Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Sacrifice after Mandela: Liberalism and Liberation among South Africa's First Post-Apartheid Generation

Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

Sacrifice after Mandela: Liberalism and Liberation among South Africa's First Post-Apartheid Generation

Article excerpt

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Nqobile Nzuza was considered a "born-free." With her birthday on the cusp of Nelson Mandela's 1994 election, she grew up in a democratic South Africa. At 17, Nzuza lived with her parents in the shack settlement of Cato Crest while attending a nearby primary school. The settlement is five miles from downtown Durban in the hidden quarters of the city's leafy middle-class suburbs. On September 30, 2013, just before dawn, Nzuza was killed during a street protest over land and housing in the city. She was shot twice in the back with live ammunition. Witnesses say Cato Manor police fired the shots. The police do not deny this fact, but say they feared for their own safety. Nzuza was a member of a leading poor peoples' movement in South Africa called Abahlali baseMjondolo (an isiZulu phrase meaning "residents of the shacks").

After receiving frantic calls from members, Abahlali's then-General Secretary rushed to the scene. Upon her arrival, Mdalose was arrested as an instigator and accused of "public violence," a vaguely defined charge frequently attributed to activists. After two weeks, with Mdalose in prison and Nqobile buried, city officials called a press conference, declaring Abahlali a "criminal" force bent on "making the city ungovernable" (Nene 2013). However, news of Nzuza's death and Mdalose's arrest stirred protests in Durban and at South African embassies from London to New York. Prominent academics-including Noam Chomsky, Slavoj Zizek, V. Y. Mudimbe, and Judith Butler-issued an open letter condemning the Cato police and city officials, echoing press statements by human rights groups and church leaders.1 In mourning and anger, residents of Cato Crest and other settlements called Nzuza's death a "sacrifice."

This article examines an idiom of sacrifice2 emerging among Abahlali's membership in response to the arrest, injury, and death of activists during street protests. This idiom is increasingly expressed through everyday talk within townships and shack settlements, through rites and ritual practices during mass gatherings in South African cities, and through symbolic kinship ties that establish a network of globalized publics.

An Emerging Idiom of Sacrifice

The works of several Cato Crest letter signatories (Butler 2002, Mudimbe 1994, Zizek 2004), along with a growing body of literature in Africanist anthropology (Ferguson 2013, Graeber 2011, Mbembe 2003, Obarrio 2004, Ralph 2013, Smith 2008), explore the distinctions and complex relations between gift giving and commodity exchange in political life. Following Marcel Mauss (1954), who differentiates homo-economicus from other forms of debt and social obligation, anthropological writing has emphasized "the gift" as a space and set of relations not wholly determined by market logics, thereby holding the potential for collective justice (Obarrio 2004), political autonomy (Graeber 2011), or economic redistribution (Ferguson 2013). Though "the gift" has done important work in legal, political, and economic anthropology to displace reductive Euro-centric and masculinist notions of exchange (see, e.g., Munn 1982, Sahlins 1972, Strathern 1990, Weiner 1992), I argue that it may still maintain its integrity as irreducible to the market, while at the same time undergo a blurring with other forms of exchange inside market logics and forces. This blurring may best be seen by transposing Hubert and Mauss's (1899) conception of sacrifice to a time of 21st century liberalism, characterized by an incursion of the economic upon the political. Such a transposition locates sacrifice within emergent historical processes, and puts earlier debates over gift-commodity relations (Appadurai 1988, Bourdieu 1977, Parry and Bloch 1989) into dialogue with new activist networks, crowds, and insurgencies. Contemporary theorists (Butler 2002, Zizek 2004) posit that sacrifice is a sacred exchange with a transcendent "Other," whether formulated as God or nation-a force beyond the profanity of the market. …

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