On the 14th of January last year, the Kruger National Park (KNP) issued a press release to communicate the circumstances surrounding the deaths of two suspected rhino poachers in the Napi section of the park the previous day. At least two sets of tourists had spotted “a suspicious man” with a rifle; park authorities deployed a dog unit, a helicopter, and a group of rangers. The statement explained that there were in fact two men, and that in an exchange of fire with park staff, both suspects had been “fatally wounded”.
Though reliable data are hard to come by, killings like these are not uncommon. Last year criminologist Mark Shaw and journalist Julian Rademeyer (author of the popular book on rhino poaching in southern Africa, Killing for Profit) estimated that between 150 and 200 suspected poachers had been killed in the KNP since the start of the crisis. Geographer Maano Ramutsindela and sociologist Bram Büscher put the death toll in Mozambique for 2014 alone at 77, which would indicate an even higher death rate.
Fatal skirmishes between rangers and suspected rhino poachers have resulted in an escalation of firepower. The rangers who exchanged shots with the unidentified men in the Kruger were probably fearful for their lives. Still, it is easy in the bureaucratic tone and passive constructions (like “fatally wounded”) used in the press release to miss the fact that the conservation authorities were very well equipped, with dogs, armed men, and a helicopter, while the enemy numbered only two, and had only one gun between them. What did the second man do to deserve summary execution?
As Büscher and Ramutsindela argue in their recent publication on the phenomenon of “green violence”, there is a history to this conflict. Men who are recruited as poachers often come from communities that were dispossessed or forcibly removed in order to create the massive, trans-frontier “peace parks”, both before and after the end of apartheid and the civil war in Mozambique. Historically, conservation in the region has pitted itself against black land rights. The very construction of the “poacher” was a deft discursive inversion: those who no longer had access to their ancestral lands became thieves when they resisted, while those who had taken the lands away understood themselves as the heroic protectors of Edenic wilderness. Thus was a white sense of belonging in Africa enmeshed with a particular relationship with the land, divorced from its social and historical context, while attempting to obscure its violent roots.
To sustain this dispossession in the postcolonial world requires some discursive heavy lifting. The idea that it is acceptable to shoot on sight, and to kill, is fairly standard in warfare, but can be extended to other realms of social life when it is supported by the notion of a siege, where the fact of being surrounded by an implacable foe suspends a sense of “normal” rights and responsibilities. Philosopher Achille Mbembe has termed this phenomenon necropolitics. People have to feel threatened in order to sign off on a “war” on terror, or a “war” on drugs, or indeed a “war” on rhino poaching. Necropolitically, the fiction of the siege requires the fiction of the enemy. It is worth exploring in some detail how exactly these enemies are constructed, and discursively linked into other chains of signification.
The construction of a necropolitical foe functions best along with what Stuart Hall called “fatal combinations of power and difference”. Race is the quintessential example, and a carefully examined case study of how exactly this works comes from the United States. African American men are disproportionately arrested, convicted, imprisoned, and sentenced to death. As Ava DuVernay’s Netflix documentary The 13th explains, policymaking from the time of slavery has continuously sought to keep black men in their place, whether as slaves on plantations or as prison labour in chain gangs. There is clear and compelling evidence that the very definition of what is criminal, and what is not, constituted racially motivated and discriminatory acts on the part of lawmakers. As the war on poverty became Reagan’s war on drugs, prison-building and the incarceration of black men for even relatively petty drug-related crimes ravaged black communities in the United States. The relationship between black communities and the criminal justice system continues to necessitate activist formations such as Black Lives Matter.
The critical geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore has studied both the structural and symbolic logic of the penal system in California. Cynically, the state was able to solve problems created by surplus financing, arable land, and labour, by building vast prison complexes in far-flung rural areas of the state, starting in the post-war period and then accelerating markedly through the economic crises of the 1970s. This prison-building bonanza was speeding up even as real crime rates were slowing down. Harsher and mandatory minimum sentencing regimes, coupled with the moral panic surrounding drug use, succeeded in filling the prisons, creating the illusion of high demand.
