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Violence in South Africa: a look at interpersonal violence in the early 1990s

The statistics were appalling.  In 1990, in 9 short weeks, 800 people were killed in intense violence in townships across the East Rand of the then Transvaal province of South Africa.  In 2008, this sort of occurrence has made international headline news.  Apart from the occasional incident making headlines however, in 1990 all you could find were small isolated paragraphs deep in the inner pages of the nation's newspapers, tallying up how many people had died over the past weekend.  The press presented a united opinion on the matter - this was "'black-on-black' (Xhosa-Zulu) violence rooted in inherent forces of ethnic or 'tribal' identity".In the 1991 there was a national scandal called "Inkathagate" in which it was discovered that the government was funneling funds into Inkatha Freedom Party in a bid to block the ANC.  Two senior ministers (Magnus Malan and Adriaan Vlok) lost their jobs over the scandal.  Conspiracy theorists declared that a "third force" was at play and that Inkathagate proved that Inkatha soldiers were being trained to carry out attacks on ANC supporters in order to "create" an atmosphere of tribal tension and destabilise the government.Sound familiar?

What were the facts then about township violence at the end of the Apartheid era?  What relevance does this have in 2008?

It is so easy for us, as outsiders, to take a look at interpersonal or group violence and wrap it up with a neat label -   'xenophobia', 'racism', 'tribal conflict', 'ethnic violence'.  By making such a sweeping generalisation, it enables the observer to efficiently categorise and process an unthinkable act thereby belying the need for further analysis and intervention.   In reality, patterns of violence tend to follow a pattern whereby a set of underlying social and political conditions lay the ground for violence which is then triggered by one or more specific events.  Sometimes it is possible to identify those specific events but the surrounding conditions are certainly easier to pinpoint.

Social conditions in South African townships

As part of the Apartheid regime, black South Africans (and indeed Indian and coloured South Africans) were rounded up and forced to live in separate areas from those in which white people lived.  These areas became known as 'townships' and consisted of row upon row of little box houses.  Townships were specifically designed so that they could easily be contained should there be a political uprising and there was often only one road giving access to the township. 

There were three main participants in the violence that took place in the violence in the late 1980's and early 1990's.  They were the township dwellers, the hostel residents and the inhabitants of informal settlements.  If you've ever visited an informal settlement, you would marvel at the ingenuity of people as they fabricate homes for themselves out of corrugated iron, cardboard, plastics and other scrap materials.  Having visited informal settlements in the early 1990's though, I am merely appalled that 15 years after the end of Apartheid, the amount of people living in these conditions has not diminished but has in fact exploded with new settlements all around major centres.  In 1991, Phola Park was one such settlement.  There was one water tap for use by 40,000 people; no sanitation and no refuse removal.  Our job when we visited was to dig a huge hole and create a makeshift landfill in which to put the mountain of garbage present on the site.  There was simply nowhere else to put it.  Today I am aware of the ecological disaster such an ad hoc landfill could create but back then we were just trying to prevent children from playing in the garbage.  Phola Park itself burnt down to the ground on one occasion due to an incident of violence with the neighbouring township of Thokoza.  In fact, the East Rand of Johannesburg was one of the hardest hit areas in terms of these conflicts.

The purpose of the description above is to provide an idea of the conditions in which the inhabitants of informal settlements find themselves.  They are the poorest, most dispossessed of the urban dwellers yet have often flooded into the city centres from even worse conditions elsewhere.  Towards the end of the Apartheid-era, the relaxation of influx control meant that many people were flooding in from the arid and poverty-stricken homelands; today, many of the inhabitants of informal settlements are refugees from Zimbabwe or Mozambicans or Malawians seeking their fortune.

At the end of Apartheid, the process of reform undertook to upgrade urban areas.  However, this process concentrated on private housing and private residents.  Essentially, the government embarked on a process of selective upgrading that resulted in the accentuation of divisions between the "haves" and the "have nots".  The existing residents of townships and members of established communities benefited from the upgrading process whereas the inhabitants of informal settlements received nothing and conditions in the hostels only worsened.

Hostels have made the news quite a lot in recent days.  These huge structures once housed thousands of migrant workers in cramped and appalling conditions.  The hostels were single-sex institutions housing mainly men.  They were overcrowded, there was no privacy and conditions were unhygienic to say the least.  There were no recreational facilities and far from their wives and families, the men turned to drugs, alcohol and prostitutes to pass the time.  While this is of course a generalisation, it does describe the atmosphere of frustration that abounded and the need to escape or act out that can often accompany these feelings.  (It is often stated that aggression is a common way of dealing with frustration and violence has been linked to aggression2).

Compounding these social conditions were the often acrimonious relationships between the various key parties.  Spatially, both hostels and informal settlements were situated on the edge of formal townships.  Hostels residents were seen as immoral wanderers due to their separation from their family units as well as their choice of recreational activity.  Both hostel residents and informal settlers were treated as outsiders and they were never integrated into community structures.  There was mutual resentment between all parties as they competed for scarce resources (most importantly jobs). Especially important in view of the selective upgrading process was that informal settlements were located on valuable land that was wanted by the formal township communities for the purpose of building new houses and infrastructure.

The following topics will be further discussed in this matter:

Crisis of leadership

Political factors

Culture and life in South Africa

Group Dynamics


  1. Ruiters, Greg and Taylor, Rupert (1990) "Organise - or Die", Work In Progress (no 70/71).
  2. Lauer, Robert H. (1989). Social Problems and the Quality of Life, (Iowa: WM. C. Brown).

I read the news today, oh boy

Sometimes I close my book while I'm on the train, I look out of the window and I think I've had enough now.  Enough of murder, genocide, rape and injustice.  It's not that I actually want to stop reading, it's just that sometimes the weight of horrors I could never have imagined in my wildest nightmares gets too much to bear.  And I need to sit and process the knowledge.

My interest in political history and injustice started in university, 15 years ago (in fact I am busy transcribing and updating a paper I wrote back then on interpersonal violence in South Africa).  But in recent times this interest has snowballed and I can't get enough of true-life accounts of war and genocide, mostly in Africa.

I'm reading this book at the moment:

The Bone Woman
by Clea Koff

Read more about this book...

Clea Koff is a forensic anthropologist who has worked on mass graves in Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo investigating war crimes.  I think the book-closing moment was in her description of the bone evidence of a man who was beaten to death and how he tried to defend himself; this was compared to the earlier account of many people in a church in Kibuye who exhibited no defence wounds at all and who all had sharp- or blunt-force trauma to their heads.  (The author could not understand why they hadn't tried to defend themselves but I know many people only survived by playing dead and I think this is what happened here).  Anyway, the beating victim's story many my stomach turn.

This morning she began to tell the story of an investigation they were to begin into the matter of 8,000 missing men and boys from Srebrenica who had left on foot to go to Tuzla and had never made it.  What I read began to sink in - 8,000 human beings were murdered in one event - and I turned green.  I still cannot fathom it.  I can imagine monsters rounding up 4,000 people in a church and killing for days, only breaking to eat and sleep (only because I read about it in this book).  I can imagine train loads of human beings taken to death camps and killed day after day during the holocaust (because I have read so many books about it).  I just have a problem imagining 8,000 people (4 times the size of my high school) being murdered in one occasion.  With no living witnesses (one presumes as the men were up to that point regarded as 'missing' not murdered or presumed murdered, and there was no event to tie them to yet).

This is why I do it.  I might feel my eyes spontaneously fill with tears and elicit stares from my fellow train travellers, but this is why I ravenously devour any book on genocide and injustice.  It is because I need to know and I need to tell others and we need to stop it happening.


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