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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Variants of violence in South Africa

Dr. R.D'A. Henderson

December 1990


Editors Note:

This is the second of a three-part series on events in South Africa, by Dr. R.D'A. Henderson, a Strategic Analyst in the Analysis and Production Branch (RAP) of CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service).

Disclaimer: Publication of an article in the COMMENTARY series does not imply CSIS authentication of the information nor CSIS endorsement of the author's views.

As one South African journalist warned recently, "the accelerating slide into endemic violence in South Africa is beginning to follow the same pattern as it did elsewhere in Africa ... a vortex of civil conflict" [The Star Weekly, Johannesburg 3 October 1990].


Despite President F.W. de Klerk's 2 February 1990 speech cancelling the ban on a number of extra parliamentary political organizations, including the African National Congress (ANC), violence has continued throughout South Africa. So far, his attempts to normalize the country's political system have led to competing political expectations and violence among blacks, while his perspective on "law and order" has not reassured a substantial portion of the white population.

Within de Klerk's reformist interpretation, "law and order" is seen primarily as seeking to guarantee the physical security of the white population (including Afrikaaner culture) during the period of transition to a "new political dispensation" in the country [see Commentary, #5, August 1990]. Nonetheless, there is continuing support from conservative and extremist whites for the traditional interpretation of "law and order" as the retention and maintenance of white rule and privilege. Many among both Afrikaans and English speaking whites continue to seek reassurance from more extremist groupings who openly support the traditional perspective, which had been adhered to by all the previous Nationalist Party (NP) governments since 1948.

Further, de Klerk remains politically vulnerable to charges from several quarters that he is not prepared to use fully his state instruments of control-government security forces, including the South African Defense Force (SADF)-to bring an end to political violence. Under his predecessor, P.W. Botha, a state of emergency for the country had been declared in June 1986 and reviewed yearly-an action widely seen as a direct policy implementation of the traditional interpretation of "of law and order". But the emergency powers granted to the government security forces apparently did little to stem the mounting violence in South Africa as a whole: since 1986, 4000 deaths-almost all black South Africans-could be attributed to "political violence" by the time de Klerk assumed office in August 1989. The majority of those deaths occurred in black-on-black factional fighting in Natal.

In the exclusive NP government/ANC "talks about talks" on a new political system for South Africa and on ending the continuous violence, de Klerk gained a major although largely symbolic concession when, surprisingly, the ANC agreed at least temporarily to "suspending all armed actions and related activities". In the joint Pretoria Minute of 6 August 1990, Deputy President Nelson Mandela and his negotiating team in effect pledged the ANC and its military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe [Spear of the Nation - MK] to end the so-called armed struggle. In pursuit of the ANC's declared "armed propaganda" strategy, MK units had been periodically conducting high-profile acts of violence to focus domestic and international attention upon its struggle for political rights.

But violence, particularly among blacks, has continued in various forms. At least nine types of violence or unrest [see insert next page] are currently observable. The chances of success for de Klerk's "law and order" efforts to control some or all of the violence will, to a large degree, depend upon the origins and major perpetrators of each type.


As de Klerk stated in his June 7 parliamentary speech announcing the end of the government's emergency powers except in Natal, "the process of normalization [since February 2] ... has been accompanied by dangerously rising expectations and by an increase in violence, particularly in Natal".

The response of the de Klerk government had been to deploy SADF counter-insurgency forces in April to Natal to assist the SAP units in maintaining the "peace". However, while the level of violence in Natal dropped, it flared up around the migrant workers' hostels and the African townships on the Witwatersrand ("the Rand") surrounding Johannesburg, resulting in a further 800 deaths during August and September. With the reduced violence in Natal, the state of emergency was lifted on October 18, although several African townships on the Rand were designated as "unrest areas" where emergency powers are enforced due to the factional fighting there.

Although the catalyst for the sharp escalation in violence in 1990 was undoubtedly the expectations generated by de Klerk's February "normalization" speech, the stimulus for the spreading violence-from the Natal Midlands and around Durban to the Rand townships around Johannesburg-has been traced to a variety of roots. Each of these origins derives its support from one of the partisan groupings. One source of the spreading violence has been seen as a spill-over of the struggle within Natal between the conflicting political and economic ideologies of the members of the Zulu cultural association Inkatha and the ANC supporters and their allies, particularly the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). This view suggests that it was this competition for new supporters which spread the indiscriminate killings in the Natal Midlands onto the Rand as the "township war".

Another view argues that the violence originated as the result of an intra-ethnic conflict between traditional Inkatha Zulus against both radical and moderate Zulus who support the perceived Xhosi-led ANC alliance of anti-government groups-to some extent, a generational as well as urban/rural split. And, when the ANC/UDF/COSATU supporters called for a campaign to undermine the authority of the Inkatha leader and kwaZulu homeland minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi, Zulu migrant workers on the Rand were incited to attack pro-ANC "comrades" in the nearby townships as well as non-Zulus in the workers' hostels.

A third view is that the killings are basically a vicious spiral of violence between two rival groupings-Inkatha "warlords" vs. pro-ANC "comrades"-competing in their particular region for control of the "scarce essentials of life", namely land, jobs and social services. Local human rights monitors concur that, by the middle of 1990, the fighting in Natal had entered "a cycle of uncontrollable feuding, revenge attacks and banditry which often has little to do with politics" [Reuters, 29 May 1990]. In this view, economic benefits and vengeance are seen as more important than ideologies and slogans.

