Paper presented at the 3rd Annual Qualitative Methods Conference: "Touch me I'm sick"
8 & 9 September 1997, University of South Africa Regional Office, Durban

How to beach without bumming:

The function of 'crowd' as a racist narrative

Sebastian Ruxton Potter &

Vaughan Myles Dutton

Psychology Department, University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg &

The bathing area of any typical beach is clearly demarcated by means of 2 flags, prominently situated and in high profile, indicating to bathers where they are allowed to swim. Swimming beyond the flags elicits a shrill whistle from the lifeguards on duty, who are there to ensure that bathers remain within the cordon, for their own safety, of course. Whilst not in the water, beach goers' behaviour is subject to a different kind of cordon - a cordon which exists abstractly and often invisibly within the constructions of society. In this context the lifeguards, flags and whistles are not as obvious and their function may not always be to ensure safety. To elucidate these mechanisms we analyzed 48 beachfront-related articles appearing in the leading Durban newspapers, The Mercury and the Daily News, during the most popular beach season, from 1 December 1996 to 31 January 1997. Using a discourse analytic methodology, this paper aims at documenting the crowd as an exclusionary category.

Weird events occurring in the period under analysis

"The combined SAPS and city police force will be backed up by an 80 strong armed reaction force from 44 Parachute Battalion" Daily News 30/12 97

"While Durban's beaches were packed by up to 60 000 locals... many popular beachfront businesses chose to keep their doors shut ... and Joe Kools even had barbed wire placed around its main entrance [with] a security guard on duty" Daily News 26/12/96

Literature Review

Recent research attention has focused on the role played by the mass media in the social construction of reality. Specifically, researchers following the neo-Marxist tradition have explored how the contents of mass media portrayals of events reinforce dominant ideologies (Adoni & Mane, 1984). These ideologies serve the function of legitimising the social order and maintaining the social status quo (ibid). Following the constructionist framework of placing the source of knowledge in, what Gergen (1985) terms, 'the process of social interchange' (p266), recent researchers have focused on the function of media representations of events involving ethnic minorities. It has been found that coverage of ethnic minorities in the past has taken two forms: on the one hand the media has denied ethnic minorities coverage, for instance van Dijk (1992) notes how little mention is made of their contribution to the economy; whereas on the other hand the media has often served to highlight, most frequently, their 'problems' (Hartman & Husband, 1974, cited in Van Dijk, 1992). Thus blacks, for instance, have frequently been portrayed in the media as being 'dishonest', 'lazy', 'parasitic', 'problematic', and a threat to social order and stability (cited in Norman, 1996). In the South African setting, Norman (1996), found that the representation of black people in the local press was one of a violent, unreasonable, not to be trusted, racist and child- like nation. This negative portrayal of blacks, or put differently, this construction of 'typical' black behaviour as socially undesirable, served the all important function of maintaining apartheid domination, and legitimating its state control. In the new South Africa however, this negative portrayal is less explicit: deeper analysis is required to reveal it persistence. Thus the aim of this paper is to explore how this negative portrayal of blacks functions on the beachfront.


Using a discourse analytic method, 48 beachfront-related articles appearing in the leading Durban newspapers, The Daily News and the Mercury during the most popular beach season, from the 1st December 1996 to the 31st January 1997, were analyzed.

The research presented here arises out of previous contact the authors had with these articles while preparing a discursive analytic paper for a class seminar. Then, only news reports of the Durban beachfront on New Year's Day were analyzed. Based on this analysis, it was decided to expand the sample size and include the whole of December preceding- and January following-, New Year's Day.

Analysis and Discussion

The "Apartheid model"

In the Apartheid era, discourses of undesirability and discourses of race existed alongside one another and overlapped to a considerable extent. This overlap constituted racist meta-narratives (see Figure 1).

