Reasons Behind the Violence Among Black South Africans

July 07, 1991|By STEVE McDONALD

South Africa continues to reel from the violence among blacks that started in the Transvaal area-the central high plains around Johannesburg-last july and in the eastern coastal province of Natal almost five years ago.

It so permeates the black residential townships now that few bareas in the country go unaffected.The estimates run as high as 6,000 killed in the five years,almost 2,000 in the last year alone.And the tragedy is not just in the numbers but the brutality and the random nature that the violence has taken on.

It also is seriously threatening the negotiations proccess initiated more than a year ago by the government of South Africa and the major resistance group the African national congress (ANC).Should the violence remain unchecked there seems little hope that the negotiation proccess will get back on track.just as unlikely is any hope of a return of international investment and trade,even with the lifting of the sanctions,until some confidence in a stable future emerges.

The question that hovers over all of this-the answer to which remains ephemeral-is Why? Why are blacks fighting blacks in the first place? aren't their enemies white people and the white state? Why can't any one or all of the parties bring the violence under control? Whose interest does it serve to keep it going?

One reason the answeres are difficult for the American observer is that thay are complicated and varied,representing a mosaic of historical and present patterns of behavior and relationships.The violence itself is broken down on political lines primarily between followers of the ANC and those of the Zulu based Inkatha freedom Party.

In the last few years,particularly since the unbanning of the ANC in february 1990 and the release of the ANC leader Nelson Mandela these organizations have been allowed to compete with each other for political constituencies for the first time.

The first battle ground of rivalry was in Inkatha's back yard,natal where its followers lived and it operated.As it began to try to eliminate ANC supporters,open conflict developed.Then in 1990,inkatha bagan to move into the Transvaal and compete in an area that was considered primarily ANC territory.The violence escalated and broadened in scope.

Of course,the American observer will say,political rivalry need not mean killing and maiming.verbal abuse and figurative back-stabbing is one thing-often witnessed in our "civilized" society-but why literal stabbing?

Again,a complicated answer.Firstly,South africa is a society built and administered on principles of non-tolerance of opposing views.There is no"culture of democracy,"as Soth Africans are wont to say.And this intolerance has always taken the form of killing,detention,torture,exile and banning.It was even institutionalized in the laws and regulations of that land,It was white on black in the past.The scope may not have been so broad-possibly more targeted -but the means and intentions were much the same.

The violence is also a result of the very society in which blacks live, isolated and barren, removed from the city centers and bTC heaped one upon the other in a way that makes life squalid; until recently without rights of ownership or means for economic advancement, despairing for their children's futures; residing in communities bereft of normal societal control mechanisms like church, school, government or even family -- all purposely emasculated and discredited by white authorities in order to control those societies; and surrounded by the violence of gangs and migrant workers. All of these are the fruits of apartheid, making blacks unable physically to reach the "white world," and therefore turning their anger inward on their neighbors.

Black South Africans, still unable to vote and still excluded from the economic and political power axis, are using one of the few means at their disposal to carve out a piece of the action.

None of this makes blacks blameless. Their leaders have either chosen to allow the use of violence as a means for political control or are unable to control their followers.

The Inkatha party appears, from most eyewitness accounts and by all categorizing of the victims of the violence, to be the common initiator and the frequent victor. Mr. Mandela is quick to accept that the ANC is not always beatific, but he seems as unable as anyone else to either bring his followers under control or to work out with his rivals or the government a solution.

Inkatha's leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, while mouthing platitudes of peace to the public, is quick to incite his followers (normally in Zulu in the hopes that outside reporters will not understand) to defend their honor and that of their leaders, always taken as thinly disguised calls to arms by those followers.

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