Identity in Conflict: Race and Violent Crime in South Africa in the Context of Contemporary Insurgencies

By Ethan D. Steyn
2011, Vol. 3 No. 03 | pg. 2/4 |
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This challenge to traditional assumptions of war’s political motivation makes the distinction between an organized form of such as gangsterism, which is seen as a , and warlordism, which is seen as part of war, increasingly difficult.  Belligerents in a environment often become involved in organized crime in an attempt to fund their activities in the absence of state sponsorship (which frequently came via the superpowers during the Cold War).  During the Balkan conflicts, Serbian and Albanian gangsters turned to human trafficking to support their activities (Hough 2008: 239 and Mair 2003: 16), but this transgression of the boundary between war and crime has its origins in Cold War insurgencies: the Azanian’s People’s Liberation Army (APLA) for instance utilized crime to fund their insurgency in (Moolman, 2000b: 65).  Structurally as well, Kilcullen (2010: 183) notes that Al Qa’eda resembles a crime syndicate more than a military organization, and the concept of war as a declared, organized violent contest between states is hopelessly outdated (at best).  Furthermore, some incidents of crime, as mentioned above, do have political ends as at least part of the motive, thus making the distinction between war and crime ever more difficult.   

The decisive factor distinguishing crime from insurgency is that insurgents wish to control the population and establish an alternative form of government (Kilcullen, 2010: 149-154), which criminals do not attempt.  Nevertheless, Kilcullen (2010: 183) argues, “there are strong analogies between police work, counterinsurgency and counter,” while “some terrorist networks share structural and operational similarities with organized crime networks.”  One such “operational similarity” is the use of identity in constructing and maintaining an insurgency or some South African violent crime, and thus apart from Kilcullen’s recognition of the applicability of counterinsurgency theory to disrupting gang structures, counterinsurgency theory can provide useful lessons for dealing with violent crime in general. 

Identity in counterinsurgency

Identity is always constructed using narratives, which aim at providing an overarching story that lends coherence to individual events, both past and present.  Braid (1996: 16) writes,

In many ways we understand the present happenings of the world by telling ourselves stories about ‘what is going on.’  We actively abstract a coherent, followable sequence of events from lived experience.  If these narratives ‘fit’ the unfolding of lived experience – if they are pragmatically useful in living or if they are congruent with experiences or narratives we already know – we feel we have understood or accurately experienced ‘what is going on.’  The coher­ence that informs the narrative can then be argued to be the coherence of the world and used as a resource for future interpretations.

Personal narratives function within larger narratives and facilitate the construction of communal and national identities (see e.g. Ward 2007: 12-14).  The collective narrative shared by members of a community is what constitutes the identity of ethnicity and race, as Carr (1986: 130) writes, “A community exists where a narrative account exists of a we which persists through its experiences and actions” (original emphasis).  Although narratives are constructed, they are seldom perceived as such, and where collective narratives that constitute communal identities have contributed to violence, such as the recent Sunni and Shi’ite conflict in Iraq, the importance of narrative construction in conflict environments has been highlighted.  To Kilcullen (2007: 24), narrative is a weapon in itself, and Betz (2008: 515) refers to strategic narratives, which “are deliberately constructed or reinforced out of the ideas and thoughts that are already current. They express a sense of identity and belonging and communicate a sense of cause, purpose and mission.”  Contemporary counterinsurgency theory thus acknowledges that the construction of identities through narrative is an integral part of contemporary conflict, as highlighted in the US Army and Marine Counterinsurgency Field Manual (Petraeus, 2006: 27),

Narratives are central to representing identity, particularly the collective identity of religious sects, ethnic groupings, and tribal elements. Stories about a community’s history provide models of how actions and consequences are linked. Stories are often the basis for strategies and actions, as well as for interpreting others’ intentions.

