The following is an extract taken from an essay I wrote in 2008 exploring South African politics and the Performative turn.
I print an extract of this paper as I think it sheds some interesting light on the notorious Mr Julius Malema and his more recent “Kill the Boer” comments.
This was an Academic essay written during the succession battle between Zuma (who at time was awaiting his corruption trial) and Mbeki in 2008, during which (a comparatively ‘milder’) Mr Malema was just beginning to make himself known.
I have decided not to re- edit the extract even though my thoughts and feelings have shifted significantly over the last two years. Still I think it illustrates just how little changes.
I would like to turn to a perhaps more relevant and disconcerting example that has made the news here in South Africa a few months ago. The incident occurred when Julius Malema, head of the ANC Youth league came to the public defence of controversial president Jacob Zuma at a public rally, claiming that “We will kill for Zuma.”
Ordinarily this would be a cause for concern should such a comment have sprung from a pedestrian Zuma supporter (though not necessarily legitimate), but coming from a leader, at the head of a public and political institution with huge sway over the population — the remark understandably incited much criticism and concern.
It is precisely the position of power that Malema holds within the ANC Youth League (the majority political institution) that the utterance could not so easily remain unchallenged, and why the leader was held largely accountable for his claims– in that they infringe upon the concept of democracy while propagating vigilantism.
Of course a successful ‘speech act’ can be said to be one that the hearer (Zuma supporters and general public) accepts the speakers command. Both Malema and Zuma we assume (or do we?) to be in the necessary position, and of a ‘conventionally’ required training, status and know how, to correctly issue such statement.
Power then and the placement of these leaders in the political hierarchy and convention seems to over ride the competence or ability they have to make such comments.
Political leaders wield such a power in the sense that what they say is mostly interpreted by followers as the law or as a given. Indeed ‘power’ tends to operate on such a principle.
Malema’s dangerous declarative illocutionary act, is considered dangerous for the very reason that if we accept Searle’s definition that felicitous declarations bring about the state that it declares, where does that leave Malema’s utterance. Again I reiterate: it is Malema’s position of authority within the institution that allegedly offers additional weight and legitimacy to his public utterances . As Searle states, what is crucial to the success of the performative speech act is whether the audience accept it as valid. Of course Zuma has not been brought to trial yet (and Malema’s comments have been lambasted as unconstitutional meaning perhaps that by and large they fall out of the conventions that a democracy relies on and through which declarative utterances are considered felicitous) so the effects or successes of Malema’s utterance still remains to be seen.
What also confuses the felicitous nature of the statement is that a large portion of the population have rendered it valid and legitimate while another may have disagreed entirely with it (as it seems was the case). In this debate what is crucial to remember is that both Malema and Zuma are now heads of the ruling party, they are in the institutional sense in the most potent and influential position (heads of the country). This issue is of course an extensive and fraught one (there are countless examples that come to mind from South African and indeed world politics), especially with its links to hate speech and human rights as well as the debate on the relationship between intention, illocutionary force and uptake. A debate, I sadly will not be able to enter into in greater detail in the course of this essay.
This notion of Illocutionary acts, institutionalisations and power lead Searle to claim that: ‘speakers of a language are all engaged in a rule governed form or intentional behaviour which in turn gives rise to institutional facts.’ (Searle 1989:53-52). When we (human beings) make utterances or participate in speech acts we are performing acts according to pre- determined and established constitutive rules. (Could it be then that Malema’s utterance or performative speech act did not accord to the established and constitutive rules of a democratic society and were therefore rendered unsuccessful?)
In other words we are willingly/unwillingly acting or uttering under the dictates of institutional facts.
As Searle (1995:34) remarked: “In declarations (such as you’re fired) the state of affairs represented by the propositional content of the speech act is brought into existence by the successful performance of that very speech act.” An utterance like ‘You’re fired’ then, according to Searle: “creates the very state of affairs that it represents, and in each case , the state of affairs is an institutional fact” (1995:34). Again the Malema case study is less simple (it has not been seen to create a state of affairs, but rather come scarily close) in that the results still hang in the balance and it is difficult to consider it successful or unsuccessful, in that as a declaration or elocutionary act it is incomplete. By incomplete I mean an all out violent revolution or spate of killings has not yet broken out — but then again the condition (Zuma being declared guilty) for Malema’s urge to ‘Kill for Zuma’ has not yet been met.
