The anti-Zuma protests (largely in KwaZulu Natal province and the city of Johannesburg) have been widely covered by local and international media. Undoubtedly, the protests have resulted in many forms of tangible and intangible damage and, as a nation, South Africa finds itself left with difficult questions. The protests caused (dis)comfort with respect to the South African justice system, it amplified class conflicts, reflected the fissures within the ruling African National Congress (ANC), and mirrored ethnic, regional, and racial mobilisations and boundaries that create questions around South Africa’s rainbowism and national security.
In addition, the protests added to South Africa’s present and persistent powerful ‘subcultures’ (such as taxi bosses and gangs) that often border on “toxic masculinities”, territory, and a war ethic. In this work, I shift attention to ways in which the protests visibilised bodies that are otherwise often invisible and invisibilised; primarily by treating the ‘looting’ of the cake and the couch as ‘performative’ acts and ‘narrative’ texts of (dis)locations, exclusions, deprivations, and weapons of the weak that focalise and rupture excess luxury and consumption.
During the protests, two incidences caught my attention: the ‘looting’ of the cake from Shoprite and the ‘looting’ of an upmarket ‘San Pablo Leather Sectional’ couch from a furniture store in Springfield. A video of a man (now popularly identified as “Cake Looter”) went viral. In it, the man appears in Shoprite eating cake and holding a camp chair with a Keiser Chiefs logo on his shoulder. While others are preoccupied with ‘looting’, gathering basic and expensive goods, someone is consuming a cake that likely costs less than R100, while holding onto a camp chair. Watching this moment unfold, one wonders, has the man been deprived of things that he loved so much (cake and Keiser Chiefs emblems) and so has now grabbed this rare chance to fulfil his desire?
In a separate incident, images of the ‘looted’ expensive couch (valued at R67 999) were circulated. In the images, the couch is located next to a shack in an ‘informal’ settlement in Quarry Road, KwaZulu-Natal, which is close to the shop from which it had been taken. The positioning of such an expensive couch so close to a shack in an ‘informal’ settlement invites us to ‘see’ something beyond the common discourse of ‘looting’. The couch is (re)located to the slums and sits next to a shack; visibilising poverty and the poor lives that some people live in amidst opulence and luxury. Two worlds that have been separated are brought close together (in the same way that Sandton City is close to Alexandra township), visibilising how South Africa has one of the worst gaps between the rich and poor globally. We are made to ‘travel’ on the coach to witness these worlds colliding.
Media texts covering these two incidences have generally portrayed the ‘looters’ as irresponsible, insensitive, unreasonable, and barbaric. I draw attention to ways in which the incidents can be seen as ‘performative’ acts and ‘narrative’ texts. I also tease out a (re)reading and (re)thinking of the ‘anti-Zuma arrest’ protests and the ‘drama’ that unfolded as multi-faceted and needing an intersectional analytic approach. I argue against a single identification and framing of the protest (and of the protestors) and express the view that the events (and social actors involved) are imbued with multiple and complex meanings.
I also argue against the singular ‘looters’ reading of the incidents, specifically with reference to the ‘cake and the couch’ incidents, hence my (re)reading of them as ‘performative’ acts in the multiple stories of the South African nation. From the cake and couch ‘acts’, we observe the South African ‘everyday’ that goes beyond the ‘looting’, but this has been absent or nearly absent in the media as the common discourse of ‘looting’ and ‘criminals’ has been favoured.
Food, food consumption and lifestyle are not neutral, but are loaded with political and identity issues. Globally, food and lifestyle have become an increasingly-contested site for (re)thinking about power, imagi/nations, re/distribution, access, and agency. In Zimbabwe, as elsewhere, food has been associated with the metaphoric and the symbolic, going beyond its physical presence, distribution, and consumption (Mawere forthcoming, 2020).
The late Zimbabwean writer, Dambudzo Marechera, was considered quite controversial. In most of his works, especially The House of Hunger (1978), he focuses on the centrality of food in households, issues around accessing both tangible and intangible things, and the disorder and violence that results in the absence of food and failure to access basic resources and materialities (Mawere 2020). Other Zimbabwean literary works, inter alia, Coming of the Dry Season (1972) and Waiting for the Rain (1981) by Charles Mungoshi imagine hunger as going beyond the physical to the symbolic deprivations, and unfreedoms.