Thus, it was possible to construct race and undesirability simultaneously. An example drawing on this racist meta-narrative would be the erection of "Whites Only" signs on beaches. In this instance, "whites" indicates the presence of racial discourse, and "only" makes it an exclusionary practice. The trace in this sign is that non-whites are not desired on the beach. Therefore, this construction unites "black" and "undesirable". It draws on discourses of undesirability and discourses of race and unites them in racist meta-narrative. Put differently, in the racist meta- narrative overlap (see Figure 1), the construction of a racial event would "automatically" invoke notions of undesirability; and the construction of an undesirable event would automatically invoke notions of race.

The "New South African Gap"

In the new South Africa this overlap between discourses of race and discourses of undesirability has been removed (see Figure 2).

The link has been broken and a "gap" exists between the two discourses. Although a textual extract would be the most methodologically desirable way of illustrating this point, this is not possible for the reason that both racist and non-racist meta-narratives pervade society. The extract's interpretation would therefore be dependant on the listener's discourse orientation at that point in time. This is most adequately demonstrated by pointing out that it is no longer socially acceptable, and in fact increasingly impossible to "automatically" invoke notions of undesirability with racial constructions, and vice versa.

In order to re-establish this overlap, various "discursive conduits" have been employed which "plug" the gaps between race and undesirability- the notion of "the crowd" being one such example- another, perhaps, being "the criminal" in the crime discourse with which we are all so familiar. In this way, the Apartheid order of things (racist meta-narrative) has been "re-created"- and camouflaged- in order to perpetuate its various functions.

So, in the beach scenario the "gap" has been plugged by the crowd. The crowd acts as the vital insert which draws the two discourses back together and allows the circuitry of meaning to be closed.

But why the crowd?

The crowd is the perfect conduit between discourses of undesirability and discourses of race because it contains elements of both.

The Crowd

Historically, notions such as unruliness, mob behaviour, destruction and irrationality have imbued the crowd with a great degree of undesirability. Durrheim (1995) states that traditional crowd theory performs a powerful function in "influencing" social constructions of the crowd. Thus, Le Bonian (Le Bon, 1966) notions of unruliness, inferior psychological functioning, social contagion and the crowd as exclusive agent; as well as deindividuation and anonymity (to mention just a few) have aided in the construction of the crowd as undesirable. Dutton (forthcoming) goes on to argue that this construction of the crowd as "undesirable" has been perpetuated in even the most recent crowd theory, although this bias is now hidden under a veneer of liberalism. The construction of "crowd", therefore, contains elements of undesirability. (See Figure 3 below).

These notions of the crowd are best illustrated in the following extracts:

(1) "An unruly mob gatecrashed the crowded Rachel Finlayson pool at Durban's beachfront, engaging in sex and drinking - and threatening to beat up holidaymakers." Daily News 27/12/96

(2) "One Amanzimtoti man,..., was threatened with assault by an angry crowd." Daily News 30/12/97

(3) "Phoenix police reservist Sgt. M. Govender,...said criminals and unruly mobs broke every rule in the book - and got away with it" Daily News 02/01/97

(4) "...a crime was being committed on Marine Parade every 30 seconds at the height of the celebrations..." Daily News 02/01/97

(5) "...the entire beachfront was under siege..." Daily News 09/01/97

(6) "The hordes of criminals and troublemakers, masquerading as New Year celebrating revellers..." Mercury 10/01/97

(7) "With muggings escalating, city officials are also keen to spread the crowds ... to make control easier" Daily News 30/12/96

Here we see the beachfront crowd being painted with broad Lebonian brushstrokes, that in any society would be an extremely undesirable entity. Indeed at the undesirable pole we see the crowd being 'an unruly mob', composed of 'hordes of criminals and troublemakers' enjoying 'gatecrashing', 'drinking', 'mugging', 'committing crimes', and 'assaulting people', to the extent that it is 'laying seige to the beachfront'.

