Looking for Black Hamlet - A Secret History of Madness in Southern Africa, 2005

A project by Jose Ferreira and James Sey. This project has transformed over time, inspired by the acquisition of new material and research. The project is proposed as a multi-layered, interdisciplinary set of activities that include a living, traveling archive, a film, publication, and various exhibitions. 

Project Synopsis

In 1937, Wulf Sachs, an urbane and cultivated Lithuanian Jew who was co-founder of the first Psychoanalytic Institute of South Africa, published his benchmark psychoanalytic study of the Zimbabwean born, Johannesburg based diviner healer, John Chavafambira. He called the book Black Hamlet, since at the heart of the case, is Chavafambira’s characteristic regressive indeterminacy which would be typified as a "Hamlet complex" by Ernst Jones and others. At the heart of the study, though, is a key question: is mental illness the same for blacks and whites?

At the time, South Africa already had a well developed policy of segregationism, one which was underpinned by a widely propagated belief in eugenics and theories of degeneration and criminality associated with race. Medical discourses and theory acted in concert with political and economic separatism, then already prevalent, which would culminate in the institutionalized forms of "separate development" and apartheid. 
The medico-legal discourses which underpin the belief in a degenerative physical and psychological typology for blacks had been evident throughout Europe for at least a century. For instance, the belief in deviant black sexuality, emblematized by the famous case of Sarah Baartman, the "Hottentot Venus". As Sander Gilman puts it: 
The female genitalia [generally] were of interest in examining the various pathologies that could befall them, but they were also of interest because they came to define the sum of the [black] female for the 19th century. When a specimen was to be preserved for an anatomical Museum, more often than not the specimen was seen as a pathological summary of the entire individual. Thus, the skeleton of a giant or a dwarf represented “giantism” or “dwarfism,” the head of a criminal, the act of execution which labeled him as “criminal”. Sarah Baartman's genitalia and buttocks summarized her essence for the 19th century observer as indeed they continue to do for 20th century observers. (1985, p. 88) 

He points here to the continuity in eugenic discourses between the attributes of the body and the psychological type, a [synechdochal] relationship which serves as a pseudo-scientific underpinning for medico-legal discourses which produce different kinds of mental illness for dominant and subordinate populations from the same causal origins. 
Foucault, in his lectures collected in the volume Abnormal, traces these discourses to a mutation in the form of power and knowledge in the modern era, which is of a fundamentally spatial character. In tracing the shift in European societies from medical models of exclusion to those of inclusion, Foucault uses the emblem of the shift from medical models of leprosy to those of the plague. In older societies, lepers were excluded from society, both literally and symbolically, cast out to the notorious outsider "colonies" in a diseased mirror image of the colonial empires of the European powers of the nineteenth century. This model is gradually replaced by that of the plague. Here, those afflicted are contained within a quarantined sector of the community, where movement in and out is strictly controlled, and the behavior of plague victims is also closely monitored. As a result, power begins to be used in the mode of productive "governmentality" which, for Foucault, characterizes modern identity formation and organisations of power/knowledge. The mode of governmentality produces subjects whose modes of normal mental and physical functioning, as well as their pathological departures from such discourses and practices, are intensely observed and documented by forms of institutional power and knowledge. These subjects who enjoined to police themselves, to limit themselves to a set of spatial, physical, and psychological coordinates set out in advance by power itself. In the case of successive South African power structures in the 20th century, culminating in institutional apartheid, forms of pathology are conceived of in both modes, those of inclusion and exclusion. 

The process of collation and taxonomy of material for a "Living archive" 
Institutional psychiatric medical practice had begun in South Africa with the establishment of a small hospital in Cape Town to cater specifically for mentally deranged persons. In 1846, the famous prison colony on Robben Island was converted into a hospital for lepers, lunatics and other chronically ill patients. By 1912, the Robben Island Infirmary housed 500 mental patients. Around this period, several other "lunatic asylums" were built, ensuring that mentally ill patients were largely isolated from the community. From the beginning, these facilities were racially segregated. Over the decades, regimes of treatment and programmes for rehabilitation rarely reached the majority black population. Instead they were separated out into largely carceral institutions, which often functioned as camps for lepers, tuberculosis sufferers, and victims of other dreaded diseases.

