The 2018 Global Peace Index listed South Africa as one of the most violent and dangerous places on earth and getting worse.
Fast forward to 2021 in the aftermath of Jacob Zuma’s arrest and jailing for contempt of court. Gun battles echo in central Johannesburg as police struggled to deal with pro Zuma supporters. Plumes of smoke fill the air as looters blockade major roads in and out of the central business district. South Africa is on fire.
The damage now into millions of Rands. Shops were ransacked and the police are out of sorts as they are stretched to their limits. Parts of South Africa now resemble a war zone.
But why all this? Do they really want the former President Jacob Zuma to be freed from jail or this is just a wanton disposition to violence? Is violence an ingrained culture?
South Africa has a long history of violence. It was used as a tool of power and governance by colonialists to repress and control the indigenous people. The apartheid regime from 1948 used violence as part of its repertoire to gain and maintain social and political control.
Such a culture of violence is hard to stop, especially when it has become a legitimised and institutionalised form of coercion. South Africans are living with this legacy.
Prince Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi bemoaned this culture of violence in the wake of Zuma’s arrest and warned that “this is an internal war against ourselves, and South Africa cannot survive it. Ours was already a country on its knees. Such unchecked destruction will finish off any chance of recovery or economic survival. If there is any fear in acting against the perpetrators, that fear must be set aside for the sake of us all.”
Tracing back the culture of violence in South Africa, Buthelezi said “In 1976, after the Soweto uprising, I was working closely with Mr Oliver Tambo and the ANC’s mission-in-exile. What had happened in Soweto led the ANC to call for ungovernability. They urged all oppressed South Africans to make this country ungovernable. While I understood this response, I warned Mr Tambo against it, for I foresaw the creation of a culture of violence and lawlessness that we would be hard-pressed to change or remove when we gained control of the country.”
South Africa is burning. The last couple of days have seen an increase in the violent destruction of property and looting as thugs under the guise of the #freezuma movement engaged in all manner of criminality, manifesting a culture of violence that must be now taken as a cause for concern in South Africa.
One can argue that this prevailing culture of violence in South Africa is strongly influenced by prevailing attitudes, beliefs and messages that surround people in everyday life. A culture has developed in the country where direct violence is seen as the most effective means to respond to conflict.
A discourse has emerged that glorifies the use of violence, through war narratives, by some political leaders who use military values, symbols and rhetoric to mobilise and gain support. This perpetuates militarism as an ideology that embraces social practices that regard the use of violence as normal and desirable. One can see this within not only the South African public but also in the police.
Interestingly, the main opposition party in South Africa the Democratic Alliance (DA) issued a statement that seems to call on the state to crush violence with violence.
“South Africans might be excused for asking where the Intelligence Services are as the country burns around their ears.
Where is the domestic branch of the State Security Agency as our infrastructure is destroyed? Where is Crime Intelligence as our supermarkets are looted? Do we even have a crime intelligence structure?
It’s not as though the Free Zuma protests have come as a surprise. Posters advertising when and where protests will take place have been passed about social media for days, the latest of which is warning workers to stay home tomorrow, that all shops must be closed, that all trucks must be parked.
Yet have the authors of these incendiary, treasonous flyers been arrested? No. Do we see any attempt to prevent these attacks from happening? No. Do we see battalions of public order police standing by, on the scene, waiting? Not a single one.” Reads part of their statement.
Meanwhile the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) chose to condemn the national broadcaster (SABC) for what they termed “a blackout of the violence in KwaZulu Natal by the SABC” one wonders why this was the EFF’s primary concern as opposed to calling for a stop to the violence?
Political parties such as the DA, maybe inadvertently strengthening the call for a Marikana style outcome. Which is sad given that after the Marikana incident calls were made to demilitarise the police.
While the South African police leadership is purporting to close specialist policing units, they increased the number of paramilitary units. Yet there is no transparency about when and why the paramilitary units are being deployed. And there are signs that they have become normalised in more areas of policing: an operational indicator of militarisation.
They have also become well-known for extremely violent policing, especially the Tactical Response Team.
The police and the military are increasingly being deployed jointly to the point where South Africa’s security cluster, comprising primarily the departments of intelligence, army, and the police, has begun referring to the police, the military and the intelligence services as the joint security forces. This is being done on an increasingly centralised basis through the National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure, an organisational indicator of militarisation. This will only serve to further embed the culture of violence in South Africa.
Indeed, the challenge that South Africa now faces and the Ramaphosa administration in particular is how to turn the situation around. How do they assert power and uphold the constitution without engaging in violence?
Seeking to suppress the use of violence in South Africa through the threat of direct violence by the state, such as deploying the army to combat the pro-Zuma (so-called-free-Zuma protestors), is not the solution.
It reinforces the notion that violence is to be met with violence, without addressing the deeper underlying structural and cultural issues that perpetuate conflict.
Addressing structural and cultural violence is a lot more difficult than addressing direct violence but lies at the root of the violence experienced in South Africa. Failure to do so may lead to even more severe levels of violence that could potentially destabilise the state, putting the safety and security of people in even greater jeopardy. Sadly, the country continues to focus on direct violence instead of addressing the causes.