Identity in Conflict: Race and Violent Crime in South Africa in the Context of Contemporary Insurgencies

By Ethan D. Steyn
2011, Vol. 3 No. 03 | pg. 4/4 |


Contemporary war theory acknowledges that the categories war and crime are not mutually exclusive. In this article, it was argued that some of the motivating factors of both criminal and war violence – including , potential wealth, and identity politics – often overlap. As in contemporary insurgencies, identity politics play an important role in some forms of violent , and indeed the violence of the new has much in common with the violence of contemporary conflicts – not to mention the comparability of the scale and intensity of violence.

Although identity is a human construction, it becomes reified in conflict environments and serves as a justification for committing violence against innocent civilians, particularly if they become regarded as responsible for the wrongs of society, or worse even, if they are regarded as less than human. As violence continues, alienation deepens, scarring the social fabric of South Africa again. Future research can follow Ross, Mirowsky and Pribesh in quantifying the effect that violent crime has had on community relations in South Africa so far.

If violent crime is seen as a security issue sharing some characteristics with counterinsurgencies, Cock’s (2005: 803) contention that economic issues are a greater threat to human security in South Africa than military threats and should therefore be prioritized, is underscored by contemporary counterinsurgency theory. Counterinsurgency theory sees conflict as multidimensional – Kilcullen (2006: 4) refers to the security, political, and economic aspects as the “three pillars” of counterinsurgency.

No counterinsurgency can be won without a legitimate political approach and economic incentives, and the same applies to crime: police alone will not end violent crime. Kilcullen (2009: 13) argues, “perhaps counter-intuitively for some, activities to kill and capture terrorists seem (and are) offensive at the tactical level but are in fact strategically defensive, because they contain the problem rather than resolving it.” Without addressing the issues of identity politics and poverty, racially based violence will remain endemic to South Africa.

This article has focused on the political element, particularly the utilization of identity politics as a means of diverting attention away from government failures and the violent human cost of such a strategy. South Africa cannot hope to achieve a peaceful, non-racial society if the narrative “whites are rich because they exploited blacks” is not debunked in the public consciousness, but at the same time it would be naïve to propose an alternative narrative as the silver bullet for South Africa’s numerous violent problems. As in counterinsurgency, a holistic approach must be followed that addresses all three pillars of the conflict, of which identity is but one small part.


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i.) In Small and Singer’s (1982) typology of a civil war, post-apartheid South Africa could be described as fighting a civil war. Collier and Hoeffler (1998: 567) give a summary of Small and Singer’s criteria, “First, one of the primary actors in any conflict identified as a civil war must be the national government in at the time hostilities begin. Secondly, the concept of war requires that both sides have the ability to inflict death upon each other. As a rule of thumb Singer and Small (1982) define that in a civil war the stronger forces must sustain at least five percent of the number of fatalities suffered by the weaker forces. This rule enables them to distinguish genuine war situations from massacres, pogroms and purges. Thirdly, significant military action must take place. Only civil wars that resulted in at least 1,000 battle related deaths per year are included in the data set. This figure includes civilian as well as military deaths. Fourthly, the war must be internal to the country.”

ii.) In Vietnam for instance, the conflict was between Communists and Catholics, but also between Catholics and Buddhists, and between the Vietnamese and Montagnards (see e.g. Neu 2005).

iii.) An example of class-motivated violence in South Africa is jackrolling, which involves gang members abducting and raping young women who they consider higher than them on the social ladder. Jefthas and Artz (2007: 46) claim jackrolling “is viewed by many of those living in the townships as a sport of tough gangsters and is regarded as nothing more than a game or popular form of male behaviour indulged in by young boys.” Strydom & Schutte (2005: 118) also note that farm attacks are sometimes motivated by status.

iv.) Elsewhere, CSVR (2007: 65) is as careful about racial motivations of violent crime, “the balance of available evidence is that vindictive racial hostility is not a key factor driving violent and other crime. Considering the legacy of racial oppression and discrimination one might expect that such hostility would be a major factor in South Africa. However, while the evidence does not seem to support the idea that such hostility is a key factor in violence, it does play a role in some crime incidents.”

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