Zombies! The connection between Resident Evil 5, South African xenophobia & global capitalism

Zombies, EVIL ZOMBIES, are a recurrent problem in the Resident Evil series of video games (comic books, films…) but the zombies in Resident Evil 5 created a minor controversy. The Resident Evil 5 zombies are Africans living in a township type setting and some of the scenes do  not make a clear distinction between the bad behavior of the undead and everyday thugs. A distinction I understand the prior entries in the series made clear — I’m definitely not up on this (see Dan Whitehead’s 2009 review). And you’d think there would be heightened caution (if not sensitivity) when dealing with African zombies, given the history of demeaning, racist stereotypes of Africans but the trailer for the game elicited widespread criticism. As N’Gai Groal, games correspondent for Newsweek points out this imagery has a history. His first reaction when he saw the trailer for the game in 2008 was “Wow, clearly no one black WORKED on this game. ” (Newsweek’s N’Gai Croal On The ‘Resident Evil 5′ Trailer: ‘This Imagery Has A History). In the article on MTV’s Multiplayer, Croal analyzes the avoidance of issues of race among video game players and the not so subtle imagery in the trailer:

…even before the point in the trailer where the crowd turned into zombies. There sort of being, in sort of post-modern parlance, they’re sort of “othered.” They’re hidden in shadows, you can barely see their eyes, and the perspective of the trailer is not even someone who’s coming to help the people. It’s like they’re all dangerous; they all need to be killed. It’s not even like one cute African — or Haitian or Caribbean — child could be saved. They’re all dangerous men, women and children. They all have to be killed. And given the history, given the not so distant post-colonial history, you would say to yourself, why would you uncritically put up those images? It’s not as simple as saying, “Oh, they shot Spanish zombies in ‘Resident Evil 4,’ and now ‘black zombies and that’s why people are getting upset.” The imagery is not the same. It doesn’t carry the same history, it doesn’t carry the same weight. I don’t know how to explain it more clearly than that. (Newsweek’s N’Gai Croal On The ‘Resident Evil 5′ Trailer: ‘This Imagery Has A History).

But wait there are  other metaphorical issues and controversies that are much more interesting: the connection between the recent re-emergence of African zombies and the wave of xenophobia in South Africa and the solidification of a neo-liberal global capitalist world order. On July 30, 2010 La Faute a  la manette! posted an article by Game A that contended that the placing “a Resident Evil in Africa was awesome and totally appropriate” because:

The zombie (strictly speaking diphoko in Afrikaans, which is close to this) is indeed part of everyday life for many Africans, particularly South Africa, as stated by Jean and John Comaroff in Alien Nation: Zombies, Immigrants and Millennial Capitalism (1999)

Their existence, far from being the subject of gossip from distant forests or fantastic tales from the bush, is widely held to be obvious. In fact, not long ago still popular newspapers included headlines such as “zombies revenues from the dead”, illustrating their stories, like any other article, hyper-realistic photographs. Similarly, the defense lawyers in the provincial courts have sought the acquittal of their clients charged with murder, explaining their murderous acts by the zombification their parents […] (Complexe du Blanc au Mozombique)

The article by Game A is excellent and well worth checking out but to take this argument to its logical conclusion or denouement, we need to go to one of Game A’s principal sources, anthropologists John and Joan Comoroff who have written extensively and persuasively on post-colonialism and the problems and dilemmas created by the imposition of global neo-liberal capitalism. In ALIEN-NATION: ZOMBIES, IMMIGRANTS, AND MILLENNIAL CAPITALISM, the Comoroffs ponder:

What might zombies have to do with the implosion of neoliberal capitalism at the end of the twentieth century? What might they have to do with post -colonial, post-revolutionary nationalism? With labour history? With the “crisis” of the modernist nation-state? Why are these spectral, floating signifiers making an appearance in epic, epidemic proportions in several parts of Africa just now? And why have immigrants-those wanderers in pursuit of work, whose proper place is always elsew- here-become pariah citizens of ‘a global order in which, paradoxically, old borders are said everywhere to be dissolving? What, indeed, do any of these things, which bear the distinct taint of exoticism, tell us about the hard-edged material, cultural, epistemic realities of our times? Indeed, why pose such apparently perverse questions at all when our social world abounds with practical problems of immediate, unremitting gravitas?

All safely metaphorical? Not at all! Zombies have appeared in Africa periodically at times of social upheaval and have been appearing in South Africa since the late 1990s when the hopes raised by the new South Africa began to ring hollow. People began to see zombies but the zombies they saw were usually immigrants they saw as threats to their livelihood. As the Comoroff’s write, people began to be driven by their fears to look for scapegoats and they saw zombies.

The fear of being reduced to ghost labour, of being abducted to feed the fortunes of a depraved stranger, occurs alongside another kind of spectre: a growing mass, a shadowy alien-nation, of immigrant black workers from elsewhere on the continent. So overt is the xenophobic sentiment that these workers are disrupting local relations of production and reproduction-that they usurp scarce jobs and resources, foster prostitution, and spread AIDS-chat they have been openly harassed on South African streets. Like zombies, they are nightmare citizens, their rootlessness threatening to siphon off the remaining, rapidly dimini shing prosperity of the indigenous population. Interestingly, like zombies too, they are characterized by their impaired speech: the common term for immigrant, makwerekwere a Sesotho word implying limited competence in the vernacular. Suggesting a compromised capacity to engage in intercourse with autochthonous society, this usage explains why migrants live in terror that their accents might be detected in public. (ALIEN-NATION: ZOMBIES, IMMIGRANTS, AND MILLENNIAL CAPITALISM)

There’s a lot more meat in the Comaroff’s article but I’ll leave that to you to — it’s worth the little bit of time it takes to digest it.

1 Comment

  1. A+ would read again


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