South African society is blighted by relentless violence. But acceding to demands for a more authoritarian state, or accepting the emergence of organised forms of street violence aimed at scapegoating vulnerable minorities, will only tighten the cycle of violence. The way out of the crisis is real progress towards a more democratic and just society that is founded on social solidarity and the universal recognition of human dignity.
From mass unemployment to escalating racism, systematic state failure and obscene levels of inequality presided over by a ruthlessly predatory elite, South Africa is a crisis-wracked society. This structural dysfunction is compounded by terrifyingly high rates of assault, rape and murder.
The violence is a manifestation of the accumulation of profound historical trauma and deep structural problems. To undo the pervasive violence in the present, we need to understand how the historical violence of colonialism and apartheid has accumulated into the present and continues to be reproduced.
But everyday violence also has an exceptionally powerful political and psychological gravity of its own. The pervasive fear of violence and harm is evident in the fortified architecture of cities and towns, the ubiquity of private security and personal weapons, and various forms of vigilantism. It is encoded in people’s anxious postures on the streets. Women live with a particularly exhausting form of constant fear.
These fears are often grounded in grim personal experience. It would be a rare person in South Africa who has not experienced or witnessed some form of violence, or does not have someone close to them who has been subjected to serious violence.
In response to popular pressure, the state pays lip service to the catastrophic levels of violence against women, failing to provide the resources and political will to robustly confront this national disgrace. Grotesque misogyny often receives implicit sanction from the state and the ruling party.
Intimate, interpersonal violence is compounded by generalised violent crime. Profound social exclusion and abandonment, along with systemic police corruption, have allowed gangsters to gain control of some neighbourhoods. In parts of the Cape Flats, civilians are regularly caught in the crossfire of drug turf wars.
A state of shame
But violence does not only come from toxic interpersonal relationships and criminality. The state itself regularly treats its subjects with astonishing, casual brutality. The trigger-happy South African Police Service is infamous for assaulting, torturing and shooting people. Peaceful popular dissent is routinely met with the full force of water cannons, rubber bullets, dogs, fists and, not infrequently, live ammunition.
State violence is paralleled by more covert forms of terror. Political assassinations are a regular occurrence in certain regions, with the situation being particularly bad in KwaZulu-Natal. While some of these assassinations result from intra-ANC conflicts over office and tenders, many grassroots activists have been murdered by hitmen. Political murders are especially rampant in communities that have protested against mining operations, showing how the toxic alliance between political elites, traditional authority and business interests results in a willingness to kill to extract resources.
And as the country’s post-Covid-19 socioeconomic woes grow, new forms of political violence are asserting themselves. The past few months have seen an empowered white far right raiding a police station in Senekal in the Free State and assaulting unarmed demonstrators at Brackenfell High School in the Western Cape.
There is also the profoundly disturbing emergence of increasingly organised xenophobic politics. The social industries are rank with bloodcurdling, often fascist, rhetoric that presents migrants as vectors of crime and disease who need to be violently removed from the body politic. In KwaZulu-Natal, so-called Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) veterans and the All Truck Drivers Foundation have openly intimidated and attacked migrants. With people claiming to be MK veterans exercising street violence in military uniforms, there is a clear and present threat to basic democratic norms and any prospects for social solidarity
More recently, MK veterans leader Kebby Maphatsoe threatened a coup if former president Jacob Zuma is arrested. Maphatsoe is as much of a buffoon as Carl Niehaus, and so this threat may well be hyperbolic bluster. But such inflammatory, militaristic language is deeply anti-democratic. Unfortunately, such authoritarian machismo is all too prevalent in South African political culture and discourse.
Abusing the language of the struggle
It is important to recall that resistance to the apartheid state also developed elements of machismo and casual violence, especially in ANC prison camps in exile such as the notorious Quatro, and during the de facto civil war of the 1980s. This has continued in the present, with compromised politicians like Zuma using the language of the armed struggle to cynically legitimise the abuse of his office and the organised theft of public funds. In Durban, the political repression of grassroots activists, including through assassination, has also been legitimised in the language of the armed struggle.
