Understanding South African Political Violence: A New Problematic?

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University of Cape Town

Political violence has deep historical roots in South Africa. But if violence has figured prominently, it usually has not proved too difficult to make sense of it: the violence of conquest, the violence of frontier wars, the violence of apartheid and of the struggle against apartheid, the criminal violence of gangs and the ritualized violence of faction fights. Understanding such types of violence has consisted in relating the pathologies and instrumentalities of violence in appropriate ways to these primary social processes and political phenomena. The extent and intensity of current political violence is, however, more difficult to comprehend. This essay, by André du Toit, is in part an attempt to provide an interpretation of the “new political violence”. At one level, the current process of transition has resulted in a shift from the politics of violence to the politics of negotiation. At another level, however, the process has been marked by increasing political violence in the black townships. The incidence of interracial violence has been more limited. The current patterns of violence need to be understood in part in the context of local struggles that are independent of the “master narrative” of violence. They are also not unrelated to the processes of modernization generated by apartheid and to the rapidly diminishing expectations from the negotiations currently underway. The paper places political violence in the context of attempts and steps toward modernization that date back to the seventeenth century. The earlier forms of violence involved warfare between isolated communities, the expansion of the frontier, the formation of the modern state and the suppression of resistance to colonial rule by the Boers and the Zulus. The key feature of African resistance to oppression in the twentieth century was, however, its non-violent character. The resistance was based on demands for full incorporation in the modern state with civil and political rights of citizenship. Even the enforced recourse to violence after the imposition of apartheid did not represent a rejection of the values and ideals of the modern political state and society.