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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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

The Police And The Violence In South Africa

In 1992, forty-four people were murdered every day in South Africa1. In the years since State President F W De Klerk made his dramatic reform announcement, more than eight South Africans have died daily as a result of political violence2. The lack of effective police action to contain, prevent, or investigate violence has exacerbated the already dire state of police-community relations.

"The overwhelming message received by Amnesty International's representatives in the townships and squatter camps was one of enormous frustration, anger and fear. The residents felt unprotected from murderous attacks against them in their homes and while commuting to and from work... The residents saw the police as indifferent and unresponsive when they went to them for assistance. They saw the police, as of old, as hostile and biased. They viewed with bitterness and cynicism the failure of the police to catch killers or act against mobs of heavily armed men moving about the streets with impunity. .. The anger at the lack of even-handedness by the police was compounded by the occasions when residents saw the police as actively colluding with their attackers3."

Popular mistrust of the police lies at the heart of the problem of police reform. The police struggle to investigate and prevent violent crime and political unrest without the co-operation of the black community. The community are unwilling to engage with the existing police force until radical reforms have taken place. Although the South African Police (SAP) have taken some tentative steps along the path of reform, these are still regarded with suspicion because they emanate from an institution which is still directly controlled by the Nationalist Party. The likelihood of some form of multi-party interim government will expedite the process of police reform and lend credibility to the police agencies themselves, who are a crucial interface between state and civil society, particularly in regions which are wracked by conflict.

In order to be able to fully interpret the SAP response to the violence, it is necessary to understand something of the nature of the violence.


Like many societies undergoing a change from repressive, authoritarian government to a more democratic form, the transition in South Africa is marked by extreme social conflict and violence.

Current violence in South Africa is undoubtedly the legacy of colonialism and apartheid, but more particularly of a highly militarised state and civil society. Massive dislocation caused by decades of social engineering under apartheid and the rapid pace of early political reform have resulted in chronic social instability. Extreme poverty, racial and ethnic division, and a culture of political intolerance increase the potential for long-term conflict.

(i) Self-Help War

The notion of a "culture of violence" has gained credence in South Africa as an explanation for current rates of political and criminal conflict. However, this concept is limited by its frequent association with racial and ethnic labels, and its anthropological origins in applicability to small or localised communities.

With such a thoroughly militarised history, the notion of a "self-help war system" may be more appropriate in the South African context. This concept describes "a set of social and political relationships in which participants assume and expect that violence is likely to be used to settle conflicts with other groups, and among hostile factions in their midst.4

There is no doubt that violence is socially sanctioned in South Africa, both as a mechanism for resolving disputes and for bringing about change. Both Colonial and Apartheid regimes used violence and repression to maintain power and some degree of social order. And, on the other hand, opposition movements resorted to violent tactics5 as a means to attain political change. Such oppositional violence was not confined to the "armed struggle" but came to be associated with other, ostensibly non-violent, tactics, such as consumer boycotts and strikes. This was particularly the case when opposition organisations were denied any formal or legal avenues for action. The association between political frustration and the justifiable use of violence is undoubtedly still present in many political campaigns in South Africa - for example in the rhetoric of the far-right wing Afrikaner parties and the Azanian Peoples' Liberation Army. Forms of state violence such as death squads continue to be used to assassinate local political leaders. The war in the townships is far from over.

(ii) Internal Militarization

"In many respects, the legalisation of the previously banned political movements has replaced the 'externalised enemy' with an 'enemy within'. The consequence seems to have been a more introverted form of politics, with the central political problem being how to maintain stability in the midst of this politics of transition. Accordingly, the country has seemed to turn in on itself, tearing at its own bowels"6.

