South African Explanations of Political Violence 1980-1995

  • Johann Graaff Department of Sociology, University of Cape Town Private Bag, Rondebosch 7700, South Africa


During the 1980's and the early 1990's South Africa experienced disturbing political violence of an unprecedented scope, intensity and nature. It was disturbing because it entailed acts of horrifying brutality, notably the ‘necklace' and the massacre, all of this against the background of ‘civilized' and measured com promise and negotiation. It stubbornly continued despite the unbanning of the liberation political organisations, and the holding of ‘free and fair' elections in April 1994. And it was unprecedented in a whole range of ways, but mainly because of the fact that it was intracommunal, or black- on- black, violence. It was the first time that Black political organisations had turned on each other rather than their white oppressors. For our purposes, what is interesting is the range of responses emanating from South African social scientists in explaining this new phenomenon. Historically, explaining Black political violence in South Africa has had a difficult time of it. Starting with Pierre van den Berghe in 1962, predictions of imminent revolution against the apartheid regime have been so regularly and frequently proved wrong, that a whole industry has arisen in explaining quiescence rather than violence (P. van den Berghe, 1965). The first cluster of theories spawned by the 1976 schools uprising, as Frank Molteno noted in his 1979 review, were analytically disappointing, if not crudely racist. Subsequent overviews by Manganyi & du Toit in 1990, and Beinart in 1992 have born evidence of considerably greater sophistication (Molteno, F (1979).; Manganyi, N & A du Toit, (1990); Beinart, W (1992)). Nevertheless, as I shall show, most have remained within quite conventional theoretical and structuralist parameters. Many have their roots in the earlier dominant Marxism of the 1970's. In this sense they tend towards structural and class determinism, towards absolutist notions of power, and absolutist moral judgement of both apartheid and the individuals associated, however indirectly, with it. In consequence, Black incumbents of apartheid structures were inevitably depicted as willess and powerless puppets dancing to the tune of omnipotent White masters. In this context, it was wrong to talk of black- on- black violence, since one side of this equation, in reality, represented white interests. Much of this analysis also started from quite easy notions of the origins of violence. In this view it was sufficient to show (objective) conflicts of interest, or contra diction, in order to conclude that violence had been adequately explained. Against this background the more hermeneutic contribution by André du Toit to the debate stands out as theoretically innovative, nuanced and bold. This is not to say that it is with out problems. But I do wish to present a picture of a social theorist of considerable imagination and subtletly. Looking back over these theories, it would be tempting to say that the first category of structuralist accounts, should be supplemented with the second category of hermeneutic, accounts. But simply adding theoretically discrepant accounts together is too easy. It is only when the whole notion of structure, employed in the first category, is rethought in post-structuralist form, that an integration of the two elements becomes feasible. This paper follows a Giddensian line in pursuing this reconceptualization. S. Afr. J. Philos. Vol.20(1) 2001: 102-123

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