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Poverty and Spaces of Shame in South Africa



Making use of published material from the ongoing struggle of South African students for radical reforms of university financial systems and what have been viewed as the cultural biases of the country’s formerly elite universities, it will be argued that university campuses are key sites where the social insecurity and cultural dislocation of impoverished black students are made apparent. Drawing in particular on the work of Thomas Scheff, on shame as a social emotion, it will be argued that the experience of shame as a measure of lack of social standing and social connection is experienced in spite some efforts to create inclusive campuses, crossing racial and class boundaries. The paper will suggest that significant insights on the individual and social experiences of poverty can be developed through the ongoing revision of social scientific theories of emotion and morality.
Ibrahim Abraham
University of Helsinki
Poverty and Spaces of Shame in South Africa
Paper presented at the 2018 Salzburg Conference in Interdisciplinary Poverty Research,
13 September 2018, University of Salzburg, Austria
The focus of this paper is to explore sociological ideas of shame through poverty. I want to
explore and apply those sociological ideas of shame and poverty in the specific context of
contemporary South Africa. The example I will work through is recent student protests against
university fees and culturally Eurocentric university campuses in South Africa, which are a good
example of public spaces in which shameful poverty is revealedperhaps unexpectedly. People
may not realize their poverty until they are made aware of it in these spaces, experiencing a
specific emotion.
Gillian Godsell, writing with South African student activists involved in the Fees Must
Fall protests, invokes the example of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden realizing their
nakedness for the first time, and feeling a sense of shame for the first time.
They did not realize
they were “naked” before eating from the tree of knowledge, or at least they didn’t realize that
“nakedness” was a particular social category or a certain symbolic state not to be caught in, in
public, before eating from the tree of knowledge. They cite the philosopher J. David Velleman’s
essay “The Genesis of Shame” here, in which he argues that what is at stake in the shaming of
Adam and Eve is an understanding of privacy and then the disruption of that privacy.
In the case
of poverty and shame, in a sociological perspective, we can think about this as the unveiling of
aspects of the social system, revealing relationships that are breaking or broken. That, to me, is
the key feature of sociological understandings of shame as opposed to psychological or
philosophical ones; shame says something about social relationships.
Shame and poverty is not a unique topic. I don’t have any radical breakthroughs to make,
other than to apply these ideas in some new contexts. There is a very good book all about this,
Gillian Godsell, Refiloe Lepere, Swankie Mafoko & Ayabongo Nase (2016) “Documenting the
Revolution,” in Susan Booysen (ed.) Fees Must Fall, 101-124, Johannesburg: Wits University Press,
pp. 116-17.
J. David Velleman (2001) “The Genesis of Shame,” Philosophy& Public Affairs 30(1): 27-52.
by Robert Walker, The Shame of Poverty,
and several edited collections.
Shame has been
recognized as an aspect of poverty; Walker mentions the UN Development’s Programs definition
of poverty includes the right to “dignity, self-esteem and the respect of others as well as “a
decent standard of living.” Amartya Sen’s discussion of dignity in the context of poverty, after
Adam Smith, as “the ability to go about without shame,has also been much commented upon.
This paper will focus on the work of Thomas Scheff, however, an American sociologist
who wrote a lot about shame as the key social emotion.
He is influenced by Durkheim, Erving
Goffman, and Norbert Elias, as well as various other lesser known sociologists and psychologists.
Scheff’s work on shame gets cited in a rather ceremonial fashion more often than it gets explicitly
engaged with, which is a genuine shame, and Walker’s book is all the more important for
engaging with Scheff quite extensively. As a sociologist, then, Scheff does not offer a
psychological definition of shame, in which the focus is on the gap between an idealized view of
yourself, and the actual view that society has of you. Rather, for Scheff, what makes shame useful
sociologically, is focusing on shame as a feeling that signals a threat to the social bond.The
opposite of shame is pride; pride is not arrogance or superiority, but the pleasure that comes from
secure social bonds “when we are accepted as we present ourselves”.
So in this sociological approach, Scheff argues that pride and shame serve as intense and
automatic bodily signs of the state of a system that would be otherwise difficult to observe, the
state of relationships. It’s still a question of how you are perceived by others, but that emotion
that physical feeling of shame is a warning sign to your body that it there is danger. So
obviously Scheff feels that we are social animals; he also feels that the social sciences pay too
much attention to individuals and not enough attention to the relationships that sustain
Robert Walker (2014) The Shame of Poverty, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Elaine Chase & Grace Bantebya-Kyomuhendo (eds) (2014) Poverty and Shame, Oxford: Oxford
University Press; Erika K. Gubrium, Sony Pellissery & Ivar Lødemel (eds) (2013) The Shame of It:
Global Perspectives on Anti-Poverty Policies, Bristol: Policy Press.
