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. 1/4 |

Violence undermines an inclusive national identity that considers those of other races, classes and creeds as compatriots, for as Mirowsky and Ross (1983: 238) note, “When other people in one’s life have become a hostile army, social alienation is at its deepest.”

In recent years, violence and ethnicity in South Africa received a substantial amount of media attention through the University of the Free State’s Reitz-video saga, the Brandon Huntley issue on asylum seeking and whether or not whites are specifically targeted by criminals, and Solidariteit Radio’s program on farm attacks on 17 September 2009. Following the murder of Eugene Terre’Blanche in April 2010, the South African flag was set on fire in Stockholm out of solidarity with the plight of white farmers.

Dan Roodt (2009) notes how numerous websites protesting attacks on white Afrikaans speaking South Africans (Afrikaners) have sprung up “like mushrooms,” indicating that this group in particular feels threatened by violence in contemporary South Africa, and Senekal (2010) has argued that contemporary Afrikaans protest music often voices a sense of being besieged by criminals (although not necessarily because of their race).

The issue of violence and ethnicity in criminal and war environments has many facets, and this article attempts to contextualize forms of violent crime in South Africa that involve identities within the theoretical discourse on contemporary warfare, with a specific focus on the functioning of white and black identities. Comparing crime with war is a familiar analogy in South Africa: from Koos Kombuis in the song “Reconciliation Day” (Bloedrivier, 2008) to J.M. Coetzee’s novel, Disgrace (1999), to Etienne van Heerden’s 30 Nagte in Amsterdam (2008), many artists have likened crime to war, while Antony Altbeker called his book A Country at War with Itself (2007).

Achille Mbembe (2006) writes, “Crime is fast destroying the moral fabric of South African cities and is becoming the major threat to South Africa’s democracy as well as the not so hidden name of a ‘class war’ which itself is, to a large extent, a continuation of the ‘race war’ of yesterday.” The South African government also compares crime to war: on the shooting of innocent civilians by police officers, Fikile Mbalula, then deputy minister of police, said that civilians die in every war (Boyle, 2009).

Despite these superficial analogies, however, little attempt has been made to compare South Africa’s violent problems to that of conflict environments, and with the large amount of research now available on counterinsurgencies, conflict environments can provide useful lessons for understanding the issue of violent crime in South Africa.

Crime and Insurgency

Numerous military theorists, amongst them Van Creveld (2008), Kaldor (2006), Münkler (2005), and many contributors to Duyvesteyn and Angstrom (2005), claim that the nature of war has changed since 1945. Mostly, “states have given up their de facto monopoly of war, and what appears ever more frequently in their stead are para-state or even private actors [...] for whom war is a permanent field of activity” (Münkler, 2005: 1). Kaldor (2006) and Münkler (2005) use the term new wars to refer to these para- or intrastate conflicts, which include conflicts as diverse as Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Angola, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

New wars are however rooted in Cold War insurgencies, and as such, these conflicts not only exhibit characteristics of insurgencies of the Cold War Era, but also accentuate some issues of these conflicts, in particular by placing an increased emphasis on identity. Although numerous aspects of the new war thesis have been debunked by amongst others Smith (2005) and Melander, Öberg and Hall (2009), two of the new war thesis’ primary claims – namely that identity politics have usurped ideology’s role as motivator for conflicts and that criminality and material gain have also come to play a more important role in conflicts than during the Cold War – are widely recognized as an accurate assessment (Melander, Öberg and Hall, 2009: 530). Hoffman (2007: 35) comes to a similar conclusion, and the current US Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual (Petraeus, 2006: 15) argues,

Recently, ideologies based on extremist forms of religious or ethnic identities have replaced ideologies based on secular revolutionary ideals. These new forms of old, strongly held beliefs define the identities of the most dangerous combatants in these new internal wars. These conflicts resemble the wars of religion in Europe before and after the Reformation of the 16th century. People have replaced non-functioning national identities with traditional sources of unity and identity.

As the threat of interstate war receded during the 1990s, crime became a major focus of security studies (Barolsky and Pillay, 2009: 15): Jütersonke, Muggah and Rodgers (2009: 374) for instance refer to gang violence in Central American cities as the “new urban insurgency” because of the threat it poses to the state, and Shapiro (2009: 447) notes the shift in emphasis from state borders to internal localities in security studies. Kaldor (2006: 12) claims that inner-city gang violence in Europe and the United States can, “in some senses, be described as new wars.”

However, I follow Kaldor in arguing that although new wars and some forms of crime are at times comparable, crime is not war, for even though the distinction between criminals and combatants has eroded in recent decades, and even though war theorists lament the disappearance of the traditional distinction between war and peace, war is still considered a form of organized violence. Sheehan (2007: 213) for instance acknowledges that although violent crime is responsible for more violent deaths than war and terrorism combined, “it is not war.”i

Violent crime is a major security issue in South Africa. The South African Police Service (SAPS) claims that 112,982 people were murdered in the six years between 2003/2004 and 2008/2009, compared with the civilian death toll during the war in Iraq from March 2003 to March 2009 of between 90,892 and 99,242 (, 2009). During 2010, 4030 civilians died in Iraq (, 2011), compared to 16,834 officially recorded murders in South Africa.