The symbolism of enemies and threats continues to dominate civil discourses7 as well as political discourses. This was recognised by Judge Kriegler in his judgement in the case heard at the Rand Supreme Court between police General Lothar Neethling and two newspapers, when he "took into account the context of the undeclared war in the 1980's, a situation in which people were encouraged to do everything in their power to act against 'the enemy'8". The traditional enemy, which was previously an externalised threat (the "Rooi Gevaar" and the "Swart Gevaar9), is now visibly internal - the unbanned liberation movements and the threat they represent to white domination. This is reinforced by an atavistic vision of 'violent black hordes' which has serviced a racist and repressive approach to crime control and policing.

In the recent period, this internal militarisation has been manifested in a marked increase in political assassinations, particularly of activist members of the African National Congress (ANC). It is also characterised by the development of a set of "sub-economies" which depend on, and provide for, the material reproduction of violence. The police are not seen to be dealing effectively with either of these features of the violence.

(iii) "Ordinary violence"

The bulk of reported violence in South Africa at this time is violence which is located within social arenas apparently removed from the "political" sphere. Inasmuch as any violence can be said to be non-political10, soaring rates of "ordinary crime" and violence are also key features of the transitional period. In the social upheaval and instability which characterise transition, overtly "political" (which is popularly understood to mean some association with formal or party politics) violence is accompanied by other forms of social violence. hl particular, we observe that much of this "non-political" violence is directed at the powerless - women, children and the aged. The policing of "ordinary crime" in South Africa has been as political,11 and as ineffectual, as the policing of "political" disorder. The crisis in policing is perhaps demonstrated more clearly by the rising rates of reported crime and associated "moral panics" about crime than by the extent of political disorder.

The "increase in violent crime" may itself be the result of changes in the social construction of crime statistics. Reporting rates are probably also higher in the post-1990 period than at any point in the preceding two decades. More interpersonal violence may be reported, and the forms of violence may be changing, but South Africa has always been an extremely violent society. The relaxing of military control and repression may have created the space for different forms of violence, and the demise of the spectre of the "total onslaught" may have given South African the opportunity to view other "non-political" social realities, such as crime. The "higher crime rate" might also implies a major problem of police ineffectiveness in relation to crime prevention and clear-up rates.


According to du Toit, violence and its cognate terms are prime examples of essentially contested concepts - concepts which essentially involve endless disputes about their proper uses on the part of the users12. Even within one discourse (the police discourse) these contradictions and the fruitless quest for a neutral explanation of violence are visible. Police "ways of seeing" violence are numerous, complex and fluid.

It is argued that part of the reason for the SAP's ineffective handling of conflict and violence lies in its law-and-order discourse which cannot make sense of the world outside of the traditional framework of "Total Onslaught".

Some of the ways13 that police see violence are outlined below:

(i) Violence as the link between politics and crime

"The Nationalist government has attempted to use the established legal process to delegitimate its real opposition, namely the popular extra-parliamentary organisations, by criminalising its programmes and presenting resistance as senseless violence perpetuated by people who have no commitment to civilised standards 14".

It has already been argued that, under apartheid, crime was invariably seen as politically motivated, and political activity seen as criminal. This was justified under a set of laws which criminalised much political activity. The divide between "violent" and "non-violent" became crucial in ordering political relationships, as is evidenced in this quote from President P W Botha's offer of conditional release to Nelson Mandela in 1987:

"No black leader or person is jailed in South Africa because he differs from the Government on political matters. I am not closing the door on any organisation, I am closing the door on violence15".

The attempt to legitimate only "non-violent" political activity was closely linked to the attempt to legitimate the tri-cameral parliament and the minority parties which participated in it. To outlaw oppositional political activity, even non-violent acts were labelled as violent, through association with "intimidationi16.

In this context, "violent" becomes a term of censure, and a means of dividing "the good" from "the bad". This is made possible by a political discourse which denies state violence. Violence can only be an effective political and legal censure if the state can wield the censure and, at the same time, be immune to it. Likewise, "intimidation" is affixed a moral and political censure, with the state taking no responsibility for having created a climate of political intolerance or for its own history of intimidatory methods.

