Has South Africa Achieved Peace Criminology Essay


The South African situation is a situation of contrasts. On the one hand, simply ending the armed conflict in South Africa, once attempted, was relatively easy: the existing powerholders, who were maintaining power by means of violence, voluntarily underwent a pacted transition in which the former opposition became the new government. But on the other, the underlying conflicts involved in the war are largely unaddressed, and have persisted as low-intensity social violence. It is most common for researchers to explore the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as an alternative to blanket impunity and prosecution. It is perhaps more crucial, however, to look at the continuing problems in the present than with questions of memory. This essay will focus on peacebuilding issues, including the effects of violence in everyday life, the social reintegration of ex-combatants and the demilitarization of society. It will argue that, because of the failure of peacebuilding in terms of socio-economic inclusion and human security, the achievements of the transition have been undermined, as political violence has been displaced into 'criminal' and everyday forms of violence. Political violence has been decomposed into 'social' or 'criminal' violence, which continues the situation of war in a fragmented, decomposed and disoriented way, falling well short of the goal of peace. Hence, South Africa's peacebuilding process has been incomplete due to a failure to address the socio-economic causes of violence among excluded young men, and as a result, has simply displaced armed conflict from the 'political' to the 'criminal' field. Even a decade on from the transition, we still hear of racial polarisation and hatred within communities (Harris, 2003: 1). This is an inevitable effect of the neoliberal nature of the South African transition and the marginalisation of popular movements from the post-apartheid state.

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South Africa is a regional power in southern Africa, with a population of over 49 million. Ranked by the UN as a middle-income country, its relatively high per capita aggregate of $10,000 per capita is seriously misleading given vast wealth inequalities, and its black majority population are poorer than some other African countries (CIA, 2010). The conflict, which ended in 1994, was a liberation struggle by the black majority against an explicitly racist system known as apartheid, in which social power was reserved for whites and the 'races' were strictly segregated. Apartheid South Africa was a regional pariah, in a situation of low-intensity war with its neighbours and subject to global sanctions. Its transition has seen it claim a privileged place in the world community, but without addressing the social and economic legacy of apartheid. It took the form of a prolonged political struggle between the white apartheid government and various black-led movements, principally the African National Congress (ANC), which is now the ruling party after the transition. However, the end periods of the conflict were the most brutal. The 1980s were unprecedentedly violent, particularly in terms of state violence (Hamber, 1999: 114). Similarly, the period 1990-94 was if anything more violent than the preceding period, with the transition creating conditions for political parties such as Inkatha to use violence (Hamber, 1999: 115).

During the struggle against apartheid, groups such as Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) and the Azanian people's Liberation Army (APLA) had fought the regime (Motume and Hudson, 1995: 112), though the bulk of the resistance was political. Just as significant, however, was the rise in everyday violence as the regime and the ANC battled for hegemony in black urban communities. By the 1980s, the ANC had tremendous success in hegemonising social grievances so as to make every issue seem to stem from apartheid (Ellis, 1999: 59). Youth rebellion also played a central role in the transition (Marks, 2001). The war always had 'criminal' as well as 'political' dimensions, and struggles in the last years generated political groups likely to transmute into criminal groups (Kynoch, 2005). This created a situation where the regime was forced to recognise its inability to exercise social control, and to pursue a strategy of pacted transition. It did not, however, eliminate most of the underlying local issues on which the ANC was drawing (Ellis, 1999: 59-60).

The failure to resolve underlying conflicts is problematic given the assumptions of peacebuilding theory. For instance, Galtung (1996) argues that ending a war is simply the first stage; the ultimate goal of peacebuilding is to remove the causes of war. Since the causes of war are issues such as extreme poverty, this requires addressing social justice and human security. Jean-Paul Lederach argues that effective peacebuilding is based on the creation of just relationships, recognising human rights and nonviolence as ways of life (Lederach and Maiese, n.d.: 1). Lederach argues that 'people judge change by what can be felt and touched and by what touches their lives' (2005: 56). From this perspective, conflict is based on negative energies, which need to be transformed into creative energies in order to transform conflicts into productive situations (Lederach and Maiese, n.d.: 2-3). The way to achieve this is to overcome fear, instead mobilising hope as a means to move beyond conflict (Lederach, 2005: 55). Peacebuilding thus relies fundamentally on empowerment in everyday life (Lederach, 1995: 32). A peace process cannot succeed in achieving deep change if people feel it happens to them from outside (2005: 60). It depends on a 'moral imagination' of stepping into the unknown and embracing an open network of complexity and holistic relationships as an alternative to exclusive identities (Lederach, 2005: 5). Similarly, Jeong argues that peace settlements can only succeed if they are extended from the political to the social level, including for instance dealing with economic inequalities and social asymmetries which cause violence (2002: 6-7). If this does not happen, as Atashi argues, conflict will simply be displaced, with new groups emerging from among the dispossessed (2009: 49-50). Paramilitaries with little stake in peace may well continue violence in new, unrecognised forms, as community militias or criminal gangs (2009: 48, 53-5). Similarly, Hartzel's (1999) study found that concessions to ex-combatants are a crucial determinant of the sustainability of peace.

