State personhood and world politics: a personology of the South African state

Doctoral Thesis


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South Africa’s foreign policy decisions and behaviours are routinely referred to as “schizophrenic” by scholars and political commentators alike. A malady of the human brain, the World Health Organization (WHO) defines “schizophrenia” as “a severe mental disorder, characterized by profound disruptions in thinking, affecting language, perception, and the sense of self [that] can impair functioning through the loss of an acquired capability to earn a livelihood, or the disruption of studies”. If schizophrenia is a disorder of the human mind, then diagnosing a state with this disorder implies an acceptance of the argument that, indeed, “states are people too”. Yet, for all of the diagnoses of foreign policy schizophrenia handed to the South African state on such a regular basis, very few scholars have seriously contemplated the implications of state personhood for our understanding of politics among nations, and the importance of this approach to International Relations (IR) for research on state behaviours. Pushing Alexander Wendt’s (1999) claim that “states are people too” beyond its present conceptual limits, this research undertakes a personology of South Africa as state-person. “Personology” is, in its simplest form, a science of persons: how they exist in relation to others, how they differ from others, and how their experiences of the world affect their cognitions and behaviours. Persons are more than just identities. Persons have emotions, they maintain relationships with significant Others, and they experience internal conflicts that spark certain defensive behaviours. Behaviours, in turn, take on specific patterns in individuals based on historical experiences of the external world, and on the individual’s internal configuration that predisposes it to certain courses of action that are again based in past experiences of the individual’s interactions with Others. In this sense, the project distinguishes between “identity” and “personality” as two interrelated, but distinct, components of personhood. While constructivist IR to date has contributed significantly to our understanding of state identities, considerations surrounding personality remain unexplored. In the context of the above, the thesis asks the question “how do South Africa’s experiences of relationships with other state-persons shape its behaviour in international politics, and why do these behaviours take on these unique dynamics?” Departing from a reexamination of the South African state’s identity as both difference from and likeness to Others, the thesis incorporates insights from personality theory and psychoanalysis to propose a workable model for analysing state behaviours. Through an examination of significant events from South Africa’s recent foreign relations, the thesis considers both defensive mechanisms employed by the state to protect its Self when faced with criticism from peers, and the reasons why these specific defences are employed in the way that they are employed. An understanding of the functions of narcissistic defences in individuals allows us to make sense of seemingly inconsistent, self-contradictory or incoherent behaviours beyond unexplored accusations of a disordered mind. Persons communicate their Selves, and their experiences of the world, through carefully selected symbols – both linguistic and non-linguistic. The study of these symbols, or semiotics, has long been the purview of Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA), which takes both linguistic and non-linguistic forms of communication as the foundations of social practice. Drawing heavily on the work of, among others, Foucault, Derrida and Lacan, CDA concerns itself with the social and political context of agency and structure, observable through the lenses of representation, manipulation, interpretation, that is embedded in the discourses of individuals or groups within societies. Discourse is produced with the aim of achieving something; this may simply include positioning the Self within society, communicating with Others to achieve the common aims of the group, or eventually, to change the external world in a way that corresponds to the individual’s inner image of its Self in relation to outside world. Informed by this understanding of discourse as the performance of the Self, and the means through which to satisfy internal desires, the project looks at ways in which the South African Self is narratively constructed and performed in relation to significant Others, and how South Africa attempts to shape the external world according to its own mentalistic images of itself-in-theworld.