(ii) Public violence and State violence

A key features of police perceptions of violence is that violence is what people "out there" do to each other. This relates to that characteristic feature of police culture which is the isolation of the police as an enclave separate from the rest of society. It also relates to the police's suspicion and value-judgements about civilians.

The separation and differentiation of the police from society means that police violence does not have to be interpreted in the same way as social violence. Police action is not seen as violent; rather it is seen as a necessary and legitimate form of action in defence of law and order.

During the States of Emergency, social disorders were termed "public violence". (The term itself defines "the problem" by making state violence invisible). Such disorders were dealt with by a range of repressive policing tactics, such as aggressive riot control and mass detentions. Since the lifting of the State of Emergency in 1990, these tactics are no longer sanctioned, although there are many within the police force who would still see them as the only appropriate tactics for policing current township disorder. The predominance of this discourse is also reflected in many establishment criticisms of the policing of current violence, which ask why the police could contain "unrest" effectively during the 1980's, yet fail to do at present, and implicitly suggest a return to repressive policing.

(iii) Black-on-Black violence - racist and ethnic explanations

For hundreds of years, conflict within the black community was described in colonial terms as "tribal" conflict. This type of explanation was then used to justify paternalistic and coercive methods of social control. It still forms the basis for much of the police discourse around current violence, and justifies differential policing strategies in black and in white communities.

There has been a marked shift in official explanations of the violence in the recent period of reform. During the last years of the Botha government, endemic violence in the Natal province was described as "black-on-black" violence. This description was assigned historical justification by reference to "tribal" or "faction" fights.

"Faction fights have always been a part of the Zulu lifestyle. The reasons for the feuds are lost in antiquity, but it is considered an honourable tradition to carry on a vendetta from one generation to the next. Faction fights have no political connotations. They start without warning as a result of some provocative action or remark....

To date the (SAP Firearms) squad has confiscated approximately 10 000 firearms since its establishment in 1949. One shudders to think what damage the Zulus might have done to themselves had all these weapons remained in their hands.17"

Two particular features of the term "black-on-black violence" require elaboration: Firstly, the racism inherent in the label. Not only was it an unusual way of referring to a large-scale war - no-one refers to the war in Bosnia as "white-on-white violence"- but it implies that such violence is particular to, and more acceptable in, black communities. Secondly, it removes white society and the apartheid state from any relationship to the violence. Subsequent rises in general levels of violence in South Africa, and evidence of state involvement in the violence should have shaken both these assumptions, but they still predominate in explanations of violence in South Africa.

Labels such as "black-on-black violence" contain a strong element of moral censure, and indicate that censure of violence in the current period contains elements of previous censures of political violence. The essence is racist - a censure of the behaviour of black people. The history of apartheid gives this censure its ideological connotation and political context. Although their rhetorical forms might have become more sophisticated, police versions of the violence continue to rely on racial stereotypes. And if violence is seen as a problem that is both "natural" and particular to black communities, the police can again justify inactivity and ineffective methods.

(iv) Violence is a political problem, not a police problem

Given that "public violence" and crime are seen in profoundly political terns, it is not surprising that the SAP (and other parties18) have seen current transitional violence primarily in terms of a conflict between political groups. Overtly "political" violence is understandable within the apartheid worldview. The discourse of war and opponents is familiar.

However, the political explanation of the violence presents the police with two dilemmas - firstly that the police are not seen as part of the solution to the violence; and secondly that the specific politics of the violence are not the politics on which the discourse of policing was based. Now that the violence is internecine and more broadly "criminal", rather than directed at the State, policing is no longer only a question of defence of white power.

