Media reports on the racial violence and protests at Brackenfell High School recently highlighted one voice above others, namely that of a young white protester claiming to be a student leader of the EFF.
On the face of it, the only observable distinction that made his views noteworthy of separate reporting, was his racial profile, since his comments were no different to those made earlier by black representatives of the party. As they did, he claimed that the violent protests at the school were justified, as the function for white matrics arranged by their parents, and the school by extension, in their view, represent the continuation of white oppression that must be resisted vehemently and destroyed.
The airtime afforded to a white voice, which advocates the same message as the EFF, which in the public eye generally is regarding as representing black interests in particular, arguably revealed an assumption that his racial profile afforded further legitimacy to the claims that the protests were justified. Similarly employing racial profiling as tool to make sense of the news, others contested the value of his comments due to his whiteness, arguing that his whiteness makes it impossible for him to represent black interests.
On the one hand the contrasting readings of the story lay bare how pervasive race remains as a driver for political performances and as a framework to make sense of it. On the other hand, the contrasting perspectives reveal the diverse and hidden ways with which societal actors, as much as citizens and political collectives, define political representation, and use it to scrutinise public incidents.
As a mechanism to answer the question of who may speak and act on another’s behalf, different perspectives on representation in politics deal with the notions of authorisation and accountability. “Authorisation” refers to the processes, both formal and informal, whereby citizens, communities and their collectives agree to and assign a right in some form to a selected group and its members to speak, act and stand for their interests. “Accountability” refers to the formal and informal processes with which citizens keep track of the political performances of those they consider as representatives, and what they achieve for those they represent.
However, approaches to and methods to achieve authorisation and accountability are largely dependent on the social and political dynamics of the day. Consequently, the ways whereby individuals and groups gain recognition as political actors, who legitimately represent others, are dependent on current political contexts and dramas. Similarly, context and drama therefore also determine the social and political arenas where they perform and on which they may have an impact. Arguably, this means that definitions of what political representation is and how it works, describe representation as a political performance and drama at only a particular moment in the life of a society – a picture painted from various viewpoints to describe actual incidents. Still, even if only a snapshot, these factors combine to determine the process of claim-making – the overall dynamic that enables representatives to arrive at claims made regarding the political meaning of events in the daily lives of people.
Traditional definitions of representation distinguish between normative and descriptive representation, which respectively refers to representation based on shared interests, and representation based on similar characteristics. In a participatory democracy such as ours, symbolic and mediative representation plays an equally critical role – “symbolic” when political actors claim to represent a particular cause, and “mediative” when they claim to act in the place of others, either for or against imagined interests on behalf of imagined citizens. This is the politics of symbolic worlds, the world of Brackenfell High.