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Political Violence and Political Organization: Notes from the South African Counter-Revolution

South African problems can't be solved without referring to the political nature of the violence, to the role of organizations in contesting for local and, as the end of the apartheid era came nearer, national hegemony.
Jason Myers

Issue #30, February 1997

In the last five years or so, a curious shift (I was about to say subtle, then realized that in other parts of the world the change has not been so subtle after all) has taken place in the occurrence of political violence. Terrorism remains with us, yet revolutionary struggle is, for the moment at least, on sabbatical. What is the difference between the two? Perhaps a better way to respond to the question would be to inquire into the nature of political violence itself. If the aim of violence is to do harm, is political violence simply harm done for the sake of a political motive? I would like to suggest that the sense in which some violence is political runs far deeper than motive or ultimate intent, and that a thorough understanding of this point may help to point the way forward for the stalled project of transformational politics. Though today South Africa is skillfully negotiating the final passages of a transition from apartheid to representative democracy, only a few years ago the country was still experiencing political violence which took as many as a hundred lives in a day. To be sure, a system as exploitative as apartheid could hardly be expected to live a quiet and peaceful life. But to understand something about the nature of political violence we must be able to look beyond the sheer existence of a violent act to the particular forms that violence took. In order to do this, I will be taking the unusual tack of focusing on counter-revolutionary violence. Yet as we will see, counter-revolutionaries wrote their textbooks studying the works of Lenin, Gramsci, and Mao. The tables turned can be turned back again.

In the mid-1980s, activists and supporters of the United Democratic Front (UDF), an umbrella organization of anti-apartheid civic associations, student groups, and trade unions, found themselves under attack by a bizarre menagerie of forces. In Natal, the UDF was confronted by Inkatha, the "cultural organization" of the KwaZulu bantustan government, and the clashes between their supporters escalated by the early 1990s into what appeared to be a racially-segregated civil war. In the Eastern Cape, UDF activists were assaulted by an organization called Ama-Afrika, and in the Orange Free State, civic association members were attacked and murdered by a vigilante squad known as the A-Team. After the legalization of the African National Congress (ANC) in 1990 and the opening of negotiations for the country's first non-racial election, the Natal violence between Inkatha and the UDF appeared to spill over into the Transvaal Reef, where hostel-residents aligned to Inkatha battled ANC supporters in the surrounding townships and passengers on commuter trains were the target of regular attacks by gunmen. An extremely conservative estimate put the number of people killed in "incidents of civil unrest" between 1984 and 1992 at over 10,000.

Particularly after 1989, the production of explanations for the violence in South Africa threatened to become an industry onto itself. By the time of the 1994 election (and the sudden disappearance of much of the violence), nearly every conceivable social scientific methodology and paradigm had been sent into the fray taking place within newspaper columns, journal articles, and manuscripts. "Ethnic conflict" was an early favorite, especially with American journalists, and for several years The New York Times offered such headlines as "Tribal Feuds Won't Let Up in South Africa's East" with pull-quotes explaining the township violence as an ethnic divide: the Zulus versus the Xhosas. The logic behind the "ethnic conflict" explanation worked something like this: the primary visible antagonism behind the violence appeared to be between ANC or UDF supporters and members of Inkatha. Inkatha called itself a Zulu cultural organization and Nelson Mandela speaks Xhosa at home, therefore any conflict involving the two political forces must be the result of latent tribal enmity between Zulus and Xhosas. We might expect this sort of ham-fisted logic from journalists trained to turn out easily digestible and disposable stories, but similar explanations were simultaneously being offered by such credentialed academics as Hermann Giliomee, R.W. Johnson, and Donald L. Horowitz.

