Research Article

Sheep, herbs and blood on the beach: discrepant representations of ritual acts for essentialising and reinforcing difference in contemporary South Africa


South Africa’s 2018/2019 summer holidays were marked by a flurry of media reports describing, some in vivid, graphic detail, the ritual slaughter of a sheep on a popular Cape Town beach by a group of #MustFall activists. Their action was in response to reports of a private security company, ostensibly working at the behest of nearby local commercial outlets and residents, having forced Black people off the beach. Focusing on various media reports and responses to the incident, the article shows that there is a revival and regrowth of essentialist expression in the ways contemporary South Africans address persistently overlapping issues of racial and class differences that are made particularly salient through their being marked by everyday discrimination. Through analysis of media reports and responses the article considers the various forms of essentialist expression that manifested during the ritual and in responses to it. In doing that it reveals particular local manifestations of the global turn to a populist politics and it demonstrates that, whilst essentialist expressions take diverse forms, some of which appear to offer empowerment potential in decolonising and other anti-oppressive moments, they also always carry the long-term potential for reinforcing divisive intolerance.

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