatically entitled.

Black South Africans while they have limited contractual rights, (primarily the right to purchase but not to sell some classes of goods and the obligation to pay for them and to sell their labour but not on the open market) never acquire the right to live, vote, and own property where they choose. And until very recently could not even choose who to love, let alone marry.

If we look once more at the way in which the essentially hazardous journey from bond to contract – or the resolution of Oedipus – is negotiated it appears that its success is dependant upon a finely adjusted set of checks and balances which ensure that an inevitably psychologically strenuous procedure ever succeeds.

In practise the child is encouraged to accept the inequalities and constraints, even the physical punishments of childhood which are part of the bond, because he or she is promised a final liberty as more than adequate exchange for these constraints, ones which what is more, are seemingly necessary if that liberty is to be fully enjoyed.

Although, according to the common wisdom of Oedipus, the child will be called upon to give up the special rights and privileges of the family bond this is a small price to pay because adult status brings with it the supreme right, that of liberty, one which is in addition powerful enough to guarantee the provision of all others.

While for many western capitalist countries it took, Marx and the critique of experience to expose the origins and duplicity of the myth of equality, black South Africans need nothing but their own experience to make its mythic status perfectly apparent.

In psychologically infantilising them and reinstating an essentially feudal regime organised along racial lines in the heart of a capitalist state, with all the injustices of capitalism perfectly intact, black South Africans occupy a dark zone between bond and contract which has all the disadvantages and none of the advantages of both.

As the miserable and dangerous life of black farm workers in South Africa so vividly portrays, violations of the bond are a form of betrayal which can only be satisfied by revenge and violations of the contract, which can and should be settled by the law, can never be justly resolved for those who never acquire full contractual, let alone human, rights.


Despite the fact that an attempt at explanation even of pathology does not, (as historians correctly remind politicians) oblige to provide a prescription, there is little doubt in my mind that the account, which Freud and Foucault together make possible, reveals quite clearly that for those in anyway responsible for apartheid to be either surprised or even appalled by the violence which is sweeping South Africa, is at worst hypocrisy, at best the result of extraordinary ignorance and self-deception. Therefore the most rational step that can be taken in the fight against violence is to ensure that apartheid dies as speedily as possible and never return.

Perhaps the last word belongs to Freud. At the end of his brilliant and troubling paper on female sexuality (1933) in which he carefully outlines the extraordinarily difficult task which awaits any women called upon to achieve the standard, heterosexual, fully genital position which the culture demands, Freud modestly denies having made any real progress with the pressing problem with which he began – that of attempting to explain why it is that so many women seem doomed to frigidity.

Freud's reader an the other hand is, I think, left with a different problem – how is it given the extraordinary odds against it that any women emerges quite normal and happy in the sexual?

Anyone trying to explain the violence in South Africa today who meets with the smallest success is, I believe, left with an impression similar to this one. Called upon to explain why so many black South Africans turn to violence there is, in the end, nothing more to do but to look on in wonder and admiration at the how it is that so many have had the extraordinary strength and merit not to.


Foucault, M. (1977), Discipline and Punish. Penguin: Harmondsworth.

Freud, S. (1905), "Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality" in On Sexuality, The Pelican Freud Library, Vol. 7. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1979.

Freud, S (1915), "Papers on Metapsychology" in On Metapsychology: the Theory of Psychoanalysis. The Pelican Freud Library, Vol. 11. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1984.

Freud, S (1921), "Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego" in Civilization, Society and Religion. The Pelican Freud Library, Vol. 12. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1979.

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CSVR is a multi-disciplinary institute that seeks to understand and prevent violence, heal its effects and build sustainable peace at the community, national and regional levels.

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