Not so long ago the middle classes in the world created by British colonialism used to cloak their claim to privilege in the stifling rituals of bourgeois respectability.
These days consumerism is increasingly the royal road into the golden circle of authorised superiority. It's a more democratic ideology in the sense that it is less firmly tied to national or ethnic conceptions of culture. A shopping mall in Joburg is not very different to a mall in Jakarta or the airport in Dubai. Cars, shoes, watches, handbags, whisky and all the rest have become a genuinely international language.
But of course consumerism is a ruthlessly exclusionary ideology for the simple reason that access to this language requires money and most people don't have much money. And certain forms of presence in the golden circle it enables are predicated on people becoming commodities themselves.
Celebrity unhinged from any meaningful concept of achievement is the ultimate expression of this but it is there too in the way in which people manically market themselves as if they were selling celebrity.
Consumer culture may be international but, contrary to the impression created by the way in which some of its commodities are displayed bathed in the golden glow of the sacred object, it is not a transcendent space.
The objects that it sells may have been made in sweatshops by children or by women kept on the job past the point of exhaustion with cattle prods. Coltan may have been dug by a teenage boy at gunpoint in the midst of the devastation of the Congo. And after Marikana we all know a lot more about where platinum comes from.
But even when the commodity is successfully presented as entirely removed from its origins the world of Johnny Walker Blue and Jimmy Choo is not a transcendent space of pure beauty, elegance and sophistication. Perverse understandings of race and gender remain part of the grammar of its language.
Blonde hair, perhaps worn with a halfstarved body and silicone breasts, retains a particular currency for women, as do ridiculously oversized steroid-fuelled muscles for men. The celebrity culture is frequently attracted to fixed and wildly exaggerated caricatures of femininity and masculinity that, although they tend to have about as much depth as cardboard cutouts, can only mutilate the tender sense of adolescent self.
Oscar Pistorius, like his friend Kenny Kunene, seems to have invested his sense of self in an idea of manhood that is simply cartoonish. There is something more than a little ridiculous about accidentally letting off a shot in a restaurant in Melrose Arch or taking a journalist for a spin in a R3.5 million car at a lunatic speed.
In Pistorius's case the weakness that always lies behind the performance of gun-toting bluster, a weakness that wants to deny itself by dominating others, has left Reeva Steenkamp battered, shot and dead. She must have lived her last moments, cowering on the marble floor behind the bathroom door, in sheer terror.
But consumerism is still a terrain on which there can be a sense of renewal, sanctification and access to the universal. If you have the right stuff and you look the right way a lot of people are going to think that they understand you, and like and respect you.
Before Pistorius was brought into the court in Pretoria, the court that was attracting most media attention in the country was in Durban where Shauwn Mpisane was appearing on a new set of charges.
She, with her husband S'bu, had become fabulously and ostentatiously wealthy by building atrociously constructed, and often simply uninhabitable, public housing in Durban.
The constant striving for decent housing in the cities has been a feature of popular struggle in South Africa since at least the 1930s and it remains central to popular protest today. But for the Mpisanes, and the politicians and officials who, like John Mchunu, Bheki Cele and Mike Sutcliffe, were close to them, all that seemed to count for nothing.
In some quarters the Mpisanes were celebrated as if they were the vanguard of a new transcendence of the past even though their fortune had been acquired by re-inscribing the exclusion and humiliation that so scarred our past into the concrete reality of contemporary Durban.
But it is often forgotten that one of the dangers of an elite ascent into a culture of ostentatious consumerism is that it can, as in Algeria in the late 1980s and early 1990s, produce a popular backlash in the form of a deeply reactionary politics of piety rooted in the fantasy of a return to a pure form of religion, culture and language.
This is understandable in the sense that, unlike consumerism, everyone can access religion, culture and language. But it can be profoundly authoritarian and it usually leaves the most damaging concentrations of power and wealth unchallenged as it focuses on what it sees as moral reform at a personal level.
Although ideas along these lines don't attract media attention in the same way the skothane craze does they are increasingly prevalent in South Africa. The fate of Reeva Steenkamp has reminded us all that horror does not only lurk in places like Bredasdorp — it's there too on the Silver Woods Country Estate.
It has shown us all that the national conversation that has started about masculinity needs to be taken seriously, and translated into action. But it has also shown us something of the limits of the obssession with celebrity and bling and the assumption that life within its golden circle is somehow elevated and more virtuous than life lived elsewhere and in reality.
Picture credit: Daily Maverick
- Richard Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University. This article was published on Pretoria News.
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