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In practice, such goals are undermined by the persistence of dominant forms of power. Peacebuilding and peacekeeping in practice are often viewed as dimensions of 'crisis management' in which powerful groups shield themselves from predictable impacts of breakdown arising from neoliberalism. In this analysis, peace measures are offered as a substitute for development and a way of keeping the poor in line (Duffield, 2001; Mkandawire, 1999). The difficulty is that underlying social conflicts remain unresolved. It is unsurprising that young black men cling to guns as symbols of empowerment while other forms of empowerment in terms of social inclusion and human security remain unrealised.

South Africa has failed to even attempt peacebuilding in everyday life due to the elitist nature of the transition. Baranyi warns that transitions to democracy tend to be elite-led, and this impedes demilitarisation (1998: 3). Hence, social effects and even elements of war persist. The conflict in South Africa in the 1980s had a highly disruptive effect on social life (Hamber, 1999: 114), with high levels of militarisation of civil society (Marks and McKenzie, 1998: 222). This is reinforced by a culture of violence among political parties (Hamber, 1999: 118). South Africa was extensively politicised during the war, and violence has effectively 'bled into' society from politics, as the structural and repressive violence of apartheid diffused socially-approved violence across fields such as education and labour (Hamber, 1999: 118). With criminal means deployed by both sides in the war, it is unsurprising that they have become so widespread (Ellis, 1999: 52). In particular, ANC doctrines served historically to justify many forms of everyday violence as indirectly political (1999: 54).

One symbolic continuation of war is the status-value attached to guns. The demand for guns cannot be understood aside from the postcolonial context in which guns have been connected with revolutionary struggle (Cock, 2004: 124). Guns are also part of a 'masculine code' of protection and aggression, and a way of displaying status and wealth (Cock, 2004: 125). Possession of guns by black South Africans is a symbol of empowerment (Cock, 2004: 127). Young men had joined armed movements in the 1980s to become 'symbols of a new future' (Marks, 2001: 6). Yet these movements also created symbolic forms of masculinity which outlasted their usefulness for the rebellion (Xaba, 2001). In South Africa as elsewhere, 'small arms often form the basis of a militarised identity' connected to social differences and 'fuelled by poverty' (Cock, 2004: 108; c.f. 122). The AK-47 in particular has become a 'mythic icon' for youths in South Africa and elsewhere, through its connections to anti-colonial rebellion (Cock, 2004: 122). Effective peacebuilding would require shifting the social meanings of small arms (Cock, 2004: 122). '[T]here needs to be a process of social reconstruction, which involves creating alternative, demilitarised social identities, ideologies and patterns of social interaction' (2004: 129). In contrast, the state continues to promote military masculinity (2004: 125).

The failure of peacebuilding has meant that violence did not end, but rather, was displaced into everyday life. Violent crime increased at the time the armed conflict was coming to a close. This correlated with declining political violence, although the boundaries between the two types of violence are unclear (Hamber, 1999: 115). The risk of murder is five times higher than America and more than fifty times higher than Britain (1999: 116). The growth in fear is even greater, with an increase in major concern from 6% to 58% of people between 1994 and 1997 (Lemanski, 2004: 105). The crime wave facing South Africa has disappointed expectations that the transition from apartheid would see a decline in violence overall (Ellis, 1999: 51). In large part, this can be linked to the persistence of conflict issues around inequality. 'Social inequality and enormous deprivation caused by the apartheid system are at the root of most violence in South Africa' (Hamber, 1999: 118). For instance, the segregation of spaces remains a constant barrier to creating a deracialised society, perpetuating conflict (Harris, 2003: 2). Violent crime is concentrated in poor and especially rural areas (Hamber, 1999: 117), and empirical research confirms a close statistical connection to inequality (Demombynes and -zler, 2002). The risk of victimisation is highly affected by differences in living and working areas (Lemanski, 2004: 104). Both excluded and included perpetuate violence along the divide, with established hierarchical discourses marking continuities in violence (Palmary et al., 2003: 101-2).