That such spaces were not really designed to treat and rehabilitate victims of psychopathologies is discussed by Tiffany Jones, who, in a recent essay entitled "Monopoly on Madness" (2003) uncovers the history of the Smith Mitchell company. She describes the way in which the company began operations in the 1960s, in collusion with the apartheid government, to move the majority of black mental health care patients into designated rural facilities, in order that state funds and resources might be concentrated on urban facilities for white patients. By the 1980s, the company housed almost half of all black mental patients in the country. Highly profitable through a state subsidy system and the awarding of tendered contracts to provide beds and services, the company slashed costs and maximised profits (much of which went to Nationalist government ministers and MPs who sat on the board of the group of companies), by the simple expedient of not providing adequate facilities for patients. The locations themselves were barely converted, abandoned mine workers’ hostels in semi-rural or rural areas, often with limited sanitation and water facilities, and the patients slept on hard palettes. Medical care was rudimentary, with very few qualified nursing staff, and "therapy" often limited to the manufacture of toys and other craft goods, which were sold commercially, the takings going to the hospital.

From a physical, spatial point of view, the idea of a racially specific area of the country was woven into the developmental fabric from the beginnings of urbanisation when gold was discovered in the nineteenth century. This policy was summarized, long before the high apartheid era, by the Stallard Commission into land use policy (1921): "The native should only be allowed to enter urban areas, which are essentially the white man’s creation, when he is willing to enter and to minister to the needs of the white man, and should depart there from when he ceases so to minister". 

-  James Sey, jsey@mweb.co.za

Project archive

The following are photographs of ten ministers of the Apartheid government who went to the Hague in 1965, to lobby for a region that was known at the time as South West Africa. This was a an ex-German colony bordering South Africa, which they sought to appropri- ate as part of the Apartheid expansionist project. It was to be incorporated and structured into a township. They were unsuccessful in getting support for the project, and the country, now Namiba, became independent in 1990.

© 2014 Looking for Black Hamlet Project

Notes on the Photographs

Transcripts from documentation accompanying the Photographs.

Mr G. van R. Muller, S.C.

Member of the team of legal representatives for the Government, at the Oral Proceedings in the case against the Government of the Republic of South Africa relating to South West Africa, before the International Court of Justice at The Hague, 15th March, 1965.

Professor J. P. Verloren van Themaat

Agent for the Government, at the Oral Proceedings in the case against the Government of the Republic of South Africa relating to South West Africa, before the International Court of Justice, at The Hague, 15th March, 1965.

Mr R. McGregor

Agent for the Government, at the Oral Proceedings in the case against the Government of the Republic of South Africa relating to South West Africa, before the International Court of Justice at The Hague, 15th March, 1965.

Dr. H, J, O. van Heerden

Member of the team of legal representatives for the Government, at the Oral Proceedings in the case against the Government of the Republic of South Africa relating to South West Africa, before the International Court of Justice at The Hague, 15th March, 1965.

Mr E. M. Grosskopf

Member of the team of legal representatives for the Government at the Oral Proceedings in the case against the Government of the Republic of South Africa relating to South West Africa, before the International Court of Justice at The Hague, 15th March, 1965.

Mr H. Heese

Representative of the Department of Foreign Affairs, at the Oral Proceedings in the South West African case before the International Court of Justice at The Hague, 15th March, 1965.

Dr P. J. Rabie, S.C.

Member of the team of legal representatives for the Government, at the Oral Proceedings in the case against the Government of the Republic of South Africa relating to South West Africa, before the International Court of Justice at The Hague, 15th March, 1965.

Mr R. F. Botha

Representative of the Department of Foreign Affairs, at theOral Proceedings in the South West Africa case before the International Court of Justice at The Hague, 15th March, 1965.

Mr P. D. de Villiers, S.C.

Leader of the team of legal representatives for the Government, at the Oral Proceedings in the case against the Government of the Republic of South Africa relating to South WestAfrica, before the International Court of Justice at The Hague, 15th March, 1965.

Mr H. J. Allen

Representative of the Department of Bantu Administration and Development at the Oral Proceedings in the South West Africa case before the International Court of Justice at The Hague, 15th March, 1965.