In the ongoing political struggle for power between Zuma and Mbeki, institutional facts are regularly created through performative utterances, their success varying.
The Malema comment for example ‘Of we will kill for Zuma’ again presents and interesting case and its success (and perhaps attempt to establish a new set of conventions that will legitimise and favour its radical utterances) partly lies in its ambiguity. ‘We’ as the people or the party is not specified, though it seems to include all of us a nation (Malema was aware that he was not merely talking to the crowd before him but to a bevy of national press and media).
This comment also seems to pit us (willingly or not) against them. ‘Them’ we can deduce being Mbeki, the unjust judges and jury in the constitutional court, in fact any detractors against Zuma.
Is this not then an attempt, to create an institutional fact – the fact that Zuma is rightful president at whatever cost. This is achieved by what Searle (1995:95) terms: a means or questioning, de authorising, usurping or conferring power. Through these performative utterances a new state of affairs can be created and power usurped, as has been the case in South African politics over the last few months.
Another important point I would like to draw attention to with regards to the current state of South African politics, is the way Austin explained the success of performative speech depending on the set of conventions arbitrarily institutionalized by a given collectivity and how in turbulent times (a word I believe we can aptly ascribe to our current political state) the collectivity must fight to make its conventions prevail.
Is this not what Malema’s speech act –of killing for a leader or claims that ‘Mbeki is unfit to govern’ are setting out to achieve—an often radical attempt to establish a new set of uncompromising conventions that followers will slavishly buy into? Whether Mbeki is fit or unfit to govern is not up to performative speech act analyst to discern, as I stated before the study of speech acts is not to decide the truth or falsity of statements but rather the felicitous or infelicitous nature of them.
Indeed in the current climate of South African politics, the split factions within the ANC (Mbeki vs Zuma camp) we see an ongoing and conflicting struggle of perfomative utterances in the press and media in an attempt to create institutional facts that curry favour toward the respective opposing sides. As Searle elucidates (1995:95):”Because the creation of institutional facts is a matter of imposing status and with it a function on some entity that did not already have that status function, in general the creation of a status-function is a matter of conferring some new power.” South African politics and the daily performative mud -slinging that occurs the media and press presents fecund terrain for the exploration of the relations between power and the performative speech act theory.
An actively critical and democratic media is, I believe elementary (though it may also have its own agenda and seen in itself as a form of power) in allowing no utterance to go unchecked or questioned.
By publishing and offering politicians (such as Mbeki and Malema) speech acts up for scrutiny and debate, we may gain a clearer understanding of their function or ulterior motives and resist passively accepting and consuming them. Of course this is what the apartheid regime and its employment of the press as a propaganda machine, frequently avoided doing and the effects seem to speak for themselves.
The questionable nature of these speech acts and their relative success and failures (such as those frequently issued by Mbeki, Zuma and Malema) currently occurring in the media, lead me to discuss one last aspect of Searle’s speech act theory that is perlocutionary acts. Perlocutionary acts are utterances that state the consequences that illocutionary acts may have on the actions, thoughts, beliefs of the hearers.
For instance the hearer of Malema’s “kill for Zuma’ utterance may agree whole heartedly and arm himself for action or take great offense and disagree. The perlocutionary effects ,if the statement proves felicitous, will produce an illocutionary effect of the hearer comprehending and responding (through action or utterance) to the utterance. Of course persuasion is never guaranteed which is why perlocutionary effects are never a sure bet. This is why Searle cautioned that we must be careful to confuse perlocutionary effects with performative acts owing to the difficulty of separating the two.
From the following discussion I believe I have demonstrated how performatives or illocutionary acts are closely linked to institutionalisations and power. This becomes increasingly evident when we look at these concepts and theories at work in analysing human rights, constitutional law, hate speech and gender ascriptions. Sadly categories that I will not be able to explore in further detail.
All this, of course, begs an interesting question for us as the subjects—the population existing and influenced beneath and by these influential and often devious power structures and systems.
Again I would like to mention that the subject (you or I existing in society) according to the speech act theory is not the point of origin of actions but rather the product of actions. We are therefore rendered rather powerless against these structures in that we remain largely unaware of their effects on us (and our speech) both as individuals and as a society.
Identifying the performative consequences of speech acts (especially those issued to us political institutions) can therefore better equip us to identify and resist what ultimately serves to entrap and enslave.