Reasons Behind the Violence Among Black South Africans


South Africa continues to reel from the violence among blacks that started in the Transvaal area-the central high plains around Johannesburg-last july and in the eastern coastal province of Natal almost five years ago.

It so permeates the black residential townships now that few bareas in the country go unaffected.The estimates run as high as 6,000 killed in the five years,almost 2,000 in the last year alone.And the tragedy is not just in the numbers but the brutality and the random nature that the violence has taken on.

It also is seriously threatening the negotiations proccess initiated more than a year ago by the government of South Africa and the major resistance group the African national congress (ANC).Should the violence remain unchecked there seems little hope that the negotiation proccess will get back on track.just as unlikely is any hope of a return of international investment and trade,even with the lifting of the sanctions,until some confidence in a stable future emerges.

The question that hovers over all of this-the answer to which remains ephemeral-is Why? Why are blacks fighting blacks in the first place? aren't their enemies white people and the white state? Why can't any one or all of the parties bring the violence under control? Whose interest does it serve to keep it going?

One reason the answeres are difficult for the American observer is that thay are complicated and varied,representing a mosaic of historical and present patterns of behavior and relationships.The violence itself is broken down on political lines primarily between followers of the ANC and those of the Zulu based Inkatha freedom Party.

In the last few years,particularly since the unbanning of the ANC in february 1990 and the release of the ANC leader Nelson Mandela these organizations have been allowed to compete with each other for political constituencies for the first time.

The first battle ground of rivalry was in Inkatha's back yard,natal where its followers lived and it operated.As it began to try to eliminate ANC supporters,open conflict developed.Then in 1990,inkatha bagan to move into the Transvaal and compete in an area that was considered primarily ANC territory.The violence escalated and broadened in scope.

Of course,the American observer will say,political rivalry need not mean killing and maiming.verbal abuse and figurative back-stabbing is one thing-often witnessed in our "civilized" society-but why literal stabbing?

Again,a complicated answer.Firstly,South africa is a society built and administered on principles of non-tolerance of opposing views.There is no"culture of democracy,"as Soth Africans are wont to say.And this intolerance has always taken the form of killing,detention,torture,exile and banning.It was even institutionalized in the laws and regulations of that land,It was white on black in the past.The scope may not have been so broad-possibly more targeted -but the means and intentions were much the same.

The violence is also a result of the very society in which blacks live, isolated and barren, removed from the city centers and bTC heaped one upon the other in a way that makes life squalid; until recently without rights of ownership or means for economic advancement, despairing for their children's futures; residing in communities bereft of normal societal control mechanisms like church, school, government or even family -- all purposely emasculated and discredited by white authorities in order to control those societies; and surrounded by the violence of gangs and migrant workers. All of these are the fruits of apartheid, making blacks unable physically to reach the "white world," and therefore turning their anger inward on their neighbors.

Black South Africans, still unable to vote and still excluded from the economic and political power axis, are using one of the few means at their disposal to carve out a piece of the action.

None of this makes blacks blameless. Their leaders have either chosen to allow the use of violence as a means for political control or are unable to control their followers.

The Inkatha party appears, from most eyewitness accounts and by all categorizing of the victims of the violence, to be the common initiator and the frequent victor. Mr. Mandela is quick to accept that the ANC is not always beatific, but he seems as unable as anyone else to either bring his followers under control or to work out with his rivals or the government a solution.

Inkatha's leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, while mouthing platitudes of peace to the public, is quick to incite his followers (normally in Zulu in the hopes that outside reporters will not understand) to defend their honor and that of their leaders, always taken as thinly disguised calls to arms by those followers.

Finally, there is some disturbing evidence in South Africa that a "third force" has come into play in instigating and sometimes perpetrating the violence. Unknown whites, clad in balaclavas, traveling in unmarked vehicles, have often been seen by reliable observers abducting blacks at random, giving logistical support to blacks as they perpetrate clashes, and even shooting and beating blacks in the course of township conflicts.

Charges persist in the community that these incidents represent anything from extreme right-wing whites joining the fray to policemen carrying out orders. Whoever they are, although they do not represent the root cause of violence, they certainly exacerbate and prolong it.

With all of this complicated interplay and background, there is still one other aspect to the violence that stands out dramatically. It seems as if the security forces of the country could bring it all under control if they wanted to, leaving the investigation and alleviation of its root causes to the politicians and social scientists. Whether or not they have been involved in perpetrating the violence, there is no doubt that the security forces at present stand back and allow it to happen. No wonder Mr. Mandela has focused his anger on President F. W. de Klerk and the police as opposed to Mr. Buthelezi, who is his actual rival.

In a country where the police and army totally controlled a population for 40 years -- the last 20 of which that population has been in an openly declared rebellion against them -- it seems unlikely they cannot now do so. When mines and AK-47s in the hands of trained combatants were turned directly against them, they had little trouble in tracking down the perpetrators, ferreting out the arms and apprehending whoever rose against them. They disdained the best efforts of the liberation movements. Now that street rabble is going against itself with knives and stones and homemade spears, these vaunted security forces cannot seem to do anything.

The police do not seem even to try to stop the violence. I have witnessed them standing by as Inkatha followers attack ANC followers. I have talked to dozens of South Africans and foreign reporters who have seen the same thing repeatedly and have even seen police escorting Inkatha members through hostile situations only to have them perpetrate an attack later.

Government and security forces spokespersons always deny these claims or say they can't control the situation because they are undermanned. In response to questions as to why Zulus (Inkatha supporters) were allowed to carry traditional weapons such as spears and knives, a police major told a reporter, "Would you like to take the spears away?" Certainly a few months ago he would have had no hesitation in intercepting an armed black man.

It is hard to believe, even among those observers who have always tried to present a balanced picture, that if the government wanted to control the violence -- whatever its causes and whoever was to blame -- it could not do so. This raises very disturbing and fundamental questions about the government's motivation.

It is unlikely that it wants to destroy the ANC, a charge that has been leveled at it, because it needs that organization as a negotiating partner. It is possible, of course, that the government wants to keep its potential rivals relatively weak, so they cannot dominate any post-apartheid governmental structure and would have to seek coalitions in order to govern, possibly with the current government party itself.

Probably more likely is a desire to sow dissension in the ranks so that the groups remain off-guard, uncertain of their constituencies, and more pliable in a negotiation process.

A further question is whether this is a policy emanating from the top -- a suggestion that President de Klerk vehemently dismisses -- or whether it reflects decisions or just patterns of ingrained behavior at a lower level. It is impossible to say. But the government needs to stop parrying those questions and take this situation under control before the violence tears that society apart and eliminates all hope of a negotiated, peaceful settlement for a democratic future.

Steve McDonald is associate director of the Southern africa Policy Forum of the Aspen Institute and editor of the Washington report on Africa.He recently returned from South Africa.

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