As Gilmore outlines, the Californian symbolic order specifically favoured a white male power bloc that combined a particular sense of masculine firmness with national identity, characterising anything else as alien. Thus was created the figure of the “welfare queen”, the unruly African American woman whose moral turpitude leeched on the state’s resources, creating excess children whose inherited deficiencies and lack of firm upbringing were understood as the central dynamic driving criminality. Similar constructions enchained Hispanic Americans, as “gangbangers”. The reproduction of the racial order in California, that sent symbolic and material value up a hierarchy towards whiteness and away from blackness, was necessary, politically, to keep the policy programme on track. The white power bloc had succeeded in making it seem like a common-sense solution to lock black children in cages. They had constructed not only the crime, but the social environment that made becoming a criminal almost inevitable.
The war on rhino poaching along southern African borders has similar characteristics. There undoubtedly is a crisis that needs to be managed; although rhino poaching in South Africa itself has stabilised (at a very high rate), annual rhino killings continue to rise in the region. It would seem like common sense that when facing an armed foe, you need to arm yourself. But we should always be sceptical of what seems to be common sense. In the past year, for example, the Kruger National Park has reported the accidental deaths of at least two anti-poaching rangers in gun-related incidents, suggesting that the costs on the side of rhino conservation are already unacceptably high. The arming for combat of conservation forces – which has been dubbed “green militarisation” by geographer Elizabeth Lunstrum – is however only one dimension of the damage that is done. As Büscher and Ramutsindela point out, there is also social violence, driven by dissembling anti-poaching initiatives, who erode societal trust, and discursive violence which has far broader implications than just killings in the wilderness. Discursive violence reproduces and renovates particular fatal combinations, and it is this phenomenon that I want to focus on here.
At one point it had become very popular to signal your support for the anti-poaching campaign (or your middle class indifference to the social devastation of the lives of millions of South Africans, as Benjamin Fogel wrote five years ago) by attaching a “rhinose” to your car. These bright-red recycled plastic horns can also be worn as a codpiece, as one activist did, with nothing else, to raise ‘awareness’. The substitution of the rhino horn for the penis is of course a common trope. In many medical practices the so-called “doctrine of signatures” holds that some property of the herb or animal has an analogous effect when used as medicine. The strong curve, length, and strength of the rhino horn make it an obvious penis symbol and, in places like Vietnam and China, it is still considered a good fortifier of the male erection, a belief that partly underlies the current poaching problem.
There are a number of different anti-poaching campaigns, which vary significantly in tack. One bumper sticker that was quite popular stated the following:
Bumper stickers are already deployed in a highly racialised context in South Africa. While only one in 10 white households does not own a car, only 2 in 10 black households do. Attaching a bumper sticker like this one, that seems to mimic roadside advertising for dubious medical products and services (“Penis enlargement! Lost lover! Safe abortion!”), seems to imply two audiences: those who take these kinds of things seriously, and those who will get the joke. The latter party quite probably belongs to the middle class, the people who are also driving shiny SUVs that they own to work, many of whom will be white. The former group, ostensibly, fills the taxis and the buses, and will mainly be black: the workers who are looking for AIDS cures and supposedly don’t have the scruples to not consider killing (or at least seriously maiming) somebody in order to get it.
For reasons that include higher levels of poverty and so-called “transactional” sex (in return for food or other resources) as well as inferior access to healthcare, black people bear the brunt of the HIV epidemic in South Africa. In 2014, the HSRC reported that 0,3% of white people had HIV, while 15% of black people did. Although AIDS is far from a certainty given our extensive treatment programme, AIDS as a “black” disease features in white rationalisations of the sexual undesirability, and moral decay, of black people.