Diego Zavaleta Reyles (2007) “The Ability to go about Without Shame: A Proposal for
Internationally Comparable Indicators of Shame and Humiliation.” Oxford Development Studies 35(4):
Thomas J. Scheff (1990) Microsociology, Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Thomas J. Scheff
(1997) Emotions, the Social Bond, and Human Reality, Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Thomas
J. Scheff (2000) “Shame and the Social Bond,Sociological Theory 18(1): 84-99. Quotes attributed
to Scheff in the following paragraphs are taken from these three publications, I have not
bothered to cite them exactly in this somewhat cleaned-up conference paper script.
individuals. Shame is also an under-acknowledged emotion for Scheff. Following Elias, Scheff
argues that shame has been devalued; it is everywhere, but rarely is it identified as shame, it is
often referred to as something else, like guilt or low self-esteem, or hatred (which can, in fact, be
a symptom of shame). It seems to me that this neglect of shame may well be partly a function of
the increasing respect we have for the voices of our research participants; we are less given to
second-guessing their emotional states that sociologists and social psychologists were wont to
do in earlier decades. What happens when quotidian language is used to cover up foundational
emotions, on the other hand, or when a society tells people to be ashamed of their shame?
So while shame and its opposite, pridein the form of self-confident belonging rather
than arrogance or a sense of superiorityare both “social emotions” for Scheff, they are
grounded in self-examination. Scheff takes the phrase looking-glass self” comes from the
sociologist Charles Cooley; the idea is that how one appears in the eyes of others gives rise to
pride or shamesecurity or insecurity—a concept familiar from Goffman’s later work. From the
psychologist Helen Lynd, Scheff takes the distinction between shame and guilt; even though they
are the same family of moral emotions, guilt is about a specific action, a feeling about something
you have done or should have done. Shame, on the other hand, is a feeling about who you are.
Guilt therefor implies a strong sense of agencyI have acted, or I should have actedin a way
that makes a measurable difference in the world, but shame often implies lack of agency; a sense
of helplessness or basic social irrelevance. I think this helps make sense of ideas of poverty as an
experience of powerlessness, and poverty defined by the actual or perceived inability to
participate in public life.
Let me give an example. In South Africa, there is an official unemployment rate of 26,7%
but the expanded unemployment rate is 36,7%. So a full 10% of the working-age population are
considered discouraged job-seekers; they have abandoned looking for work, largely because of
an economy in recession, and the low skill level of most unemployed South Africans, in an
economy that is more formalized and industrialized than other sub-Saharan countries. So we
might argue that it would be morally wrong for someone to claim to feel guilty or to be made
to feel guilty, for giving up looking for work in a situation like this, but we could also argue that
it is factually wrong for someone to feel “guilty” for giving up looking for work, for what they
are actually feeling is shame, and guilt is merely a cultural cover-up for shame. The shame comes
from one’s total disconnection with society and the economy.
In 2012, the journalist Allister Sparks warned about the emergence of a “redundant
generation” in South Africa; a millions-strong group of young people who have no meaningful
function in the economyalthough academics and activists have debated the extent to which
South Africa’s massive pool of unemployed serves the perverse function of staving off revolution
or keeping wages relatively low.
Sparks invited the readers of Business Day to imagine what
it must be like to be in your mid-twenties and realise you are probably unemployable for the rest
of your life” and think about the kinds of moral choices someone makes in that situation.
years later, in 2017, another journalist, Bronwyn Nortje wrote basically the same thing in the
same newspaper, commenting on the 3.1 million discouraged job-seekers aged between 15 and
24 who are “willing and able to work, but have given up on looking for work. Imagine being 19-
years-old and having already given up on ever having a job.”
To the extent that emotions can be
conceived of as erroneously experiences, guilt would certainly be an erroneous emotion in this
situation. Shame, on the other hand, might be productive if one were able to admit to it and
recognize its external, socio-economic and political origins and solutions. The fact that in South
Africa, like Finland, people are now (once again) debating the idea of a universal basic income
suggests, I think, that they are no longer imposing guilt on the unemployed but are, in fact,
concerned about mitigating the shame of marginalization, in the context of the relative moral
blamelessness of the unemployed.
