What Is a Crisis?

This article is a part of the Thesis Eleven online project: Living and Thinking Crisis

by Phumlani Pikoli (Johannesburg)

Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the world has been in a state of panic, fearing the unprecedented times we face. The idea that the pandemic has induced some pre-pubescent existential crisis is laughable, however.

As the world has been forced to sit and reckon with its own systemic failures and global structures of existence the real crisis is, ‘what does it mean to be a human supporting the failed system of global capitalism’? After all, is democracy not a rich person’s game?

We’ve been forced to sit with this question in isolation; forced to confront our actions and what they mean to our collective humanity. While many suburbanites complained about their forced solitude, one can’t help but recognise the universe’s macabre sense of irony, laughing at our general commitment to a lack of community. Gated communities, high rise walls with electric fences and private security checking, who does, and doesn’t, deserve the privilege of enjoying walking on our manicured lawns? Isn’t individualism always encouraged    at the expense of the collective?

The binary concepts of the two dominant shades – black and white – have laid their teeth bare for all to reflect on race and its divides, yet again, one might say. Except this time round, we have nature fighting back by introducing the full colour spectrum that allows us to take in the world as an entire concept and not a simple regional piece of land championed and flamed by those dull enough to pursue chauvinistic nationalism or racial purity.

The best example of this irony is the term ‘crisis’, which is being thrown around loosely these days. Suddenly the term has taken on a universal character yet has refused to exist within the western and global dominant ideology. It’s an interesting exercise in semiosis, this particular framework of existence. Suddenly the other – in the most superficial and unsurprising manner – has been granted the opportunity to participate in a solution driven process to curb the crisis by the joining of hands. This idea shall be returned to as it was always the nature of a relationship or power dynamic, that is fraught in its existence.

A great example of this would be in the examination of the relationships in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot where we see Vladimir and Estragon as equals, but it is Pozzo and Lucky who illuminate the master-slave dynamic. But in this case, there’s a lack of ironic circularity in their exchange. Instead, there is a contemptuous strained acquiescence to their roles. Unlike the crisis of faith faced by Vladimir and Estragon, the unchanged power balance in this acceptance of Pozzo and Lucky is determined with fatalistic pessimism. 

This ‘new’ concept of crisis in the time of Covid-19 is a new exploration of technology heralding an invisible migration made possible by the crystallised preservation of the benevolent front facing imperial conquest. The digital migration, better known in South Africa as the rhetoric of the ever approaching Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is often invoked by technophobic South African politicians or ambitious Vice-Chancellors. Proprietary ownership is often taken for granted as a normalised form of exchange in contemporary ‘civilised’ society. The rapper Earl Sweatshirt, aka Thebe Kgositsile, son of the late South African poet laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile, recently had a public conversation with his mother, the critical race theorist academic and UCLA Law Professor Cheryl I. Harris. In their exchange, the concept of cryptocurrency was introduced to Harris, and her response was rather illuminating with regard to the issue of property. She premised her understanding of this concept in modern society on the enslavement of African people on the continent of America ­– that is, Humans, as property. It is therefore laughable that the idea of crisis should have such a grand stage at this point of human evolution. While the concept of crisis takes centre stage in the Western imperial psyche and its military industrial complex, othered sufferers simply accept that this has been the nature of the world since the industrialisation of Western hubris and its tradition of global military expansion. The scene of the fate of Pozzo and Lucky comes alive at this point.

Harris goes on to talk about this digital migration echoing the concept of the empire’s need to invisibilise itself. In the end labour is still being mined, therefore the concept of the generation of money via anonymous labour creates a moral and social chasm furthered by the need to distance the hands they serve (Harris, 2006). It is here that the liberal belief in humane expressions of industrial capitalism is allowed to escapemoral bankruptcy, in an understanding that its socio-political and economic exercise is anything but progressive in its practice of fair labour. It is a side stepping of cognitive dissonance. A perfect mode of technology hiding the sufferers, unlike the presence of material slaves in one’s house. The term crypto prefacing its economic descriptor should illustrate this idea rather clearly. Cryptocurrency is the new money towards which the world is moving. A completely digital resource with no material presence outside of its imaginary digital value.

The contradictory musings of Fanon and Hegel become quite interesting at this intersection of societal and class amnesia. Hegel’s misguided notion that there needs to be reciprocal recognition in a master-slave narrative (Hegel,1807) is not unlike a foolish belief in democratic capitalism as an answer to achieve global economic equality that might imbue dignity upon people on the receiving end of hegemonic ire. ‘For Hegel there is reciprocity; here the master laughs at the consciousness of the slave. What he wants from the slave is not recognition but work’ (Fanon, 1952: 220).

For black people who are in constant crisis, this new world remains in its modality. As labourers their world has experienced little change when it comes to new front facing terms of engagement – not unlike the concept of cryptocurrency. The outcome is always the same, Work. Crisis of external geopolitical curricula has little bearing on their focus to earn ways to live. This is Survival. While the panic spread in the suburbs, many lost their minds at the impending end of the world. But, and this is the proverbial kicker, the labour fields of townships and poor communities carried on right around a world that is unable to recognise that the concept of social distance was a threat to their daily bread.

This fatal pessimism shapes our lives. When the world sneezes it is us who are expected to provide it with a tissue. At its end, it is us who it expects to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of the nobility of humankind.

Therefore it is unsurprising that we would question:

‘What crisis?’

Surely, this is a concept only white people can afford.


Phumlani Pikoli is a South African based author and multidisciplinary artist. His most recent offerings were a multi-sensory exhibition based on his collection of short stories The Fatuous State of Severity, as well as his debut novel Born Freeloaders. He was born in Zimbabwe to exiled parents in 1988. Email: phumlani.pikoli@gmail.com  Twitter: @scoutgumbee

Feature image: Estevão Mucavele Maputo small size cultivated areas (1989) CC BY 2.0


Fanon, F. (1986) [1952], Black Skin, White Masks, Markman, C. (Trans.). London, Pluto Press.

Hegel, G.W.F. (1977) [1807], Phenomenology of Spirit. Miller, A. (Trans.), Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Harris, C. (1993), ‘Whiteness as Property’, Harvard Law Review, 106 (8), pp. 1707-91.

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