Making bold medical claims on a city street about the efficacy of a natural ingredient as a cure for a sexually transmitted infection references the genre of traditional African medicine advertising, which tends to focus, as already mentioned, on sexual prowess, fertility, and success in life and love. By alluding to this genre, the medical practice itself, umuthi, is referenced. Crucially, umuthi has specific associations: reports of “muti killings” – where humans are killed for their body parts to be used as medicine, are a staple of South African tabloids as well as a preoccupation of the Western press. Furthermore, magical “cures for AIDS” reference the myth of the “virgin cure” – the idea that HIV-positive men were raping children who they knew could not be infected with HIV, in order to cure themselves. This is another example of the doctrine of signatures, where the consumption of virginity supposedly takes the body back to the healthy state it was in before the sex act that resulted in HIV infection: consuming purity works to purify. This reasoning for sexual violence is unsupported by any evidence; Helen Epstein and Rachel Jewkes have argued in The Lancet that it is “predicated on racist assumptions about the amorality of African men [and] highly stigmatising towards people with HIV”.
Celebrating the death and torture of rhino poachers, and encouraging more of it, is standard fare on anti-poaching social media sites, as Ramutsindela and Büscher, as well as Lunstrum, have shown extensively in their scholarship. The bloodthirstiness of an almost all-white cohort of Facebook commenters who want poachers castrated “1cm at a time” and who share cartoons of poachers getting “dehorned” –- which in some cases refers to the nose, and in some to the penis –- suggests that there is something more troubling beneath the surface than mere concern for rhino conservation. Already, in the distinction between the two audiences of the bumper sticker, we have the kernel of the problem: it is not just that poachers are bad people who deserve bad things, it is that the communities that they come from are understood to be savage enough to butcher them for their testicles if they believe it will cure AIDS. Lurking behind the targeting of poaching as a behaviour is the renovation of a racial order that saps value from black lives.
Balls, penises, AIDS, virgin cures: quite clearly, these discourses are fixated at the level of the genital. Possibly the most compelling elaboration of the psycho-sexual dimensions of the racial order (from what has been called a “relentlessly masculinist” perspective) was developed by Frantz Fanon in the 1950s. In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon, both a revolutionary and a psychiatrist, invokes the notion of a cultural unconscious, which is specific to historical and sociocultural contexts, and therefore very much unlike the Jungian collective unconscious, which has a universal character. Fanon says that the unconscious is “a constellation of postulates, a series of propositions that slowly and subtly – with the help of books, newspapers, schools and their texts, advertisements, films, radio – work their way into one’s mind and shape one’s view of the world of the group to which one belongs”.
The unconscious is populated with indexical relationships that are culturally determined, and which profoundly shape individual desire and behaviour. The “good” white angel-figure of Western cultural production, and the “bad” black exotic, earthy, or cannibalistic parody, coalesce into archetypal figures called imagoes. Fanon argues that stories (as well as games and other cultural artefacts) are particularly important in the process of the development of identity, because they serve as an outlet for accumulated aggression, or catharsis which lodges racial imagoes in the cultural unconscious during childhood, when catharsis happens collectively. In games where “the Wolf, the Devil, the Evil Spirit, the Bad Man, the Savage are always symbolised by Negroes or Indians” the young black child experiences identification with the white missionary being cooked, the explorer, or the pioneer who is threatened by the “savages”. The child “invests the hero, who is white, with all his own aggression” and, when the enemy is obliterated, the child experiences catharsis, a release of psychic energy. As the catharsis is repeated, the child adopts this white explorer or missionary as a kind of paternal authority figure. All people, black and white, are expected to accept the degeneracy of the black imago; correspondingly, all must respect the authority of the white father. In the cultural unconscious of the group, says Fanon, the white father is “charged with maintaining order in it as a garrison controls a conquered city”.
Fanon describes a common white fixation with the supposed bestiality of black men, and the size of their penises, which supposedly turn the white man’s penis into a “little toy” – a fact that symbolically castrates the white man. He suggests that the lynching and castration of the black man can thus be understood as a form of sexual revenge. Fanon argues that this belief in the superior erotic powers of black men reveals a white male heterosexual fear of impotence, an anxiety about giving pleasure. This anxiety stirs an attempt to assert his virtue, by projecting viciousness onto the black man. So, for example, when it comes to rape, the black man becomes the “specialist… the master of this matter”. Every reprehensible thing must be distanced from the white ego through the ascription of its origin to someone else. In this manner, the black imago comes to stand for all evil, just as the white father stands for order and justice.