There is also a political dimension. Ellis terms crime a 'social and political artifact' arising from the history of apartheid (Ellis, 1999: 51). It arose from a situation where the apartheid regime and the ANC competed for control of poor communities through creating patronage systems using local auxiliaries. The state in particular tended to rely on organised criminals for this purpose (Ellis, 1999: 52-3). The ANC and the regime were 'competing for years to turn many of the country's black communities into armed camps' (Ellis, 1999: 55). The complex local struggles hegemonised and militarised by the ANC and the former regime did not end with the formal end to hostilities, and 'man of the social groups... continue to pursue their factional interests by violence' (Ellis, 1999: 60). As Gary Kynoch argues, the transition 'was not in itself sufficient to erase a deeply entrenched culture of violence produced by decades of repressive racial policing, violent crime and social conflict' (2005: 493). The change of labels from political to criminal simply obscures this continuity (1999: 60). In a case such as feuding between taxi operators, the relationship between economic changes, political patronage and everyday violence is clear (Dugard, 2001).

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One response to fear of crime has been a proliferation of vigilantism, while murders and torture by police continue (1999: 119-20). In terms of militias and vigilantes, there is a blurred boundary between community defence forces and criminal gangs, with many gunmen operating on the margins between the two, as 'com-tsotsis' or comrade-gangsters (Ellis, 1999: 50). Vigilante violence has a long history in South Africa, but the language used to refer to it has shifted from politics to crime (Harris, 2003: 7). 'Vigilante violence pivots on fear', and often involves silencing affected communities (Harris, 2003: 8-9). Police violence in particular is a continuation of apartheid methods of social control against the poor, now concealed and legitimated behind the depoliticisation of the ongoing cycle of violence, reclassified as criminal. On the other hand, the politicisation of crime both obscures the real issues it involves and impedes the development of a culture of respect for human rights (1999: 121). The police have been trained to conflate political dissent and crime, leading to a militaristic response to social problems (Ellis, 1999: 55-6). They also remain deeply complicit in crime (1999: 61-2). Many apartheid-era rights violators have moved sideways from state forces into private security, continuing their established forms of violence (Harris, 2003: 7).

Just as significant as crime itself is the fear of crime, which is disproportionate to its (nevertheless substantial) risk and which is used as a site onto which traumas arising from the transition are mapped (Hamber, 1999), generating a widespread 'urban panic' (Lemanski, 2004: 103). While everyday violence figures in situational descriptions, identities are expressed by survey respondents in terms of fear and risk (Harris, 2003: 3-4). The spatial effects of fear of crime have been typified as a new apartheid, reinforcing residential segregation (Lemanski, 2004). Groups are divided between distinct areas in an 'architecture of fear' (2004: 101) in which fortifications embody a kind of permanent racialised class-war (2004: 108). One thus sees the persistence of conflict in displaced form in discourses around crime and violence. The transition to a holistic moral imagination advocated by Lederach has not occurred. South Africa still has no 'shared maps of meaning', with media discourse continuing to promote ideological hangovers from the apartheid era (Cock, 2004: 123). Fear of crime is mobilised to mask fear of (racial) difference, with everyday discourses on crime reproducing an image of criminals as black, poor and socially 'other' (Lemanski, 2004: 108-9). Anxieties arising from the transition to democracy have been mapped in terms of scapegoating aimed at undocumented migrants and ex-combatants (2004: 124). In various cases, communities or vigilantes scapegoat migrants such as Zimbabweans, often identified for their outsider status rather than specifiable crimes (Harris, 2003: 9). Ex-combatants are similarly stereotypes as a security threat, impeding attempts to reintegrate (Gear, 2002). White South Africans further conflate crime with black rule (Ellis, 1999: 50), with 'the hijacker' for instance treated as an exclusively black figure (Harris, 2003: 4). We see here the nexus of problems identified by Lederach: on the one hand, the spiral of fear engendered by conflict is simply displaced into fear of crime; on the other, the failure of empowerment reproduces the conditions for conflict.

