Vanessa Barolsky

Human Sciences Research Council
Research Specialist
Political and social conflict, violence,justice, policing, law and democratic participation
Intellectual Biography: 

Much of my career as a researcher has involved engaging with empirical ‘realities’ in the South African context that challenge or contradict the universalisms of the Western canon, whether it is conceptions of the self, the law, of justice, of the ‘social’ and the state. Recently I have critically engaged with the concept of social cohesion, juxtaposing the state’s discourse around this concept, which has been imported undigested from the European and North American contexts where it was initially developed, with the discourses of township residents around the forms of sociality in which they are currently engaged. Thus the state’s policy discourse on social cohesion seeks to constitute the social domain as a normative realm of imagined homogeneity in which citizenship is premised on constitutional values and the social is reconstituted in the image of an, ultimately utopian, ideal of sociality and individual agency, drawn from an enlightenment conception of the self. At the same time, however, the post-apartheid state has inherited from the colonial project a bifurcated conception of the individual as both communitarian i.e. loyal to the collective whole, and simultaneously as the autonomous individual agent of the liberal imagination, which it is re-inscribing in its own governance of the post-apartheid state. It thus expects its citizens to be both ‘caring’ and steeped in the communitarian values of Ubuntu, as well as being ‘self-motivated’ economic rational actors. Hunter notes however that, ‘South Africans always exceed this tradition/rights binary in revealing ways’ (Hunter, 2010, p. 9). These ‘contradictions’, born in fact of the imbrication of the ‘south’ and ‘north’ speak to some of the complexities underpinning the development of an epistemology of the self that recognises forms of being and sociality that don’t conform to the western ‘imaginaire’ (Comaroff and Comaroff, p. 52) of the autonomous subject.

I am currently engaged in a project which seeks to further empirically investigate the purchase of the concept of social cohesion, which has been relatively well theorised and empirically ‘tested’ in the global north but which remains completely under –theorised in the global south despite its significance in state discourses and the prescriptions of global agencies as a balm for social disease in the south. The project aims to use the ethnographic investigation of the impact on ‘social cohesion’ of two violence prevention initiatives in Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town, in order to interrogate the salience of this concept for the forms of sociality that exist in the favelas of Rio and the informal settlements of Cape Town. The study explores the ways these forms of sociality may or may not explain the manner in which these contexts are deeply structured and “sutured” by violence-structural, symbolic and physical. In this sense the project seeks to move against the empiricist use of raw data to ‘test’ ‘northern’ theories and instead contribute to reconfiguring our conception of the social in a context of deprivation and pervasive violence.

In this regard another project sought to critique the global production of knowledge around violence, which has led to a plethora of ‘global’ reports since the new millennium, that attempt to characterise violence in universal terms as a ‘public health problem’ and a ‘development challenge’ that can be addressed in the same way as teenage pregnancy. In this discourse it is assumed that with enough ‘data’ and ‘evidence’ technical solutions for the problem of violence can be formulated and universalised as ‘tool kits’ distributed from north to south. The abysmal failure to collect the kind of quantitative data for this kind of analysis in many contexts where there are few systems for the kind of totalising knowledge Foucault envisaged, is ignored in favour of a fervent belief in the possibility of ‘data collection’ and its power to ‘resolve’ violence in ‘pathological’ zones of underdevelopment and violence in the global south. While this discourse is characterised by the failure to address the enormously differentiated and politically located contexts for violence, it also effaces these violent ‘others’ from the global south who appear as irrational, pre-modern subjects with little recognisable agency in the pages of these reports, illustrated with photographs of southern bodies, lying prone and speechless between acres of text and graphs numbering the dead.

Another project has engaged with the trope of ‘rule of law’ which is also posited in global discourse as a prescription for some of the ‘ills’ of the global south. The rule of law is envisaged as an important break on the exercise of arbitrary power, particularly by the state, but also between citizens. Despite the fact that since 1994 South Africa has placed law at the centre of its Constitutional value system and institutional arrangements, South African citizens continue to struggle to realise their role as both law bearing and law-making citizens in a context of inequality and contesting conceptions of order and social justice, that are often collective rather than premised on the sovereign subject, which ‘Western’ law and our own constitutional jurisprudence, assumes.

All these projects and many other similar projects, point to the need to interrogate a range of concepts and ideas that have become global but are in fact particular to a specific place and historical period in ‘Euro-America’ (Comaroff and Comaroff, 2012). This epistemological violence has indeed obscured much about ‘the south’. The body of literature on ‘southern urbanisms’ (Robinson, Roy, Parnell, Pieterse, Simone) has richly elucidated the ‘particulars’ of the southern experience, it’s ‘multiplicity’, its polymorphous nature. While the focus on differentiation, fluidity and flux is an important corrective to the yoke of Western universalism, the development of ‘new epistemologies’, from the south, which ‘dislocate' the ‘Euro American centre of theoretical production’ (Roy, 2009, p. 820) needs not only to assert the uniqueness or specificity of ‘the south’ (whatever this slippery relational concept signifies) but also must be located in a recognition of the legacy and facticity of the ‘Western archive’ in policy, practice and thought in the world around us and in our own theorising. Our consideration of the south in addition needs to be disaggregated in order to mine the diverse knowledges, forms of sociality and politicality that exist in different regions of the south as we attempt to conceive it. Finally we need to link this project of knowledge building to an attempt to,

decipher the pragmatic prospect for effective intervention, whilst confronting the unassailable pain that travels with injustice and mendacity…and squarely address the imperative to propose, no matter how provisional, substantive arguments for how life and times can be fundamentally different with as much specificity and historical groundedness as possible. (Pieterse, 2012)

i.e. to link this grounded understanding with a normative project of social justice and concrete intervention.

These are some of the questions I would hope to engage within the context of this workshop.

Comaroff, J. and Comaroff, J. (2012). Theory from the South: Or, How Euro-America is Evolving Towards Africa. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.
Hunter, M., (2010). Love in the time of Aids: Inequality, gender, and rights in South Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Pieterse, E. (2012) ‘High Wire Acts: Knowledge Imperatives of Southern Urbanisms’, Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism, Salon 2012,
Roy, A., (2009)The 21st-Century Metropolis: New Geographies of Theory, Regional Studies, Vol. 43.6, pp. 819–830

Presentation Title: 
Applying 'northern' theory to the global south: A misfit? South Africa and the globe.
Johnson, D., Fanon's Travels in Postcolonial Theory and Post-Apartheid Politics. College Literature. Spring2013, Vol. 40 Issue 2, p52-80. 29p. Hamilton, L., The Promise of Political Theory in South Africa. Politikon: South African Journal of Political Studies. Dec2013, Vol. 40 Issue 3, p517-532. 16p. Lawhon, M. Situated, Networked Environmentalisms: A Case for Environmental Theory from the South. Geography Compass. Feb2013, Vol. 7 Issue 2, p128-138. 11p Epstein, D. & Morrell, R., Approaching Southern theory: explorations of gender in South African education. Gender & Education. Aug2012, Vol. 24 Issue 5, p469-482. 14p. 2 Jacobs, Becky L. Berkeley., Unbound by Theory and Naming: Survival Feminism and The Women of the South African Victoria Mxenge Housing and Development Association. Journal of Gender, Law & Justice. 2011, Vol. 26, p19-77. 59p Durden, E & Tomaselli, K., Theory Meets Theatre Practice: Making a Difference to Public Health Programmes in Southern Africa. Curriculum Inquiry. Jan2012, Vol. 42 Issue 1, p80-102. 23p.
I would value the opportunity to engage with the theoretical implications of the empirical material I have gathered over a long period in the South African context.