Friday, May 14, 2010

South Africa as a contemporary frontier society

Beyond the common knowledge of South Africa’s violent history and the anti-apartheid struggle, one of my first intimate encounters with South Africa was my reading of J.J. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians a few years ago. The image of this dusty frontier town stranded at the edge of nowhere and left to fend for itself in the dying days of the Empire against an imaginary barbarian army moving ever closer has stayed with me, as an especially eloquent account of the human capacity to distort reality in order to frame it within one’s own world view. For the reader quickly comes to understand that the feared Barbarians where never coming and that it is, au contraire, the settlers who kept going beyond the boundaries of their frontier town, provoking encounters with the Other that took place almost exclusively on Barbarian land. Despite this fact, the fear of an imminent invasion ends up plunging the town in a sort of collective hysteria and the town ends up collapsing in on itself, self-destructing through the symbolic torture of the Magistrate, the main character in the novel.

An important detail to point out, the Magistrate’s downfall begins with an intimate relationship with a Barbarian girl and his decision to take her back to her people after attempting to heal the wounds inflicted on her by his compatriots. Herein lies a perfect representation of an intrigue that keeps playing out again and again in the Western imagination. By showing the girl a grain of humanity, the magistrate is somehow corrupted and ends up being treated like a barbarian himself. What is especially perverse about this relationship is how it is framed through a bestowing of generosity, sympathy and humanity by the magistrate on the girl. Through this relationship, the constant pushing of the frontier town’s boundaries into Barbarian land, the continual transgression and invasion of this land, is portrayed as a humanitarian mission, a good deed. The settler crosses into Barbarian land, not to colonize the Barbarians, invade their land or violate their women, but to save one of their own and return her to her people, even though she is returned blinded and maimed.

So what does this story tell us about the concept of the frontier? I think the operating word here is limit. Being at the frontier implies being on the precipice, on the edge. The colony is the last frontier of civilization and a place where settlers live at the limits of their own humanity. The lands beyond settler towns are mythical, magical, apocalyptical places where civilized human beings encounter spirits, barbarians and the ever-present potentiality of death. Every step beyond the boundaries of the frontier town implies either the risk of death, or even worse, contamination.

I think the notion of limit, being at the limits, might be a productive way of using the concept of the frontier for thinking about contemporary South Africa. When I visited Johannesburg for the first time last year, I was overwhelmed with this visceral feeling of being constantly at the precipice of something big, an Event, of walking a fine line between risk and potentiality, absolute demise and an utopian future. This is especially paradoxical as many would argue convincingly that South Africans are living through a post-Event period and not the contrary, that is, the period after apartheid. And yet that feeling of being at the limits of something remains quite persistent. It reveals itself in the sense of anxiety that permeates through daily life, anxiety about arbitrary death at the hands of a mugger, anxiety about xenophobia rearing its ugly head once more, anxiety about falling into patterns of auto-destruction that have beleaguered other African countries. That anxiety, however, is constantly tempered by a deep sense of hope, pride, and optimism in the future that feeds on the fact that South Africa, despite having every reason to collapse in on itself, to destroy itself, has somehow managed to hold itself together and that it continues to work through the mess and ruins of its history without descending into the abyss. And so symbolically, by constantly swinging between imminent death and renaissance, by continuing to struggle with its demons, real and imagined, as it simultaneously moves forward, pushing the boundary of the precipice a few feet in front of it, just far enough not to fall over the edge, but close enough to look down below and be faced with the abyss, South Africa is very much a frontier society. It is a site where the frontier of humanity is constantly negotiated and renegotiated, for it is where an atrocity took place and managed to settle in long enough to create its own perverse logic, and where another atrocity was somehow avoided, as liberation from apartheid took the unlikely, ambiguous, but nevertheless deeply ethical path of reconciliation.

In a contemporary context, where the notion of the frontier has been replaced with the much more rigid and limited notion of the border, or diluted into a depoliticized notion of borderlessness and cosmopolitanism, I think it might be useful to reinvent the concept of the frontier as a site where human potentiality is simultaneously realized and circumcised. The frontier is not a no man’s land, nor is it a neutral space for well-intended, moderated dialogue. The frontier is characterized by a landscape of extremes, where survival remains an open question and where anxiety and fear are potent motivators for inventiveness as well as apocalyptic impulses. A frontier society in contemporary times is a site where necropolitics and the politics of hope meet, where a utopian vision for the future is constantly undercut by the remains and stigmatas of the past. It is an environment of extremes where individuals and groups are confronted with the risks and possibilities of being at the limits of their own habitus, histories, ethics, and at the limits of the racial, economical, cultural, political configurations that have served as their points of reference.

One can argue that the concept of the frontier is more relevant than ever, as colonial metropolises are slowly turning into frontier societies. Europe and North America are enveloping themselves in discourses of fear and anxiety about the inevitable arrival of barbarians from their former colonies just as they begin to be faced with the true implications of their discourses on universal human rights and their humanitarian interventions.

As a country that has been faced with these fundamental questions and lived through their consequences, South Africa can be an especially rich site for exploring the potentiality and limits of the concept of the frontier today. If we draw on the South African experience, the frontier might be a stimulating concept to think and imagine a radical humanism as it pushes us to face the limits of humanity and inhumanity, and examine the various forms each might take in contemporary societies.

Yara El-Ghadban
Université de Montréal