Most observers trace the origins of the present violence to decades of apartheid policies which have both shaped and restricted the lives of the country's black, white, coloured [mixed race] and Asian populations. Each of these views, as well as others, partly characterizes the escalation and spread of the violence, although none by itself provides a complete explanation. Nor is the extremist white view-that the black-on-black killings are further evidence of the ethnic violence waiting to "boil over" once the present white-dominated political system is removed-an adequate explanation for the complexity of the situation.


(Order of magnitude)

1. Communal violence, such as black-on-black territorial, associational or factional fighting in Natal and on the Rand-Zulu vs. Zulu and Zulu vs. Xhosi and other ethnic groups.

2 . "Ghetto" violence, or common criminal violence, such as murder, robbery, rape, etc., by tsotsis or ordinary thugs in African townships, central business districts, and to a lesser degree in white, Asian and "coloured" (mixed) residential areas.

3 . Anti-state violence, in which pro-liberation struggle 'comrades' and com-tsotsis gangs attack state authorities and their perceived non-white (primarily black) "collaborators", such as township councilors, policemen, teachers, local administrators, businessmen, as well as black homeland leaders.

4 . Institutional violence, where government security forces employ force against an ethnic community, such as SAP unrest units firing on demonstrators in African townships and attacking marchers in urban centres as well as the activities of alleged government death squads.

5 . Inter-ethnic violence, where members of one ethnic group attack or intimidate members of another ethnic group, such as white "vigilantes" (basically thugs) attacking blacks in small towns or dorps like Welcom (white-on-black) or black ones attacking residents in Indian communities in Natal (black-on-Asian).

6 . Urban terrorism, where extremist groups-white and black-conduct acts of assassination, bombing, and intimidation against nationals for political motives.

7 . Multi or medicine murders, which are traditional killings related to ritual medicines or murders of individuals suspected of witchcraft, usually in rural African homelands but increasingly linked to some factional killings in urban townships.

8 . Cross-border violence: acts of violence perpetrated across the borders of South Africa, whether targeted from South Africa into a neighbouring state, from a neighbouring state into South Africa, or from a so-called independent homeland into the rest of South Africa.

9 . Violent targeting of foreign interests: acts of violence aimed at foreign diplomats, citizens, or companies within South Africa as well as acts of violence overseas perpetrated with the intent to internationalize the transition struggle within South Africa.


Basically, violence is becoming increasingly endemic in the country as a whole. None of the variants is mutually exclusive; rather, they tend to have more than one cause and more than one group as perpetrators. It is the tendency of the various types of violence and their perpetrators to overlap which produces the complexity of the present crisis situation in South Africa.

For example, Zulu impis [groups of armed warriors] in Natal have on differing occasions attacked rival Zulu clans, pro-ANC "comrades" (supporters) and township residents, foreign black migrant workers, and even an Indian residential community. Similarly, in the other three provinces but particularly in the Rand area of the Transvaal, there have been concurrently factional fighting between pro-Inkatha migrant workers and both local "comrades" and township residents, fire-bombings of township police stations, SAP shootings of protesting African demonstrators, renewed acts by "comrades" of "necklacing" [to ignite a petrol-filled tire] of individuals suspected of police collaboration, fatal beatings of Africans by white "vigilante" groups, indiscriminate killings by undermined perpetrators-the so-called "sinister third force"-on black commuter systems as well as growing criminal and "cult" violence.

Another factor which has enhanced the magnitude of the violence is the growing number of illegal guns, particularly the AK-47 assault rifle, and explosive devices; these are in addition to the 3.5 million firearms licensed to whites in the country. Since de Klerk's 19 September 1990 announcement of an amnesty for illegal arms and explosives, over 5000 illegal weapons had been handed over as of early November, the majority by whites, although it included only 10 "traditional terrorist type weapons" (assault rifles or sub-machine guns).

Smuggled into South Africa from Mozambique for sale on the local black market for about 800 Rand (Cdn. $400), the AK-47s have now become the "weapon of choice" for criminal gangs {The Guardian, 4 Jan. 1991]. To crack down on the illegal weapons, the Minister of Law and Order, Adriaan Vlok, announced substantial rewards on unlicensed firearms: 6000 Rand in the case of an AK-47. Recent media reports have suggested that black political factions have begun hiring tsotsis (or thugs) gangs in the townships to commit communal violence on their behalf.


Whether the violence in Natal, the Rand area and elsewhere will continue to rise can only be determined on the basis of the origins of each and the degree to which each source of violence is controllable, if at all. But each type can be traced as originating from either societal problems or politically motivated conflicts:

Societal violence includes those acts of violence and crime emerging from enforcement of apartheid policies, depressed urban township life, rural homelands poverty, substantial income gaps between rich and poor (further accentuated by racial restrictions), personal and class feuds, suppressed ethnic competition (due to government-sponsored divide-and-rule ethnic policies), migratory labour and hostel systems, divided families, and multi (witchcraft) practices.

Politically motivated violence includes acts of intimidation and violence resulting from competing claims over land, jobs, resources and "popular power" (local power) and the willingness of opposing groups to employ violence to achieve their goals.

During the transition period toward a "new political dispensation", the incidence of those variants of violence which have societal origins, including criminal violence, will remain high as they can be reduced only by substantial socio-economic improvement to all strata of the South African society. Such incremental improvement will have to extend well into the post-transition period, although in his 18 December Year End address to the nation, de Klerk pointed to the establishment of a three billion Rand [Cdn. $1.5 billion] fund "to approach socio-economic problems".

Alternatively, those variants which are politically motivated will require greater law and order to be imposed by government controlled security forces-including possibly the assistance of supportive non-government security forces-to ensure the physical security of all south Africans. Only by such a strong enforcement of law and order would it be possible to ensure the essential continuation of a "peaceful climate" for negotiating the post-apartheid political system and economic structures.

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