The works respectively illustrate the importance of food (in both its satiating and symbolic senses) through an imagination of droughts or dry seasons, poverty, and deprivations, taking hunger beyond the physiological to issues around (dis)location, identity politics and issues of lack of freedoms and disempowerments (Mawere 2020). In South Africa, as elsewhere, consumption (of food and material/goods) is symbolic of the South African mundane and a very strong political aesthetic.
The violent consumption of the cake (which represents an aesthetic of beauty, taste, sophisticated lifestyle, and celebration, and ‘normally’ serves as dessert and is eaten fashionably, in a relaxed manner, and with ‘proper’ cutlery and etiquette) signifies both the hunger and violence that characterise the margins. The way in which the cake is eaten shows that on the periphery, consumption is not fashionable and has no attached manners, but is a means of survival. Violence as an identity aspect of the ‘poor’ is also applied in the way the expensive couch was acquired. As evident from some of the media comments related to the viral video, the couch was personified and ‘suffered when it was left outside in the cold’.
In other framings, the couch was also constructed as having incurred considerable damage during its movement from the store to the location in which the video was recorded. When it was recovered, it had been extensively damaged from the ‘rough’ treatment, the same rough treatment that is endured everyday by those at the margins of South African society where the couch had only a ‘temporary’ stay. The violence, suffering and damage done to the couch in many ways mirrors the everyday violence, damage and suffering endured by South Africa’s invisibilised bodies. However, in both the cake and the couch incidences, most media voices used the consumption of the cake and the damage done to the couch to frame those at the peripheries as violent.
In my view, it is unlikely that someone who is ‘looting’ and is really a ‘criminal’ would waste time eating a cheap cake instead of maximising time and effort on taking items that have value and are more useful. I argue that the eating of the cake is a performance of the hunger that is characteristic in a number of households in South Africa and the world over. The hunger is physical but is also a quest for a better life, for comfort, and for recognition. Even the manner in which the cake is being eaten demonstrates to us that this is someone who is very hungry, hence some of the media comments including words such as ‘ravaging’, and ‘barbarism’ which support the notion of hunger that had dehumanised the ‘looter’.
Likewise, sitting on the ‘looted’ couch outside for all to see is unusual for ‘criminal’ acts, which are typically less conspicuous. One would ask why someone with a shack might take home a couch that does not even fit into the little corrugated ‘building’. I think equally important is to ask, in the first place, why someone lives in a shack and is impoverished in the midst of plunder, avarice, excess and luxury such as is imaged by the expensive couch. From where I sit, bringing the couch to the shack ‘acts’ out the hunger for livelihood, decency, dignity and humanity that characterises those that are (dis)located at the margins because of the plundering of resources, lack of care and responsibility by those in power and with access to resources. As Lewis (2016: 6) argues, “hunger is seen to result not only from food deprivation, but from other denied or withheld yearnings.”
It is important to make use of the ‘anti-Zuma arrest’ protests as a means to probe the myriad forms of hunger that often characterise South Africa’s margins. The ‘cake and the couch’ events have discursive power, the ‘celebratory’ feasting of the cake and the ‘comfort’ of the couch might be ‘temporary’ reflections of the freedoms of which people at the periphery are typically deprived. In this case, it is possible to ‘see’ how those at the margins managed to ‘highjack’ the ‘anti-Zuma’ protest (itself an instrument of power), to act out their hunger and deprivations.
In some ways, this speaks to Bakhtin’s (1994) notion of spatio-temporalities, which deals with how specific moments and spaces define the ways in which people interact with power and how texts are interpreted. The ‘anti-Zuma arrest’ protests provided an opportunity for people to interact with power. This echoes Rancière’s (2006) thinking around power as a process, rather than a tool or instrument in the hands of any one individual or a group. These understandings of how discourses are actively re/read and re/defined enables us to move beyond the common (and usually limited) understandings of the ‘anti-Zuma arrest’ protests and the ‘looting’.