In Ferguson’s (2004: 3) view, “War and identity have been intimately related throughout the long history of western society”, but this statement would be as applicable to other parts of the world as well.  In counterinsurgencies as diverse as Rhodesia and Malaya, identity was as much part of the conflict as ideology (Marston and Malkasian, 2008: 16), but Cold War rivalries and the ideology of liberation obscured its influenceii.  The discrediting of socialism at the end of the Cold War, as well as the disillusionment that followed the independence of former European colonies, however exposed the role played previously by identity in counterinsurgencies.  Furthermore, Kaldor (2006: 7-8) argues that identity are often “reinvented” in the context of post-Cold War conflicts because of a “failure or the corrosion of other sources of political legitimacy – the discrediting of socialism or the nation-building of the first generation of post-colonial leaders”.  Importantly, Kaldor (2005: 213) sees identity politics as a construction in the present, “not legacies of the past”, and the narrative construction of a collective identity then becomes a diversion: other groups are blamed for failures to hide the dominant group’s own failures.  Furthermore, blaming members of different ethnic groups serve to “engender a sense of social identity” ( Government Interagency Counterinsurgency Initiative, 2009: 9-10).  In contemporary South Africa, the South African Institute of Race Relations came to an almost exact assessment, “In order to shore up support in the black community the ANC increasingly appears to be seeking to shift the blame for its delivery failures onto the small white ethnic minority” (PRAAG, 2010).

‘Demonizing’ strategies are sometimes employed by one ethnic group (‘us’) to impose “denigrated identities” or “identities of ‘otherness’” (Langman and Scatamburlo, 1996: 133) on those belonging to another ethnic group (‘them’) – usually by a majority on a minority.  Stereotypes are constructed, and the person’s individuality becomes obscured by an imposed identity that is both ‘other’ and placed in an inferior position to the group’s own identity.  ‘Us’ and ‘them’ are however reified identities,

In creating categories, members are separated from non-members, insiders from outsiders, comrades from strangers, friends from enemies, and ‘those who are with us from those who are against us’.  The bases for such classifications are grounded in tradition, in historical precedent, and in established ways of doing things.  As such, borders are selective, arbitrary, and conventional.  They are, in effect, socially constructed forms of reality that become reified and endowed with objective, factual quantities (Neal and Collas, 2000: 17).

In , Tutsis were called cockroaches by Hutus, and in , Montagnards were called moi, meaning “dog”, by the Vietnamese (Taylor, 2003: 47).  Gregory Stanton of Watch (from the documentary A bloody harvest broadcast on Carte Blanche in 2003) is particularly concerned about farm attacks in South Africa, “Such repeated mutilations of victims’ bodies indicate a deep hatred of the victims by the perpetrators, who view their victims as objects, as vermin to be exterminated, rather than as human beings” (see also Francis 2009).  In January 2009, two black uniformed police officers pointed a firearm at a farmer near Odendaalsrus, called him a “white dog” and said that “all white dogs in South Africa will be killed” (De Wet, 2009).   The persistence of such derogatory views of other ethnic groups, which are often characteristic of insurgencies, illustrates that the ethnic dimension of the ANC and PAC’s insurgency of the 1980s and 1990s has not been deconstructed successfully.  Ballantine (2004: 122-124) furthermore quotes numerous ANC statements that were printed in the Mail & Guardian in 2000, such as that whites “are incapable of a non-racist and, so, a constructive contribution to the future” and “if we continue to stereotype whites, we effectively silence their right to democratic citizenship.”  Despite lip service to the democratic ideals of the so-called Rainbow Nation, elements therefore remain that perpetuate the racial hatred of the past.

According to Kaldor, an area can be rendered uninhabitable through physical means, such as planting mines and booby-traps, economically though sieges or famines, or psychologically by desecrating whatever has social meaning to the target population (usually a minority, as happened in Bosnia).  Kaldor (2006: 106) mentions the removal of “physical landmarks that define the social environment of particular groups of people”, such as religious buildings or historic monuments.  The changing of names in South Africa has been a controversial subject, and can be located under what Warwick (2009) calls “the demolition of white South African identity” – or at least the perception thereof.

One specific form of psychologically tainting a territory in contemporary warfare is rape: Münkler (2005: 82-87), Kaldor (2006: 55) Ward & Marsh (2006: 3-5) and Bracewell (2000: 565) claim that is often used to drive a population out of a particular area.  It is estimated that between 20,000 and 50,000 women were raped in the Balkan wars, while the figure during the Rwandan genocide stands at more than 250,000 (Münkler, 2005: 20).   

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