Official versions present the conflict as a "political" problem, which is the responsibility of the politicians and the political parties, rather than the police. The editorial of the SAP magazine "Servamus", which plays an educative role for members of the force, describes the violence as follows:

"Black townships have become battlefields. Day after day black people are killed or injured in an unabating wave of violence. Human life has become cheap, an expendable commodity in a ruthless quest for political power and supremacy. The battle is principally between two political groupings. While the leaders publicly voice their commitment to peace, their followers kill each other in relentless attacks and revenge-attacks, creating a vicious circle. Despite talks between leaders and appeals to their followers to cease the violence, this has not transpired. It would appear that the leaders do not have any control of their followers or of the situation.19"

Seeing the violence as a conflict between two political parties is a development of the "faction-fight" version of social violence20. It is also congruent with paternalistic and racist views of what black people "are like", which, in turn, justifies differential styles of policing for black people.


The view of violence as a political problem implies that there is a political solution. However, it is obvious that violence will not diminish magically when a democratic political settlement is eventually reached. In fact, the violence at this time is fundamentally linked to the negotiation process21".

The fact that political parties in South Africa have chosen to embark on the road to negotiations implies that the transition is intended to be formally non-violent. However, the extreme violence of the past eighteen months has halted the negotiation process. The resultant concern about the future of the constitutional negotiations led to the creation of a "National Peace Accord". Significantly, violence was the catalyst for the first substantive negotiated agreement between the major political players. No less significant is the fact that the Accord was reached through the efforts of groups in civil society (as a result of the failure of similar state initiatives) such as church and business leaders. It also forced acknowledgement that the SA Police are a central player in the violence, and introduced limited police reform22. The necessity for the police force to be seen to be dealing effectively with the violence is thus already directly linked to the necessity for liberalisation of the security system.


The difficulties of redefining policing for the "new South Africa", combined with rapid organisational reforms23 to the SAP necessitated by De Klerk's political initiative, have resulted in a certain level of inertia in relation to the policing of the violence. This is quite clearly also related to the blurring of censures in the transitional period - the categories which are to be policed are no longer quite as clear. Combined with the contest over the meaning of the violence itself, these factors have resulted in an ambiguous and incoherent police response to the violence. Some views of the policing of the violence are outlined below.

Not included is the SAP's most consistent response to the violence, namely that they are doing everything possible to prevent and contain violence. This paper argues that "everything possible" is clearly inadequate. It is suggested that the police's understanding of the violence (as a political or ethnic problem which they have no role in solving) is not conducive to producing either willingness or action on the part of the police force. It is clear that whether or not the SAP is doing everything possible to prevent violence, its actions are interpreted in a variety of ways.

(i) The violence is not being policed

One analysis would suggest that the transition is marked by a lack of specific censure of violence24, which is iuiderstandable in the context of militarisation and "self-help war" described above; whereas the previous period was characterised by an apparently "total" censure of violence (although in practice this censure was used most often in relation to political activity).

Independent monitoring agencies, as well as political organisations, have accumulated evidence of police inaction during incidents of violence in the recent period. Although official SAP responses tend to uniformly deny such allegations, there has recently been a shift to justifying police inactivity (see 'The Police are unable to control the violence' below).

Because policing has been so overtly political, so has criticism of the police. There is very little public debate over policing in South Africa which has not been motivated from a political position. Thus the SAP interprets allegations of police inactivity as a political attack on the integrity of the force, and the State. This is most often accompanied by an categorical denial of all allegations.

(ii) The police are active participants in the violence

The demise of a coherent ideological framework for the police does create the possibility that sectarian interests within the force will be advanced in a more random process of police support for different factions in the violence. It has been suggested that both political alliances and ethnicity mobilise members of the police force into the violence25. The particular authoritarian and militaristic structure of the SAP has also created and relied on informal decision-making networks which have, often, been highly politically partisan.

