Reading List: Nicky Falkof

What happens to the contemporary explosion of moral panics, urban legends, and other paranoid narratives when they manifest in a place like South Africa?

Photo by Jacques Nel on Unsplash

My new book Worrier State: Risk, anxiety and moral panic in South Africa deals with powerful social phenomena that appear repeatedly under late capitalism. The philosopher Zygmunt Bauman called these “cultures of fear:” collective states of persistent negative emotion that impact communities and societies. Cultures of fear rest on a shared sense that we are not safe, that we are at the mercy of pressures and forces beyond our comprehension, that something “out there”—something other—threatens us in existential ways.

Much of the scholarly writing on cultures of fear focuses on the wealthy nations of the global north. The south, and Africa in particular, is often dismissed as merely the source of the fears that plague more fortunate northern citizens, from terrorists and immigrants to novel diseases and environmental threats. These astonishingly colonial representations treat Africa as a homogenous continent (indeed, a country) of teeming hordes and bad hygiene. But what happens if we think about cultures of fear within rather than about South Africa? How does fear intersect with economic precarity, massive inequality, endemic violence, and the ongoing consequences of racial capitalism? What happens to the contemporary explosion of moral panics, urban legends, and other paranoid narratives when they manifest in a place like South Africa?

Worrier State approaches these questions using four disparate case studies: the far-right myth of “white genocide”; so-called satanist murders of young women; fear of crime in a Johannesburg township; and social theories about risk in the suburbs. It argues that fear makes us more rather than less modern, that fear is a fundamental element of contemporary self-making, that fear intersects with persistent formations of gender, class, and particularly race to reinscribe South Africa’s fractured social forms.

During the process of writing this book I returned repeatedly to Grace A. Musila’s A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour, about the unsolved 1988 murder of a young British woman named Julie Ward in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve in Kenya. It is an astonishing piece of work. In just 200 pages Musila uses this one incident, this one violent crime, to illuminate a vast tract of Kenyan society, history, and popular culture. She approaches the murder from a number of different directions, each telling us something about the country, its colonial past and allegedly postcolonial present, the persistence of whiteness and its claims to ownership of the land, the social roles of gender, and the power of media and literacy: who gets to own a narrative and in what way. Julie Ward herself is almost a cypher. The stories that coalesce around her are about much more than her, even while Musila treats her always with compassion and empathy. The book is not interested in solving the murder (although there are tantalising hints, and a strong sense of what may have happened). Rather, it uses Julie Ward’s death as a way to consider larger currents and forms of meaning in Kenya and Africa more broadly. The pathological relationship between Kenya and Britain takes center stage and it is difficult not to feel that Julie Ward herself, her deified white femininity notwithstanding, was a casualty of this. Overall it really is quite a stunning book, and a beautiful example of how, in the right hands, crime is never just crime and fear is never just fear.

Another small but perfectly formed book, which I kept coming back to during my writing process, is Gabeba Baderoon’s Regarding Muslims. Baderoon is a poet, and that sense of language really shows here. Her work effortlessly counteracts the assumption that academic writing has to be cold, impenetrable, and exclusionary. The book is so beautifully written, so affecting, while offering powerful insights into the foundational and undermined role of Islam in South Africa. She in effect redraws/rewrites the country’s social history by shifting its lens and allowing Muslim South Africans to step into the frame, along with their discomforting baggage of slavery, colonial violence, “miscegenation,” and rejection. Her chapter on food is particularly wonderful and shows the centrality of Islamic cultures to South African cooking, to the beloved culinary traditions that each different national culture uses to define itself, seldom with knowledge of their origins and antecedents. The chapter on PAGAD, a notorious vigilante group that was one of the folk devils of my own adolescence, locates Orientalist moral panics about terror and Islam firmly in the context of South Africa, countering the too-easy assumption that our racial issues are different, that we don’t have to contend with this particular trope. In this way she drags South Africa’s architectures of race firmly into a global discussion, rejecting the unhelpful exceptionalism that insists—still—that apartheid made us different from any other place. Baderoon writes so poignantly about religion, race, and racial formation in South Africa, and her views of history and culture are uncompromising and genre-shifting.

Another book I need to mention is Alana Lentin’s Why Race Still Matters. At first glance Lentin’s work may not seem that relevant to South Africa—few people in the country, other than the wealthy whites who keep insisting that everyone else should “get over it,” would really say that race no longer matters. Nonetheless, Lentin is an impressively clear and ethical thinker and writer, making this a powerful and useful book for those of us whose work requires us to be able to talk clearly about race. The book’s main animating aim is to argue against the self-serving proposition that race is no longer an issue, that the real problem lies with the inconvenient people who just keep on bringing it up. She takes on the fictions of the liberal establishment with vigor, showing the dangerous consequences of mainstream racial scholarship’s insistence on race as a construct, to the exclusion of all other understandings of its real world effects. This book offers valuable arguments for the vital importance of talking seriously and critically about race in the face of ongoing hostility and resentment.

Finally, and this may be slightly cheating as it’s three books rather than one, during my writing process I discovered Tade Thompson’s Wormwood trilogy, starting with Rosewater. My literary tastes run towards difficult, thoughtful, politically conscious science/speculative fiction (think Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkinson, Rivers Solomon, NK Jemisin, Lauren Beukes) and this series really gripped me. It’s a gloriously written and plotted cybernoir alien fantasy set in an invented Nigerian city in 2066. I loved so many things about it, but in particular the fact that Thompson does with fiction what I try to do both in Worrier State and in Anxious Joburg, my previous book. He writes an African city that is wild, unbounded, exhausting, dangerous, and weird but also intensely modern, a city that is at the center of the new world order rather than a peripheral, atavistic throwback that’s only interesting to anthropologists. Rosewater is a mess but also deeply desirable; it is varied, changeable, and difficult to understand. At a moment when much global media and culture still manages to represent Africa as either a chaos of slums and starving children or an empty savannah featuring a baobab and some wildlife, we really need the bold creativity of Thompson’s vision of the African urban.

Further Reading