Civil Unrest: Going beyond simple narratives of 'chaos' and 'complexity'
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In the background, a series of warehouses with a multitude walking away in disorderly lines, many with shopping trolleys carrying goods. Debris litters the streets. In the distance, the smoke drifts of torched buildings and burned goods.
A hooded and masked man points at his trolley of goods and explains why he loots. “I have nothing, and even after this, I’ll still have nothing, but at least, for now, I’ll have something,” he says.
He explains his loot: “Nappies, which I can’t afford, for my few months’ old baby, and the flat-screen TV for wife and me, just to make the continuing lockdowns bearable.”
As one of the unending series of broadcast and print images, this brief news interview captures the actual events and hints at the range of social and political questions pushed to the front of South Africa’s public concern.
The report at least points at two impressions that matter to how in everyday life make sense of what incidents of widespread upheaval – background images of devastation that leave you with a sense of unrelenting chaos, and emerging stories of social inequality that leave you with a sense of continuing complexity.
Responses to the turmoil use how citizens and the state interpret the way that instances of chaos and social systems of complexity combine to cause the situation.
The relationship of chaos and complexity also determine how people and communities make peace, clean up and rebuild. As such, theories of chaos and complexity offer a useful way to reflect on the social upheaval that confronts South Africa now.
“Chaos” often is simply associated with random instances of change, often destructive in very dramatic ways. These are unpredictable and therefore cannot be prevented or prepared for.
In contrast, “complexity” often is simply associated with unending layers of systems of different societal environments that together attempt to resolve societal challenges, which are problems that, in themselves, also remain unending. Defined in everyday talk this way, chaos and complexity continuously impact one upon the other.
Complex problems will inevitably lead to chaotic moments, while chaotic moments will lead to change in formal and underlying social, political, and economic systems.
Chaos is the disorderly negative, which drives its opposite positive of ordered complexity, the argument implies. This popular reading of how chaos and complexity relate consequently may cause public discourses to define chaos as the result of a failing state, and success as a result of solving complexity.
However, counter-intuitively, theories of chaos and complexity reveal that they are not opposite, but only unique instances of how a society functions that share similar characteristics.
Chaos and complexity represent different aspects of “non-linear“ social dynamics – what on the surface seems to be a dynamic with easy cause and effect in reality does not follow simple rules of a cause and its outcome. Both chaos and complexity are unpredictable.
In the case of instances where chaos seems to engulf a society, simpler factors facilitate sudden irregular behaviours – one citizen decides to loot because many at this moment also do so. When solutions to the moments of chaos aim to address the complexity of societal challenges, more complicated factors of diverse political, economic and moral systems facilitate possible new and unexpected avenues of development – one citizen risks much to have a sense of normality, looting nappies and a flat-screen TV.
The myth of reading chaos and complexity as opposites then is the idea that beyond chaos and complexity lies a society always in equilibrium and at peace.
* Rev Dr BR Rudi Buys is Executive Dean and Dean of Humanities at Cornerstone Institute and editor of African Journal of Non-Profit Higher Education.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.