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 |

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 , such as the recent Sunni and Shi’ite 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 , 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 rape 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).   

Despite the fact that researchers agree that the majority of rapes are not reported, South Africa is at the top of the world rankings regarding reported cases of rape (Jefthas and Artz, 2007: 48), alongside conflict zones such as Sierra Leone and Afghanistan.  Between 1994 and 2004, 512,869 incidents of rape were recorded (, 2009) at an average of 140.4 per day.  No data is available on the race of victims and perpetrators, or on the percentage of racially motivated rape.  Note however the threat issued by black male students at the University of the Free State in October 2009: they called white females “white bitches” who would be raped if they did not leave the campus (Coetzee, 2009) – a clear example of rape (or rather threat thereof) employed to rid an area of an undesired population group, in this case the minority.  Rape furthermore often accompanies farm attacks as well as residential attacks in cities, although the abovementioned figures represent total recorded rape, not only white.  Hough’s (2008: 121) belief that rape in conflict environments is directly or indirectly the result of “demonizing” strategies and of a desire to humiliate “the ‘other’” can be linked to South Africa: the abovementioned slogans of the ANC and PAC propagated attacks on all whites, while the perception that all whites humiliated blacks during the apartheid years can create a desire to humiliate all whites in turn.

Class and race

Class is part-and-parcel of identity, and in contemporary insurgencies this often leads to previously excluded layers of the population venting their anger on others considered more affluent (Münkler, 2005: 78-81).  Violence is seen as a way of obtaining social recognition, either through combating the influx of consumerism (in the case of radical Islam), or by providing rapid access to the symbols of Western affluence in terms of clothing, sunglasses, motor vehicles etc. (Münkler, 2005: 78) – particularly in Africa.  Violence becomes one of the few available avenues for escaping poverty, as argued by Metz (2008: 35), “Without a gun, most insurgent soldiers are simply poor, uneducated, disempowered people with no prospects and little hope. Insurgency changes all that. It makes the insurgent important and powerful and provides a livelihood.” 

Neo-liberal policies adopted globally have contributed to this problem, as it generally involved an increase in the level of unemployment, rapid urbanization, and increased migration and urbanization (Kaldor, 2006: 87), while at the same time the globalised industry has created desires for status symbols, which are unobtainable by the poor.  Similarly, in Ross & Mirowsky’s (1987: 258) view, is precisely the acceptance of financial prosperity as goal, but the inability to achieve that prosperity through legal means (because of structural issues that render the individual powerless to escape the poverty quagmire) forces particularly the poor to reject legal and moral codes of conduct. One result in poor communities is a zero-sum outlook, as summarized by Ross, Mirowsky and Pribesh (2001: 570), “The zero-sum world view regards the total amount of wealth, power, or prestige as limited, so that one person’s gain implies another person’s loss. People with few resources compete for a limited pool of resources. People with power and wealth presumably reached that position by exploiting others.” 

Shapiro (2009: 447) sees the modern city as “a site of class and ethnic warfare” where the rich build walls to shield themselves from the poor (see also Barolsky and Pillay (2009: 16)).  South African cities have become enclosed spaces with walls around estates, town house complexes and individual houses – often accompanied by an electrified fence.  This spatial segregation contributes to social exclusion and reduced contact between different races and classes (Landman and Schönteich, 2002: 81), which Valji, Harris and Simpson (2004) call “the visible face of exclusion; a barrier between the haves and the have-nots.”  From one side of the fence resentment festers; from the other mistrust.iii  Ross, Mirowsky and Pribesh (2001: 570) have found that mistrust contributes significantly to social isolation, because people who trust others tend to form more voluntary relationships, and mistrust itself is partially the result of living in an environment where it is difficult to distinguish between real and perceived threats.  Since the price paid for unwarranted mistrust is much lower than the price of unwarranted trust, mistrusting others becomes the safer approach.  This results in what the authors (2001: 584) call a “self-amplifying downward spiral” that deepens social alienation from the side of the wealthy, but if the poor resent the wealthy through the application of a zero-sum outlook, alienation between classes deepens even further.  Barolsky and Pillay (2009: 18) come to a comparable understanding of violent crime in South Africa, “We see the impact of violent crime in creating forms of community that are at odds with unifying nation-building efforts of governments. The result is balkanized zones of governance and citizenship in the global South: in informal settlements, gated communities, vigilante groups and gangs.”

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