With this sociological understanding of shame as a threatened or broken social
relationshipshame as the consequence of a lack of social belonging, through povertyI want
to look at certain spaces in which this is experienced very clearly. In Erving Goffmann’s work
on embarrassment,
influential on Scheff, he refers to the foundational importance of the
“fluctuating configuration of those present” in feeling embarrassment or shame. In other words,
poverty-as-shame is experienced or revealed in certain contexts, and not in others; around certain
kinds of people, and not around others, in certain spaces, and not in others. In the chapter by
Gillian Godsell and the student activists I mentioned earlier, the Fees Must Fall protest is
described as a “protest of shame, for the emerging black middle class. These black university
students, in some cases, were the first in their families seeking entry into the middle class, or in
some cases are children of the new black middle class, which is typically public sector workers
Merle Lipton (2007) Liberals, Marxists, and Nationalists: Competing Interpretations of South African
History. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Allister Sparks (2012) “How to get around the Big Problem of Skills Training,” Business Day
(Johannesburg), 25 April.
Bronwyn Nortje (2017) “NDP can’t get Country out of Predicament,” Business Day (Johannesburg),
7 September.
Erving Goffman (1956) “Embarrassment and Social Organization,” American Journal of Sociology
62(3): 264-71.
teachers, police officers, petty officials. Godsell and her co-authors note that the image the
black middle class had of itself was undermined by the experience of elite university life, as in
the common psychological and philosophical understanding of shame. But in the sociological
understanding, too, the marginality of this group of young people was revealed. This is a group
who could have felt at the centre of the new South African society and economy:
The protest brought home the reality that the ability to compete in a market-driven
economy is close to impossible for the black middle-class students. The students realized
that actually they were poor. ... This message was ... startling to those students who
considered themselves middle class.
This realization of “poverty”—like Adam and Eve realizing their nakednesswas multifacteted
and needs to be placed in the specific context of the expectations or standards of the university
itself here. We need to treat the university as a community with its own expectations that students
measure themselves against.
An excellent article by Mark Peacock, helps us to think about situational poverty on a
cultural or subcultural level.
In the case of South African universities, management broadly
recognized the different spaces that students move between. The daughter or son of a school
teacher or police officer may consider themselves well-off in a black township, in an all-black
school, but at the elite universities like Cape Town or Wits University in Johannesburg, it is a
different matter. The University of Cape Town Vice-Chancellor, Max Price said that ““[Black
students] were confronted, I think probably for the first time, with an environment which does
communicate that the colour of excellence is white.”
In the space of the elite, formerly white
universities, poverty of even the black middle class, would manifest especially in terms of a lack
of cultural capital. Firstly in an acknowledgement of inferior prior education at free, state schools
in most cases, and lack of confidence and ability to express oneself. Language was a major issue
English or at some universities Afrikaans. Secondly, precarious accommodation; there are not
enough student dormitories at most universities, and some students found themselves living
“nomadic lives between impoverished townships and the rarefied lecture rooms of campus” as
Godsell, et al., “Documenting the Revolution,” p. 116.
Mark Peacock (2017) An Embarrassment of Riches and a Surplus of Shame: Amartya Sen on
Poverty and Deprivation,” Poverty & Public Policy 9(4): 444-64.
Jonathan Jansen (2017) As by Fire: The End of the South African University. Cape Town: Tafelberg,
p. 56..
one journalist put it.
There are also fields like fashion, and questions about the ability to
participate in leisure activities that go to questions of the formation of social capital. We may
think of these as optional, but if we think about the discussion of the norms of a particular
community or subculture in defining poverty as inability to participate, then they become vital
issues. Viewing shame as an emotional signal of broken social relationships, if you cannot take
part in social activitieseven if they are frivolous activities like a university pub crawlor if
you cannot feel confident about your appearance, we see a very clear example of shame through
poverty, an internal experience of social inequality and division.
From the sociologist Norbert Elias, and the psychoanalyst Helen Lewis, Scheff adapts the
idea of shame loops or emotion traps, essentially the emotional responses one has to their
emotional response such that one never identifies the actual source of that first emotional
response. Shame loops can lead to a life-long emotional state, which sounds strange, because we
are used to thinking of emotions as short-lived effects with specific causes, but in a shame loop
you are providing your own cause and effect, over and over again. Scheff identifies two kinds of
shame loops: shame-shame loops and shame-anger loops.
In a shame-anger loop; I am ashamed of somethingmy marginality, for example, my
redundancy to use the words of the business journalists, aboveand my response to my shame
is anger. I attack (literally or figuratively) the people or the institutions I feel are the source of
this shame. I may then feel shame at my anger, or merely continue to feel shame because my
anger has not actually addressed the source of my initial shame, and so the shame-anger loop
continues. The interesting thing in South Africa is that anger, or “humiliated fury” as Scheff calls
it, can be affirmed in radical politics, particularly in radical student activist culture. Scheff
assumes people caught in a shame-anger spiral will be ashamed of their rage; but if rage is
socially sanctioned in certain spaces as a legitimate political or response, this is not the case.