Another aspect of this failure relates to demobilisation of ex-combatants. While some have been integrated in the new army, this is of limited effect due to massive downsizing (Motume and Hudson, 1995: 115-16). Most were bought off with lump-sum payouts or Service Corps retraining which did little to address their long-term prospects (1995: 124-5). The process seemed to aim to simply get ex-combatants out of the government's hands as soon as possible, without addressing effects of resultant poverty (Motume and Hudson, 1995: 128). The serious problem, however, is not so much demobilisation as long-term reintegration (Motumi and McKenzie, 1998). Ex-combatants from across the spectrum express feelings of abandonment by the state and society (Harris, 2003: 10-11). Sasha Gear's study reveals that ex-combatants 'feel they have been badly let down by those who propelled them into action and inspired their lives as combatants' (2002: 12). The majority of respondents in another study of MK returnees report that they are unemployed and living in poverty, with many extremely bitter about their treatment (Cock, 1993: sections 8-9). Former guerrillas unable to find work have often joined the many gangs and militias now proliferating (Ellis, 1999: 60). One could contrast the situation with that post-conflict Somaliland, where huge spending on buying off former soldiers effectively consolidated peace (Menkhaus, 2007: 91).

The reason for these failures is the neoliberal model adopted after the transition. While the importance of recomposing communities and addressing extreme poverty and voicelessness are recognised in much of the peacebuilding literature, it is rarely recognised that a neoliberal order cannot be a site for overcoming such problems, since it is built on exclusion, dispossession and persistent structural violence backed by state repression. Once formal racist measures had been eliminated, the most important step towards social peace would have been effective wealth redistribution, concentrating on basic provisions and self-empowerment of poor communities. But after taking power, the ANC quickly switched from socialist to neoliberal economic approaches. This appears to have been an effect of a transnational complex of elite actors drawing on global discourses hegemonic at the time (Peet, 2002). Its effect was to enable the ANC to take over the economic system, delegitimating alternatives and enabling fundamental economic continuities from the apartheid era (Williams and Taylor, 2000). Once in power, the ANC stifled participatory aspects of democracy, marginalising social movements and responding brutally to dissent (Desai, 2002).

This process contributed to the criminalisation of political violence. The change in the political landscape since 1994 has made obsolete the ANC hegemony over local struggles, which was founded on linking local grievances to apartheid. As a result, local struggles have diffused, lacking a unifying political message (Ellis, 1999: 60). This had a decomposing effect on social movements, with leaders drawn into the state and struggles disarticulated from the ANC (Ellis, 1999: 67). People view present-day circumstances in terms of moral attributes such as courage and failure, bracketing out the past (Harris, 2003: 4). The motives which take the place of political aspirations are derived from global consumerism, from which are derived the signifiers of status and 'fast living' desired by those who turn to acquisitive crime (Segal et al., 2001). On the other hand, survivors may come to see reconciliation as a gesture between elites which ignores their own poverty (Hamber, 1999: 125). Oppression continues, but without a clear enemy to fight, resistance decomposes into predatory horizontal violence.

To conclude, therefore, the failure - or in many cases absence - of sustained peacebuilding in everyday life can be attributed directly to the fusion of the ANC into existing socio-economic power-structures during the pacted transition. This has perpetuated the underlying problems which generated the conflict, displacing their effects sideways and outwards as diffuse social violence and conflicts. Old fears have dovetailed with new conditions to undermine the possibility of sustainable peace. With South Africa tied increasingly into the African region's move towards informal 'shadow economies' (Ellis, 1999: 67), it is doubtful if the state control fantasised as a response to fear is sustainable. Peaceful ways of managing the decomposition of state control are, however, blocked by the power of integrative identity-fantasies. These are in turn sustained by a determination on the part of elites to preserve power and wealth inequalities which are too extensive to permit effective peacebuilding. There is a need to address the prevalence of fear in social life and move towards facing fears so as to combat symbolic exclusion and embrace diversity (Lemanski, 2004: 110). This analysis can be quite widely generalised to other countries which underwent pacted transitions leading to neoliberal outcomes, such as the Philippines and a number of Latin American countries (Chile, Argentina, etc). In all of these societies, the failure to address socio-economic causes and effects of conflict is similarly complicated, and a repressive decomposition of the stakes of conflicts is masking the persistence of underlying conflict dynamics. Overall, there is a need to recognise neoliberalism as a source - or even a form - of antagonistic social 'warfare' against the excluded and marginal, and to recognise the inextricability of sustainable peace and human security from the global struggle against neoliberalism.