The effects of all this undesirable crowd behaviour is summed up in a letter to the editor which likens what is happening on the beachfront to:

(8) "...a field of beautiful wheat being devoured by a swarm of locusts, leaving the land barren." Daily News 16/01/97

The Crowd as Black

Turning to the crowd as black, we see that abstractly, traditional crowd qualities such as homogeneity, threat, anonymity of members and deindividuation have been reflected in white perceptions of the black nation. An example of this would be the representation of the black nation as "Die Swart Gevaar", in which practices such as "States of Emergency", home searches, detention without trial (to mention only a few) were made possible. Consider the following textual examples of the crowd as black:

(9) "...some [of the crowd] began toyi-toying..." Daily News 27/12/96

(10) "There was not a non-black in sight..." Daily News 09/01/97

(11) FRONT PAGE PICTURE [of two black men who appear to be fighting]- "OUT OF HAND: onlookers crowd around as two men come to blows in one of the many incidents..." Daily News 02/01/97

(12) " squatters make their shelters in the dense bushes." Daily News 20/01/97

(13) "Beaches were also packed yesterday as busloads of visitors headed for them" Mercury 02/01/97

(14) "...two officers were pelted with empty cans and similar missiles [by the angry mob] when they approached...[an] offending taxi driver over excessively loud music..." Daily News 17/12/97

Thus we have the image of the crowd as obviously black.

Therefore, the reciprocal relationship between "black" and "the crowd" can be and is, established. Also, due to the Apartheid-era white perception of black strategies of resistance, such as collective action, the crowd is understood as being a black (racial) phenomenon (see Figure 3 above).

Thus, the crowd on the Durban beachfront fits snugly between the two, previously separated, narratives (see Figure 4). Once in place, this allows racial discourse to be united with discourses of undesirability under the veneer of "the crowd". In this way, the despicable blatancy with which these two discourses interact is no longer obvious. Conduction between the two is obscured by the insulation of "the crowd".

Returning to the so-called "weird events" mentioned above:

(15) "The combined SAPS and city police force will be backed up by an 80 strong armed reaction force from 44 Parachute Battalion" Daily News 30/12 97

(16) "While Durban's beaches were packed by up to 60 000 locals... many popular beachfront businesses chose to keep their doors shut ... and Joe Kools even had barbed wire placed around its main entrance [with] a security guard on duty" Daily News 26/12/96

These are events which betray the function of the "crowd conduit". The function of the crowd conduit is to lay a veneer of legitimacy over the underlying racist structure. The "weird events" can be seen beneath this veneer. Although these events are parts of the "plug" which unites the discourses, they are products too overwhelmingly racist to be camouflaged by the new veneer of the crowd. More precisely, these events represent the incongruencies between racist-meta narrative and the substitute crowd discourse. The two polar discourses keep them in place. Thus, "weird" instances such as these are instances which are isolated from their modular context. They appear "weird" because the continuity necessary to maintain the unholy alliance between the conduit and its two discourses is deconstructed. The blatancy of the plugged gap is revealed. As new South Africans, we are shocked and confused by its existence. Without one of these three discursive elements, meaning crumbles like an archway without its keystone.


Adoni, H. & Mane, S. (1984). Media and the social construction of reality: Toward an integration of theory and research. Communication Research, 11, 3, 323-340.

Durrheim, K. (1995). Crowd psychology and social control. Unpublished manuscript. University of Cape Town.

Le Bon, G. (1966). Crowd: A study of the popular mind. New York: Viking/ Compass.

Gergen, K.J. (1985). The social constructionist movement in modern psychology. American Psychologist, 40, 266- 275.

Norman, D. (1996). Discourses on public violence and the reproduction of racism. South African Journal of Psychology, 26, 3, 172-182.

Van Dijk, T.A. (1992). Discourse and the denial of racism. Discourse and Society, 3, 1, 87-118.

Sebastian Potter is currently doing his honours in Psychology at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg. He will continue next year with a Masters in Clinical Psychology at the same University. A current interest is the applicability of the contact hypothesis to the classroom, especially cooperative learning strategies.

Vaughan Dutton is currently doing his honours in Psychology at the University of Natal, Pietermartizburg. He will hopefully continue next year with a Masters in Research Psychology at the same University. Other projects include research on crowd management, and governmentality in Liberal Democracies.

Paper presented at the 3rd Annual Qualitative Methods Conference: "Touch me I'm sick"
8 & 9 September 1997, University of South Africa Regional Office, Durban
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