The state has frequently met popular organisation and protest with paranoia and violence, presenting dissent as a “counter-revolutionary” conspiracy rather than an opportunity for democratic engagement.
Given this bleak situation, it would be tempting to see violence as an intractable social ill. If we accept that endemic violence is simply a fact of life, the middle classes will continue to flee the country or withdraw into fortified bunkers, protected by increasingly militarised forms of private security, while everyone else will turn to vigilantism in a desperate attempt to keep safe. There will also be a temptation to rally behind demagogues like Herman Mashaba and Julius Malema, who present themselves as strongmen willing and able to use violence to remedy social ills.
The sense of existential dread, which cheapens daily life, offers fertile ground for a range of demagogues to try to build popular support by demanding the reinstatement of the death penalty, even more brutal policing, or violent state and popular action against vulnerable groups such as migrants, sex workers and people with substance-dependency issues.
But a downward spiral into escalating brutality is not preordained. Violence is ultimately rooted in political and cultural structures, which can be challenged and supplanted with ideas, organisation and mobilisation. The success of the Treatment Action Campaign in the 2000s, which forced the state to roll out lifesaving medication, shows that mass action that exposes and shames government indifference can be an effective force for transformative social change.
South Africa still has a politically engaged populace. This is evident everywhere, from the ubiquity of popular protest to the ways in which trade unions have held government corruption to account. It is also reflected in grassroots organisations like Abahlali baseMjondolo, which has, incredibly, persisted and grown in the face of sustained repression. The online anger about violence against women and the ways in which women are increasingly expressing righteous rage at toxic masculinity also indicate a potential political opening.
Making daily life safer
Any successful anti-violence politics needs to be rooted in democratic forms of organising in which women are central protagonists and the recognition of human dignity is a starting point for political work. Human dignity should also be one of its goals for changes in broader society. It is also vital that an anti-violence politics eschews cheap moralism and works to build social forces that can make real material gains for the disenfranchised majority. Many of the policies for which social movements and trade unions have been fighting – from more inclusive cities to an end to austerity economics – will make daily life safer. From better healthcare, housing and schools to children’s feeding schemes and better street lighting, expanded social justice is the best insurance policy against personal insecurity.
But it is also essential to confront the individual choices and social pathologies that lead people to commit harms. Political education and socialisation are crucial to undoing the learnt patriarchal attitudes that produce interpersonal violence. This cultural shift not only needs to happen in schools and universities, but also in daily life.
Simultaneously, the state needs to be pressured to undertake extensive reform of the police and criminal justice system. However, we should have no illusions that the police are an ally, as they ultimately exist to uphold the authority of the state and capital and hierarchical social values. Progressives can resist co-option by challenging how much state spending is poured into securitisation and corrupt and ineffective policing, and calling for resources to be better spent on infrastructure, supporting victims and social programmes that can address the collective traumas that drive interpersonal violence. As the Defund the Police movement in the United States has shown, this message is not utopian or self-righteous, but a pragmatic call for public resources to be used wisely and effectively.
It is also important to explore visions of crime control and violence reduction that are not exclusively rooted in incarceration and expanded policing. There are aggressively antisocial people who need to be isolated so that they cannot harm others, but alternative models of community justice can help to drastically reduce violence without reproducing the pathologies that produce violence in the first place. Our prisons are sites of organised sadism and brutality that damage everyone who passes through them.
South Africa’s history of conflict and strife resonates with other countries that have undergone civil war and political conflict. These experiences show that mass education and redistributive justice, which focuses on repairing harm and helping victims, can be highly successful in altering the personal and collective dynamics that foster violence.
We will not overcome endemic violence with vague platitudes or more police officers. Rather, this work requires addressing both the socioeconomic horrors and the individual toxicities that drive domination, violence and social sadism. There is no easy route out of this claustrophobic atmosphere of fear and dread. Democratically accountable forms of social organisation that directly address material needs and challenge regressive and harmful mindsets are the best mechanism for working towards a society where people can live in safety, without the constant anticipation of attack and hurt.