A slight variation on the "ethnic conflict" explanation sought to root the current conflict in an age-old practice of "tribal faction fighting". The definition of a faction fight came from the Natal Code of Native Law and included any "disturbance of the peace in which three or more persons are involved". That this definition came from the Native code and not the law for whites effectively meant that a faction fight was any disturbance involving three or more Africans, thus being a crime which by definition only blacks could commit. To describe the violence of the 1980s and 1990s as "faction fighting", then, was to declare organized violence to be a function of race. Somewhat more sober explanations attributed the violence to political rivalry or local gangsterism, though these could also be made to incorporate semi-mystical historico-cultural paradigms — Inkatha traditionalism vs. ANC/UDF modernism — or sociological frameworks such as "resource mobilization," a highly scientific way of saying that people did what they could to get what they wanted with what they had. In the end, most analysts of the violence retreated to the cloud-covered academic high ground and declared the matter to be "multi-causal".

The "ethnic conflict" explanation was unquestionably the most ludicrously spurious of the bunch, and the easiest to dispatch with a few well-placed queries. In Natal, where much of the heaviest fighting took place, the black population is almost monolithically Zulu-speaking, a fact that would seem to make the organization of a conflict between ethnic groups difficult, to say the least. As Rupert Taylor, an early critic of the ethnic interpretation, pointed out, there was no long-standing history of Zulu-Xhosa conflict in Southern Africa before or after colonization, and the ethnic diversity of the townships on the Transvaal Reef made it virtually impossible for the combatants to neatly sort themselves out according to the language they spoke at home. Not only was the more culturally-specific notion of faction fighting suspicious for its racialization of a warfare-instinct, it also distracted attention from certain troubling particulars such as the sudden availability of firearms (including shotguns and R1s — a locally produced version of the Belgian FN assault rifle) and the professional nature of the attacks. As much as the socio-economic explanations promised to settle the matter with calm, scientific rationality, they begged the same questions of timing and scale: why the sudden surge of mass violence using military weapons and tactics when poverty and unemployment had been structural features of township life for years?

colony None of these problems could be solved without referring to the political nature of the violence, to the role of organizations in contesting for local and, as the end of the apartheid era came nearer, national hegemony. Political rivalries can get rough, and there would be nothing unusual in a violent struggle for power erupting in a country with a protracted history of state repression and armed resistance. But what a contest for power between rivals outside of the state could not explain, what it necessarily elided, was the role of the state in that contest. The first hard evidence that such a state role actually existed came in the form of a videotape taken in December 1990 by a television news crew showing police using an armored car to aid Inkatha fighters during a battle in the Johannesburg township of Thokoza. Six months later, the state began to hemorrhage defectors and documents. Nico Basson, an ex-SouthAfrican Defence Force (SADF) officer who claimed to have run an operation in Namibia in 1989 aimed at undermining the South West African People's Organization (SWAPO) before the country's first elections, alleged that his old unit was now providing weapons, training, and direction to Inkatha. Documents were then leaked that detailed state funding of Inkatha organizing drives, and after several Inkatha members came forward with evidence of state-directed paramilitary training, president F.W. De Klerk was forced to admit that at least 150 Inkatha fighters had been trained by the SADF at a camp in the Caprivi Strip.

At some point during the reign of the securocrats charged with defending the apartheid state in the 1980s, pamphlets were circulated to government officials outlining a key doctrine of counterinsurgency warfare: the "winning of hearts and minds". The pamphlets were based on American army colonel John J. McCuen's 1966 book, The Art of Counter-Revolutionary War and argued that the elimination of opposition groups was in itself insufficient to genuinely turn the tide of a revolutionary situation. They assert that once revolutionary organizations have been driven from the field, it is necessary to fill the remaining void with counter-organizations; the government must take the lead under all groups, classes, clubs, and societies with the organization of social, career, sport, education, medical, religious, and military activities.

Political opposition movements are to be replaced with counter-organizations that can channel potentially revolutionary energies in "safe" directions; directions chosen by the state itself. The key to the apartheid state's counter-revolutionary strategy thus lay in the organization and redirection of the political will of the masses. Revolution and counter-revolution, insurgency and counter-insurgency, must in this sense be understood not as modes of warfare, but as forms of politics. The paramount task is not the destruction of an enemy's military capacity, but the winning of popular sentiment and support: to speak in Gramsci's language, a war of position rather than a war of maneuver.