Food, consumption habits and culinary rituals are rooted in and exhibit social symbolisms and meanings related to friendships, political hierarchies, and class (Edwin 2008). Normally, cake as food is awarded a particular status, is associated with special occasions and is part of the privileged’s rituals of identity assertion and maintenance. The way in which cake is cut, served, and eaten (using particular cutlery like knives, forks, etc) makes it ‘special food’ that is associated with status/class, privilege, and ultimately, with a neo-liberal order.
Eating cake during moments of ‘disorder’ and ‘chaos’ can thus be viewed as a subversion of class privilege, comfort and the ways in which life has been ordered and normalised. Spectacular and subversive also, is the way the cake is eaten without any cutlery or cutting – a slur that vulgarises ‘booty’. The man holds the cake in his hand, bites and eats while making a ravaging sound and something like a war-cry, and indeed, ‘acting’ the ‘animal’, ‘savagery’, and ‘barbarism’ that is usually associated with the underprivileged and Fanon’s (1967) ‘wretched of the earth’.
In this moment, there is also a subversion of comfort and luxury with regard to the treatment of the couch. Expensive as it was, it underwent an ordinary and uncomfortable ride to its temporary location where it also received no special treatment. The couch experienced the harsh conditions that characterise the daily lives and struggles of ‘ordinary’ people. The presence of the couch in an ‘informal’ settlement where, despite its given value, it did not receive any special treatment, ruptures class categories and serves as a subversion of power, dominance, privilege, and comfort.
Ferdandes (1988:74) names “…the counter-hegemonic social attitudes, behaviours and actions aimed at weakening the classification among social categories and which are directed against the dominant power(s) and against those who exercise it (them)” as forms of resistance and subversion. I see the ‘cake and the couch drama’ as (sub)versions of power and dominance.
Resistance is not always well organised and explicitly political. It can also be subtle and lacking any formal organisation, reflecting the daily struggles of people (Haynes & Prakash 1991). Early on, James Scott (1990, 1986) noted the issue of subtly rather than direct/overt political confrontation, and that forms of resistance can deviate from and satirise the norms of elites in a manner that illegitimates existing structures of domination. Wendy Willems (2010) argues that resistance is made up of a wide range of cultural practices like rituals, gossip, humour, dress, and behavioural codes. The above reflects what resistant theorists (such Hall 1985; Ferdandes 1988; Scott 1990; Miller 1997; Bevir 1999) have named ‘weapons of the weak’, which comprise masked strategies that subordinates sometimes use to resist oppression from above, hence showing the presence of agency even among the marginalised.
Noting the ‘selfish’ consumption of the cake and the expensive couch, we are invited to a spectacle of excessive consumption standing side by side with poverty and inequality and in many ways, this offers some disobedient messaging to those in power. A man is shown eating the cake ‘alone’ without sharing it with anyone, and the ‘looting’ of the highly-valued couch and (re)locating it to shacks is covered by the media as selfish, unreasonable and some kind of primitive accumulation.
What the above dramatises, however, is the selfishness, exclusion and excessive accumulation of goods and power and the plundering of resources within the nation amidst hunger and deprivation. Where the cake and the couch are taken as symbols of class, visibility, recognition and power, their hijacking by underprivileged, invisible, and unrecognisable bodies shows how the weapons of the powerful can also be appropriated by ‘the underdogs’ for own use. This shows that it is not always the case that the powerful hijack the struggles of the poor for their own use, but also that the poor can do the same with the tools of the powerful.
In this case, the cake and the couch are taken away and used as weapons of the weak. In a context where national resources and wealth are termed the ‘national cake’, there is disobedient messaging in the cake-eating performance and in the taking away of the couch (excessive wealth). Evident is some iconoclastic humour that is similar to Bakhtin’s (1994) Rabelaisian laughter. The ‘drama’ shows how a few people are eating the national cake ‘alone’.