In the classic sketch of how these forces work together, Fanon describes a white child pointing at him on a train, and crying out “Look, a Negro!”. Fanon relates:
[The] corporeal schema crumbled, its place taken by a racial epidermal schema … I was responsible at the same time for my body, for my race, for my ancestors. I subjected myself to an objective examination, I discovered my blackness, my ethnic characteristics; and I was battered down by tom-toms, cannibalism, intellectual deficiency, fetichism, racial defects, slave-ships…
The white child pointing at him and saying “Look, a Negro!” invokes the specific cultural unconscious (both child and man participate in 1950s colonial French culture) that is populated with racial imagoes imprinted through collective catharsis. Fanon is thereby reduced, really “battered down”, from a real body into a fabricated image of the black imago, a two-dimensional projection of evil and savagery. The reality of the spectacle of the imago indexed by the child has a cultural power that negates Fanon’s “corporeal schema”. In this moment, we glimpse the essence of alienation which pushes the human being into a “zone of nonbeing” through the intrusion into his subjectivity of a powerful discursive construction.
Examples like the bumper sticker above, or Gilmore’s description of the welfare queen, militate against a too-easy relegation of Fanon’s experience to colonial France in the 1950s. Eric Garner’s last words in the chokehold of the policeman that killed him – “I can’t breathe” – became a rallying call for millions in the United States and around the world not merely as a reminder of police brutality, but as an accurate reflection of the effect of the racial order: to press, to “batter down”, to push the breath out of. The echoes through the decades since are clearly audible. Though there are perhaps more positive cultural representations of black people today than there were in Fanon’s time, these representations are also contested, undermined, or exceptionalised. The near-deification in the South African context of Nelson Mandela, for example, has emptied out a complex human being and left behind a motivational message generator that is every bit as two-dimensional as the black imago Fanon was reduced to on the train. In fact, there is a sense in which these representations are mutually constitutive, as if a modern, post-racial white conscience needs the mental image of a smiling Madiba in order to really relish the demonic debasement of the red-eyed, red-handed rhino poacher.
The bumper sticker, as I indicated above, is structured as a joke. I assume that many people reading this will respond – “it’s just a joke!” – and lament that the problem with these social justice warrior types is that they have no sense of humour. Unfortunately, on closer examination of the discursive realm, it is clear that jokes are almost never innocuous. “Our enjoyment of the joke” says discursive psychologist Michael Billig “indicates what is being repressed in more serious talk.” The joke is for one audience at the expense of another; the audience addressed by traditional medicine advertising, who tend to be working class and black, are supposedly fooled by this parodic imitation and savage enough to take it seriously. It is funny, and popular, and widely shared, precisely because it is shameful, precisely because white people have to repress talk of superstitious black people with AIDS murdering each other in “normal talk”.
There are other ways that the anti-poaching campaign renovates the racial order, and they are also intermingled with specific ideologies about masculinity. WWF South Africa designed a campaign targeting the consumers of rhino horn in Vietnam. The “Chi” campaign was distributed through a number of media. According to the official campaign strategy, its aim is to “build a new social norm that success, masculinity and good luck, in man’s life, comes from his own will and internal strength, not from a piece of horn”. What is interesting is that this social norm is described as being “new”: the framers of the campaign seem convinced that this idea – that masculinity does not need to be ingested – is being introduced to Vietnam thanks to their intervention. Before that, supposedly, some Vietnamese men, in a fetishistic search for a masculinity that they all lack, were prepared to buy expensive rhino horn to make up for it. Now they must learn to develop it internally.
That Western cultural production constructs the East as feminine – and also dangerous, cunning, with an insatiable appetite for consuming the world’s resources – is well established in cultural theory and various discourse analyses. The hyper-sexualisation of black men in colonial cultural representation, with its fixation on large penises, is inverted in Western representations of Asian men, who are represented as asexual. Visual artist and theorist Richard Fung has written that Asian men in the American imagination are “defined by a striking absence down there”. Fanon also hinted at an Eastern imago: he writes that French Indochina (modern-day Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos) is constructed by France as the land of “cut-rate boys and women” who go with a “serene” attitude to their deaths.
