South Africa: A history of violence

Poor South Africans are most vulnerable to violent crime, despite perceptions. Photo: eNCA

South Africa strikes many observers as a country riven by excessive and widespread violence.  Interpersonal violence is a daily reality for many, and several studies of crime statistics indicate that poorer people are more likely to be subjected to such violence. 

Given that the overwhelming majority of people in South Africa are poor, this means that the majority of those subjected to violence are likely to be poor.  Then there is community violence, whether in the form of street gangs or the vigilante groups who fight them with similar methods, because many communities feel under-protected by the various state agencies responsible for safety and security in South Africa.  These policing agencies are themselves also accused of using excessive force.

Despite popular misconceptions that the wealthier you are, the more likely you are to be the target of interpersonal violence, statistics suggest the opposite to be true.

Poor people in South Africa are more vulnerable, partly because they often have to rely on inadequate policing, whereas the wealthier classes have, to a large extent, privatised their own security.  Violence, however, is not bounded by the categorical divisions of ‘race’, class or geography so often used to understand and articulate differences between people in South Africa.

No security measures can protect human beings against violence from people with whom they are intimate and familiar.  The number of cases of battery and killing of women and children by intimate partners and fathers, or other close male relatives, remains unacceptably high, with a New Year’s Eve family murder in Durban and the multiply tragic events around the killing of a four-year old child in Brakpan in early January recalling the deaths of children in Katlehong and Diepsloot late in 2013. 

On 12 January 2014 a man at Orange Farm, Johannesburg, attacked six women in his family with an axe, killing three of them, including his 60 year-old grandmother.  This echoes a similar incident in Soweto in May 2013, when a teenager killed four members of his family with an axe.

On February 14, 2013, South Africans awoke to news a young woman had died of multiple gunshot wounds in her intimate partner’s home.  He had apparently fired the gun.  That he was possibly the most famous living South African athlete deepened ordinary people’s sense of shock: the woman who died and the man accused of killing her were neither poor, nor black; they were both famous, in many senses not the stereotype of battered woman and violent man in the South African popular imaginary. 

The police spokesperson indicated that they had been called to the residence in which the young woman died for a domestic disturbance issue on a previous occasion.  Some observers have suggested that the sometimes femicidal violence is endemic to South African society, and that it is tolerated, pointing to the long history of other well-known athletes playing for South Africa’s national teams, celebrities and politicians being accused of battering their intimate partners, without any diminishment of fame or popularity.

The sexual violations to which women and children, among other vulnerable people, are subjected, also remains intolerably higher than in comparable societies.  A South African Medical Research Council survey from 2009 suggests that nearly a third of men polled admit to engaging in acts which would meet the definitional requirements for rape in South African law.  Those subjected to these acts of sexual violation range in age from new-borns to octogenarians.  South African armed forces personnel serving on peacekeeping missions have also faced rape charges, sometimes of minors.

The practice of “corrective rape”, by which women identified as lesbians are punitively sexually assaulted and sometimes killed, is another component of this war on women. 

This high rate of sexual violence may be correlated with gender inequality as a consequence of the failure to empower women more comprehensively by rooting out the patriarchal vestiges which linger in many contexts under the guise of “cultural tradition”, as well as the widespread socialisation of boys into rituals and repertoires of violent masculinity. 

South Africa’s high ranking on the World Economic Forum’s 2012 Global Gender Gap Report (it appears at 17 on a list of 136 countries) does not take into account the textures of inequality many women experience in their daily lives. 

Levels of public violence also remain disconcertingly - even if, given the country’s colonial and apartheid history, explicably - high.  The rituals of violent protest against the apartheid state have not been fully exorcised from communities and their engagement with the current government, especially when displeased with officials’ performance. 

At such public service delivery protests at Bekkersdal and Valhalla Park, or community protests against alleged criminals at Brakpan, the line between threats of violence and actual violence is often breached.  Communities sometimes resort to “mob justice” out of a sense of frustration that the police services do not protect them, thereby steeping themselves further in a culture of violence.

The police services are often accused of resorting to excessive violence against the public, before and after then-police commissioner Bheki Cele, still a member of the ANC National Executive Committee, instructed members to “shoot to kill”.  According to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, in 2010-2011, over 900 people died while in police custody.  Subsequent incidents indicate that little has changed. 

Andries Tatane died on April 13, 2011 after police intervention at Ficksburg community protests.  The conduct of police officers at Marikana on August 16, 2012 left 34 mineworkers dead.  On February 26, 2013, Mido Macia died after police officers dragged him some 400 metres tied to their vehicle and allegedly beat him at the Daveyton police station. On January 10, 2014 a vendor in Tshwane died after being shot by officers serving in the capital city’s Metropolitan Police Services.  Three days later, two people died at Brits when police fired at service delivery protestors. 

South Africa also has a long history of political violence, from “faction fights” in apartheid townships fuelled by “third force” elements in the 1980s and the battles between Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and African National Congress (ANC) supporters in the Midlands of KwaZulu-Natal in the 1990s, to the more recent political assassinations in Mpumalanga.

Every election since 1994 has had incidents of violent confrontations between supporters of rival political organisations.  On Monday, January 13, 2014, State President Jacob Zuma had to call for supporters of all parties to desist from violence, while the Deputy President of the African National Congress reiterated the need for all parties to observe tolerance of political opponents and their right to campaign across the country.  This comes in the wake of ANC supporters clashing with the police when they attempted to engage Julius Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), at Nkandla on the same day the ANC launched its election manifesto in Mbombela.  Subsequently, the residents of the house Malema handed them have asked for protection, fearing for their lives.

When South Africans are not engaged in violence against one another, they scapegoat people identified as “foreigners”.  The twenty years since the first democratic elections which ae celebrated as the advent of democracy and freedom by many, are blighted by regular “xenophobic attacks” against people seen to be from elsewhere in Africa. 

During the worst waves in 2007 and 2008, thousands of non-citizens had to be accommodated in refugee camps.  Myths about other Africans illegitimately and unfairly accessing resources and property that many South Africans think of as theirs – these range from jobs to land, and in a country where they are still seen as possessions, despite legislated equality, this includes women – are used by people when questioned about their motives.

This ubiquity of violence, from the most personal spaces inside homes and families, to the public spaces across communities, and across divisions of ‘race’, class and location, speak of deep fractures in the South African political and social landscape. 

According to the World Bank, using the Gini coefficient’s measure of wealth and income inequality, South Africa is the most unequal society in the world.  While the worsening inequality cannot be said to cause the violence, it cannot be ignored as a contributing factor.  Also, given the failures in education, social cohesion is a real challenge as people cling to irrational and easily disproven beliefs about others in the face of scientific evidence they cannot comprehend. 

Until the resource distribution imbalance is addressed – and in the twenty years since the official end of apartheid, it is difficult not to conclude that the successive ANC governments have not done enough, given how and by how much economic inequality has worsened during that time, and global economic shifts and crises are only partly responsible for this – and the critical and literate education levels of ordinary citizens improve, the use of violence as politics by other means, at the interpersonal, communal and national levels, will continue to tear at the fabric of the complex communities, in which the more than 49-million people in the country live.


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