Considering the importance of healthy and disciplined eating in maintaining healthy and functional bodies, and the metaphoric representations of nations as bodies, these spectacles of undisciplined and gluttonous consumption reveal the precariousness of the national body.
At this historic moment, I see the cake and couch incidents as agents of disruption and erasure of what has been normalised, including the naturalisation of lack of access, and impoverishment. The ‘anti-Zuma arrest’ protests provided some agency to the invisibilised bodies and voices and gave a chance for the ‘unsilencing’ of particular issues around inequalities in South Africa. Moving beyond the language and gaze of ‘looting’ allows us to listen to some of these silenced voices and to notice and recognise some of the bodies that have been invisibilised and whose lives have been ‘looted’ by prevailing structures, systems, and epistemic injustices. The cake and the couch are metaphors of some kinds of hunger, deprivation, exclusion, and invisibility that prevail in South Africa. Beyond the ‘looting’ stories, it is possible to listen and pay attention to the other silenced South African stories so as to address the problem of ‘looting’, inequalities, and injustices.
Bakhtin, M. 1981, The dialogic Imagination, Trans. C. Emerson & M. Holquist, Texas: University of Texas Press.
Bakhtin, M. 1994, Rabelais and his world, Trans. H. Iswolsky, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Bevir, M. 1999, Foucault and critique: Deploying agency against autonomy, Political Theory, vol. 27, no. 1, pp. 65-84.
Edwin, S. 2008. Subverting Social Customs: The Representation of Food in Three West African Francophone Novels. Research in African Literatures, 39(3),39-50.
Fanon, F. 1967, The Wretched of the Earth, Trans. Richard Philcox, New York: Grove Press.
Hall, S. 1985, Signification, representation, ideology: Althusser and the post‐structuralist debates, Critical Studies in Media Communication, vol. 2, no. 2, pp. 91-114.
Haynes, D.E. & Prakash, G. 1991, Contesting power: Resistance and everyday social relations in South Asia, Berkeley: University of California Press.
Karlstrom, M. 2003, On the aesthetics and dialogics of power in the postcolony, Africa, vol. 73, no. 01, pp. 57-76.
Lewis, D. 2016. Bodies, matter and feminist freedoms: Revisiting the politics of food. Agenda, 30(4),6-16.
Marechera, D. 1978. The House of Hunger. London: Heinemann.
Mawere, T. ‘Re-reading the Zimbabwean ‘Land Question’: Gender and the Symbolic Meanings of “Land”’ (Forthcoming in Gender Questions).
Mawere, T. 2020. ‘Food, symbolism and gendered identities in Zimbabwean Politics: Mama Grace’s ice cream and the 2017 Zanu-Pf leadership change’, CSA&G Gender Justice Website, University of Pretoria (13 May 2020) https://www.justgender.org/food-symbolism- and-gendered-identities-in-zimbabwean-politics-mama-graces-ice-cream-and-the- 2017-zanu-pf-leadership-change/
Mawere, T. 2016, Decentering Nationalism: Representing and Contesting Chimurenga in Zimbabwean Popular Culture, PhD Dissertation. Cape Town: University of the Western Cape.
Miller, L.L. 1997, Not just weapons of the weak: Gender harassment as a form of protest for army men, Social psychology quarterly, vol. 60, no. 1, pp 32-51.
Mungoshi, C. 1981. Waiting for the rain. Harare: Zimbabwe Publishing House.
Mungoshi, C. 1972. Coming of the dry season. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ranciere, J. 2006, The politics of aesthetics, Trans. Gabriel Rockhill, with an afterword by Slavoj Zizek, London: Continuum.
Scott, J.C. 1990, Domination and the arts of resistance: Hidden transcripts, New Haven: Yale University Press.
Scott, J.C. 1986, Everyday forms of peasant resistance, Journal of Peasant Studies, vol. 13, no. 2, pp.5-35.
Willems, W. 2010, Beyond dramatic revolutions and grand rebellions: everyday forms of resistance in the Zimbabwe crisis, Communicare: Journal for Communication Sciences in Southern Africa, vol. 29, pp. 1-17.
 See Mikael Karlstrom (2003).