If Asian men have too little masculinity and sexual energy, and African men have too much, then luckily there is a man who is in masculinity’s “Goldilocks Zone”: the white European. In the South African anti-poaching campaign, we can see him on huge SAB Castle Lager billboards under the slogan “COME TOGETHER TO PROTECT WHAT’S OURS”. In a campaign for “Boucher’s Legacy: Our Rhinos in Safe Hands” popular Proteas wicket-keeper Mark Boucher stands in his khakis and sunglasses, deep etched against a bushveld scene where a multiracial human chain is being formed around rhinos. In Fanonian terms, he represents the symbolic White Father, the protector of the family and society, and a moral compass. It is his heroic leadership behind which all the people of South Africa are being asked to “come together”.
SAB advertising was instrumental in the post-1994 articulation of the “Rainbow Nation” narrative, and this billboard is exemplary of that narrative’s strengths and weaknesses. Diverse people can come together behind a common goal, but the leader of the campaign remains a white man. We can’t forget that, according to the Commission for Employment Equity’s 2015 report, 70% of top management jobs in South Africa go to white people, and 80% go to men. The choice of a white man to give instruction to the nation – “COME TOGETHER!” – is thus a marked one. This pattern persists in certain sports, in the economy, and in elite pursuits such as conservation and game farming, where the people in charge are still white, still men, and (as in the heydays of Afrikaner nationalism) still dressed in khaki. Within this unequal human landscape, black people are included as having an important role to play, but they are relegated to the background as protectors and collaborators with other white people. This power dynamic suggests that when asked to “PROTECT WHAT’S OURS” an appropriate response might be: Who is “we”?
A territorial metaphor is also at work in this text. The multiracial crowd led by Boucher forms a chain, which becomes a fence or a border, that closes the rhinos off from the bad people, from potential harm. Fanon’s account of childhood collective catharsis resonates strongly here. In the same way that children’s sympathies are with the white missionary being cooked, so our emotional support is drawn towards the rhino and their human protectors, while our rage is targeted at the savages who would harm them. The poachers are phantom presences, just out of the frame, but no less real for their invocation through the imagery of the human chain. The image is, in this sense, waiting for barbarians.
The point of this analysis is not that we should not protect rhinos, nor that to be anti-poaching is somehow to be racist. That is clearly not the case. The point is merely that in deciding what to devote our personal or our national energies towards, we construct a social reality that has real consequences in the world. Though not all anti-poaching discourse renovates the racial hierarchy, quite clearly, some of it does. This is not traditional overt racism, but the “constellation of postulates” that Fanon described as constitutive of the cultural unconscious, where racial imagoes are born and bred. Spending discursive resources telling new stories about savage blacks and noble whites ensures that new generations of children are schooled in constructing future racial orders. These racial orders attach different values to different lives. Poor black men in the borderlands stay easier to kill, and the communities they hail from may be casually anathematised in a cheap bumper sticker without facing social opprobrium.
This means that, while there certainly are people in our society who consciously hold and defend racist beliefs, they are not actually necessary for the reproduction of the racial order. I would go so far as to say that some structures don’t even need white people to reproduce them (although they are extremely helpful in this regard, and some more helpful than others). The more insidious problem with South African society is not what we would own up to believing, but rather the ways in which we repeat scripts and reproduce characterisations from our “cultural unconscious” that perpetuate the past in the present. Dividing whites into racists, non-racists, and anti-racists is a red herring; no racist essence exists. We should spend far less energy taking umbrage to managing the tag of “being” a racist (“but I’m not!”) and focus instead on the extent to which we all participate in perpetuating a racist culture, and then work harder to break it down.
Main Photograph: A rhino calf grazes near its mother at a game park in the Eastern Cape – by Daylin Paul