In a certain sense, state counter-organizations were meant to operate under the protection of an ideological mask or costume allowing them to appear as both independent from the state and identical with the target population. One avenue through which this sort of counter-organizational proxy force could be mobilized was the well-trodden path of "African cultural tradition". As backing for their position as traditional authorities in rural areas, chiefs in Natal, themselves the products of a long history of colonial indirect rule, were supplied with G3 assault rifles by the KwaZulu homeland administration and allowed to distribute arms to "tribal" police. But cultural tradition could also facilitate less immediately coercive channels of counter-organization. "Traditional"medicine is a sizable informal industry in South Africa, particularly given the lack of access for most blacks to standard medical care during the apartheid era, and traditional healers make up part of the entrepreneurial sector of most township communities. In 1986, the South African Traditional Healers Council (SATHCO) was founded with a loan of R300,000 from the man who became the organization's secretary-general, "Pip" Erasmus. Erasmus was later revealed to be a former Rhodesian army counter-intelligence agent who had been transferred to the SADF payroll. SATHCO was intended to operate at a significantly deeper and more subtle level than the vigilante groups, a fact which becomes visible in the organization's newsletter, Siyavuma. Under the guise of offering an holistic vision of healing, a 1987 edition of the journal noted that traditional health meant total stability — there must not be disruptive elements like revolution.

The shift in the nature of the apartheid state's counter-insurgency program was unmistakable as the popular insurrection reached its high-point in the mid-1980s. In 1960 and 1976, mass demonstrations had been unflinchingly put down with police bullets. But despite the mobilization of large-scale resistance, the South African Institute of Race Relations' statistics for "unrest fatalities" in the 1980s reveal a decrease in security force killings, particularly after 1985. The figures also record a simultaneous increase in the number of unrest fatalities "within black communities"; events described by the state's Bureau for Information as "black-on-black violence". Although masked by the race paradigm at the level of appearances, it is in these figures that we can recognize the deployment of an army of proxy forces during the 1986 State of Emergency. In many communities these appeared as local vigilante squads moving against any "unruly elements". The Orange Free State townships of Thabong, Tumahole, and Seeisoville, in which rent and consumer boycotts had been successfully organized by the UDF, were hit by sporadic violence centered on a group called the A-Team, whose leaders vowed to "scour the township of rowdyism." In the Cape Town squatter camps of Crossroads and KTC, UDF activists were attacked by amorphous groups calling themselves amadoda (men) or otata (fathers). Many residents reported that during the clashes in January 1986, a white policeman fluent in Xhosa spoke to the "fathers", reminding them of their traditions and their duty to rein in disrespectful youth. In May, the vast squatter settlements, which had successfully resisted several official removal orders, were reduced to ashes by a group known as the Witdoeke. Within a month, fake UDF pamphlets appeared in the townships of the Eastern Cape announcing the impending collection of a R50 per month "tax". These were followed by other pamphlets calling for the formation of anti-UDF groups along the lines of the Cape Town Witdoeke.

The accounts of these assaults are difficult to read — people hacked to death with machetes, their heads split open with pick handles — and by their very nature tend to loom large in the remembrance of events. But it is just as important to realize that the South African military intelligence commanders' main purpose in this operation was to influence opinion. They were seeking to make people act in a certain way. In other words, the violence itself was part of a more comprehensive strategy. This is the lesson we must learn from the South African counter-revolution. The key to political struggle is not the mobilization of military means, but the political organization of masses of people. This might seem an obvious enough lesson until we consider that epitome of the current US left, the Unabomber. Alone in a cabin, isolated from the world he sought to challenge, the Unabomber could act only as an individual. And thus his actions could only have been violent, if they were to be noticed at all. Political organization would have meant meetings and speeches and people who didn't agree with him. It would have meant compromises in all directions. But it also would have meant, and would still mean, something lasting, something a lot "louder," ultimately, than the detonation of a bomb. This does not mean that a mass political movement will never have to ask itself wrenching questions about the use of violence. It does mean, however, that until the rise of a popular political movement worthy of the title, the question of violence per se remains a dead end.

Jason Myers is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at UC-Berkeley.

Copyright © 1997 by Jason Myers. All rights reserved.