Violent student protesters at South African universities always saw their violence as legitimate,
or perhaps not even violence at all, as violence was described by some student activists as the
experience of structural oppression and, in contrast reaction to this violence is not violence
itself, but a defence against dehumanisation.
The presence of police or private security was
always considered illegitimate, therefore, and activists could not accept university administrators
Malcolm Ray (2016) Free Fall: Why South African Universities are in a Race against Time.
Johannesburg: Bookstorm, p. 9.
Anonymous (2016) Student Protest Glossary of Terms, in in Susan Booysen (ed.) Fees Must Fall,
328-29, Johannesburg: Wits University Press, p. 329.
insistence on their presence. Universities, on the other hand, could not understand student
demands that they remove security, fearing what would happen without security present.
In a shame-shame loop, I am ashamed of something (for example, my marginality), but
then I am ashamed of being ashamed. I’m not angry. In western society at least, and we can
extend this to colonial spaces such as South Africas elite universities, Erving Goffmann argues
that allowing yourself to “appear flustered ... is evidence of weakness... and other unenviable
attributes. So you may also be ashamed to raise the topic with someone elseespecially if you
view yourself as an equal and have ambitions to excel in life, as students should.
So black
students at formerly white universities were ashamed of poverty, manifesting in marginalization
on various levels, including the basic campus culture; as the Vice-Chancellor of UCT recognized,
the statues and portraits celebrated colonial history and European culture. The statue of the
British imperialist Cecil Rhodes at the University Cape Town embodied this. There is then shame
about being ashamed, for example, Godsell and colleagues note student complaints that the
financial aid scheme was “shameful and embarrassing” because students had to admit their
weakness, not their strength as in merit-based scholarships.
The students applying for financial
aid show proof of material poverty or proof of prior educational poverty, to excuse low marks,
ending with the request to be admitted to the middle class along with the children of the wealthy,
on a nominally equal basis. Students complained about having to choose to take up the loan or
hide their poverty,” which brings us back that the Adam and Eve moment; are the material
circumstances of one’s life private?
It also seems to me that South Africas universities were also ashamed of shame. They
did not want to shame their student, such as by acknowledging just how problematic the basic
education of many black students from impoverished backgrounds is, due to the countrys
dysfunctional education system and inequality, when the universities lack sufficient funds to be
able to fix the problem. There was a recent controversy at the University of Limpopo, a non-elite
university, in north-east, when education students caused a near-riot during an exam,
complaining it was too hard. “The entire class walked out. Even those who are geniuses left,
one student was quoted.
Goffman, “Embarrassment and Social Organization.
Godsell, et al., “Documenting the Revolution,” p. 117.
Karabo Ledwaba & Frank Maponya (2018) 'The Test was Set Up to be Difficult' - University of
Limpopo Students walk out of Exam Room, Sowetan 30 August.
There is a point that Goffmann makes, that in the embarrassing encounter, it’s both the
nominally shamed subject and the shaming protagonist who are reduced; the social bond is
weakened even if the social status of only one party is reduced. This is the precise situation many
South African universities found themselves in. These shame loops are both internal and
externalpsychological and socialand to break these loops, it’s necessary to find some way
to resolve both. What broke the shame loops of these students were protesters admitting the
nature of their shame and poverty no longer pretending to be equal. As Goffman recognized,
you don’t experience embarrassment because you are socially maladjusted, but precisely because
you are not socially maladjusted. In this example, if you are aware of how your society really
does work, you will experience shame as that telltale signal of social brokenness, in at least some
spaces. So there was a strong and significant desire from the protesters to acknowledge that most
of the students actually emerge from the undifferentiated mass of povertymaking alliances with
university cleaners and gardeners. There was a recognition that these were, sometimes literally,
the parents of students. The right of the children of university cleaners and gardeners study at the
university was one of the key demands. In a sense this undermined the “role segregation” that
Goffmann sees as a key source of shame the self we project in one space around one group of
people is “incompatible” with the self we project in another space. And the iconic image of the
student protests here was throwing human waste from the portable toilets from the black
township Khayelitsha, on to the statue of Cecil Rhodes at the university of Cape Town.It was
really bringing these two spaces together; acknowledging the reality of social disconnection and
marginality, out of which the shame of poverty in South Africa emerges.
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