Although the per capita violent death rate in South Africa decreased from 59/100,000 in 1998 (McCafferty, 2003: 11) to 34.1/100,000 by 2009/2010, it still stands in sharp contrast with the US crime figure of 5.5/100,000 (CSVR, 2007). A global average of 7/100,000 homicides in 2004 (Jütersonke, Muggah and Rodgers, 2009: 374) indicates how serious the situation remains in South Africa. Also, bear in mind that police statistics are widely regarded as underestimating the situation (Schönteich 2000, Krug et al. 2002: 8, McCafferty 2003: 8, Altbeker 2005, Newham 2008: 8). Bruce (2010: 15) for instance concludes,

The non-recording of crime is widespread within the SAPS and that this nonrecording is responsible for much of the reduction in violent crime that has been reported in statistics over recent years. The implication of this, in turn, is that current crime statistics cannot be regarded as a reliable indicator of trends in crime, particularly in violent crime.

Where official figures for April 2009 to March 2010 note 68,332 sexual crimes, 13,902 carjackings, 205,293 assaults with the intent to inflict grievous bodily harm, 197,284 common assaults, and 113,755 robberies with aggravating circumstances (, 2010), claims of underreporting underscore the gravity of matter.

Farm murders are widely regarded to sprout from a mixture between political and criminal motives (Strydom and Schutte, 2005: 115), and Francis (2009) argues that these attacks “need to be understood as hate crimes and fought against as hate crimes. They serve as an example of the worst type of labeling and dehumanizing of the victims.” According to Stuijt (2009), 3,037 farmers were killed between 1994 and February 2009, and Genocide Watch (, 2002) claims a per capita death rate of farmers in 2001 of 311/100,000 – four times higher than for the average South African at the time.

During the apartheid years, leaders of APLA and MK urged their followers on with “kill the farmer kill the Boer” (MK) and “one settler one bullet” (APLA), who then carried out attacks on all whites. Despite claims by the ANC government that the continuation of attacks on white farmers is purely criminal, media reports and eye witness accounts indicate a racial motive behind a substantial number of these attacks (Moolman, 2000b: 67-68). Violence is often not used simply for gaining property, attacks are unnecessarily brutal, and the “calculated military precision” (Strydom and Schutte, 2005: 118) with which some of these attacks are carried out, is often noted.

This indicates that at least some attacks are carried out by ex-liberation fighters (Moolman 2000a: 53 and 2000b: 66). Although Moolman’s study was published a decade ago, the link between the liberation struggle and contemporary farm attacks remains: Kriel (2009) describes an attack on a farm near Welkom on 1 April 2009:

According to forensic evidence, the Lotter mother and daughter had died excruciatingly painful deaths: first tortured by being stabbed with broken glass bottles into their vaginas. One of the women also had her breasts cut off while she was still alive – and then both women’s blood, police forensic experts found, had been used to paint the ANC’s anti-Afrikaner hate slogan ‘Kill the Boer Kill the Farmer’ on the walls of their homestead. They were then allegedly killed by strangulation [...].

Motivation, organization and legality are poor indicators with which to distinguish between war and crime. Curtis’s (2006: 112) working definition of war follows the traditional Clauswitzian notion that war is “policy by other means”; he defines war as “organized violence aimed at a political end.” Kaldor (2006: 2) concedes that war is usually conceived as “violence between states or organized groups for political motives,” although she challenges these assumptions. Smith (2005) takes issue with the notion that violence can be apolitical, arguing, “All violence will be carried out with some goal or rationale in mind.

It may not be ideologically inspired in a traditional left-right sense but there will always be a reason,” whether it be “the breaking and entry for the purposes of selfish acquisition through theft of a lone burglar or the waging of war among states with mass armies over contested ideologies” (Smith, 2005: 33, 34). The traditional notion that organized violence necessarily serves political ends also does not bear scrutiny, for “crude, self-interested economic aggrandizement has been an object of warfare for centuries” (Smith, 2005: 34). The result is that “the attempt to separate out what constitutes rationally purposive violence from irrational or unjust violence is a meaningless intellectual exercise” (Ibid.).

This challenge to traditional assumptions of war’s political motivation makes the distinction between an organized form of violence such as gangsterism, which is seen as a crime, and warlordism, which is seen as part of war, increasingly difficult. Belligerents in a conflict environment often become involved in organized crime in an attempt to fund their activities in the absence of state sponsorship (which frequently came via the superpowers during the Cold War). During the Balkan conflicts, Serbian and Albanian gangsters turned to human trafficking to support their activities (Hough 2008: 239 and Mair 2003: 16), but this transgression of the boundary between war and crime has its origins in Cold War insurgencies: the Azanian’s People’s Liberation Army (APLA) for instance utilized crime to fund their insurgency in South Africa (Moolman, 2000b: 65).

Structurally as well, Kilcullen (2010: 183) notes that Al Qa’eda resembles a crime syndicate more than a military organization, and the concept of war as a declared, organized violent contest between states is hopelessly outdated (at best). Furthermore, some incidents of crime, as mentioned above, do have political ends as at least part of the motive, thus making the distinction between war and crime ever more difficult.

The decisive factor distinguishing crime from insurgency is that insurgents wish to control the population and establish an alternative form of government (Kilcullen, 2010: 149-154), which criminals do not attempt. Nevertheless, Kilcullen (2010: 183) argues, “there are strong analogies between police work, counterinsurgency and counterterrorism,” while “some terrorist networks share structural and operational similarities with organized crime networks.” One such “operational similarity” is the use of identity in constructing and maintaining an insurgency or some South African violent crime, and thus apart from Kilcullen’s recognition of the applicability of counterinsurgency theory to disrupting gang structures, counterinsurgency theory can provide useful lessons for dealing with violent crime in general.

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