Human Rights monitors have collected substantial evidence to back up claims26 of police collusion in the violence. These allegations are routinely denied by the police force, despite recent arrests of police officers on charges related to the violence. The SAP is attempting to promote a new image based on impartiality and professionalism. These discourses are evident in police defences to allegations of involvement in the violence:

"No matter what the Police do, they are subjected to severe criticism and accusations, especially by the ANC. The Police have to act in violent situations, where the use of force is unfortunately often necessary, not only to protect the lives and property of innocent people, but also their own lives. But every time the Police intervene to prevent blacks slaughtering blacks and force is used in the process, they are accused by certain black leaders of partiality and aggression and even of being the instigators.... If our accusers really want the violence to come to an end, if they really want the killings to stop, they must support the Police's efforts, see things in perspective and not criticise our every action. In quelling unrest and violence, people - unfortunately - die. Those living by the sword will die by the sword. This must be realised and accepted.27"

(iii) The police are not able to deal with the violence

In August of 1991, police raided a number of hostels housing migrant workers in the Johannesburg area, which had been associated with acts of violence. However, they found a number of the hostels to be impenetrable, with the inmates' firepower surpassing that of the police. It was the first time that the police were forced to publicly concede defeat over a "crime-prevention" operation.

In 1992, after a renewed spate of massacres on suburban commuter trains, a spokesman for the Minister of Law and Order said that it was impossible for the police to prevent train massacres because it was "too dangerous" to police the trains.

The police justify such admissions by reference to broad socio-economic conditions which ameliorate violence, and to a "culture of violence" over which the police can exert no control. This abrogation of responsibility is congruent with a world-view which understands the violence as something particular to black people, which does not involve the police or the state.


The multi-party interim government which oversees the election period in South Africa will need to introduce strict measures for monitoring police conduct, particularly in conflict situations. It will also have the capacity to commission a large-scale investigation into criminal investigation procedures, and to implement policy to address current shortcomings.

Effective policing of the violence requires attention to prevention, containment, and investigation functions. More police manpower will not, as some conservative critics suggest, solve the problem, unless a comprehensive new approach to the problem is created. This would also require substantial reforms to the prosecution, bail and witness protection aspects.

It may be argued that the most immediate challenge to the police agencies in South Africa is to find effective ways of dealing with violent crime and widespread social conflict. In fact, this is only part of a broader project. What is necessary is the complete transformation of the police organisation and discourse. It is not possible for the South African Police themselves to formulate more appropriate responses to social conflict and violent crime when their traditional "ways of seeing" the problem no longer provide useful explanations of social reality.


Aitcheson J (ed) (1991) The Seven Days War 23-31 March 1990: The Victims' Narrative. Centre for Adult Education, University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg.

Davis D (1990) "Violence and the Law: The Use of Censure in Political Trials in South Africa" in Manganyi & Du Toit (eds).

Du Toit A (1990) "Discourses on Political Violence" in Manganyi & Du Toit (eds).

Grundy K (1988) The Militarisation of South African Politics,. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Human Rights Commission (1991) The New Total Strategy: Twelve Months of Community Repression, July 1990-June 1991 HRC Special Report SR11, Johannesburg.

Manganyi N & Du Toit A (eds) (1990) Political Violence and the Struggle in South Africa, Halfway House.

Marais E (1991) Police-Community Relations and the Natal Conflict. Paper presented to ASSA Conference, Cape Town.

Marais E & Rauch J (1991) "Policing the Peace Accord" in Work in Progress 78, Oct/Nov 1991.

Rauch J (1991) "Crisis of Legitimacy: The Limits of Police Reform" in Indicator South Africa Vol 8 No 4 Spring 1991.

Seekings J (1989) Black Policing in the Townships: Case Studies from the Witwatersrand 1985-6 (unpublished paper).

Segal L (1991) The Human Face of Violence: Hostel Dwellers Speak. Project for the Study of Violence Seminar Paper 6 of 1991.

SARP Uitgawers (1991) Servamus June 1991, Pretoria.

Simpson G, Segal L & Mokwena S (1991) "Political Violence 1990: The Year in Review" in Human Rights and Labour Law Yearbook, Oxford University Press, Cape Town

South African Police (1990) Yearbook 1991, Pretoria. South African Police (1992) Yearbook 1993, Pretoria.

Source: http://www.csvr.org.za/papers/papp&vjr.htm

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to theThis resource is hosted by the site.