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. 3/4 |

In , race and class cannot be considered separately, because whites remain, on average, financially better off than blacks.  Hamel, Brodie and Morin (2005: 353) write that after a decade of , “South Africa remains a country of ‘Haves’ (mainly Whites) and ‘Have-nots’ (mainly Blacks)” (see also CSVR 2007: 31).  However, race and class are not interchangeable terms in South Africa, nor were they ever.  Apartheid itself had developed out of a need to address the problem of poverty among whites, and Schuermans and Visser (2005: 288) note how structural reforms in the late 1970s and the 1980s influenced the current situation, where a much higher growth of white poverty in comparison with the national average has been observed. The ANC and sections of the media however routinely allege that the white community as a whole is “rich”, and “Such simplistic reasoning is easily digested by those bitter or frustrated at their poverty, with hateful attitudes re-emerging as dangerous stereotyping accepted as objective truth” (Warwick, 2009). 

Mandela argued for the construction of an inclusive South African identity, “We refuse to accept that our Africanness shall be defined by our race, color, gender or historical origins. It is a firm assertion made by ourselves that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white” (quoted in Hermann 2009).  In line with Kaldor’s (2006: 85) abovementioned observation that ethnicity is reinvented in light of post-independence disillusionment, Mbeki’s presidency however reinvented racial discourse within the context of economic failure and violent , and Mbeki himself described South African society as composed of two populations: One rich and white, the other poor and black (Hermann, 2009).  The so-called ‘class war’ mentioned above thereby becomes reconstructed as a ‘race war’ that feeds on absolutist identity constructions of the past – identity often reinvented for political goals.  Andile Mngxitama (2010) of the Foundation for , writing an opinion piece on the Mail & Guardian Online, for instance rejects Mandela’s conception of South African identity by claiming that the radio DJ Gareth Cliff’s letter to the government, “uses the universal ‘we’ to erase the differential realities of blacks and whites and thereby presents his white perspective as representing all.”  Mngxitama uses “oppressed” as a synonym for “black” and “privileged” as a synonym for “white”, and in a decisively zero-sum outlook, he claims, “When Cliff complains about and how it affects the rich (read whites), he never pauses to ask how the rich got rich in the first place. If he asked this he would have to confront a bitter reality that whites accumulated wealth and comfort not through hard work but , plunder and theft.”  As is the case with the numerous discussions on the Reitz-video incident, subsequent comments show that these types of views are neither widely shared nor isolated, although verifying the existence of commentators on the internet is notoriously difficult.  Nevertheless, these views are expressed in the public domain.  Nowhere was this zero-sum outlook and reductionist class/race view voiced more clearly than in the widely reported call by the leader of the Uhuru Cultural Club, Faraday Nkoane, in 2006: “The whites have stolen from us since April 6, 1652.  Our ancestors’ cattle, goats, sheep, chickens and others are in the hands of the whites, while we are left with nothing. Go and steal from them because it is right. Taking from whites is not a crime because you repossess what belongs to you.”

While such views are extreme and not representative of the black population in general, racial relations deteriorated under Mbeki’s presidency.  Gibson & Claasen’s (2009) study found that black South Africans not only score higher for racial prejudice towards whites than vice versa, but their study also shows an increase in racial prejudice for the black population between 2001 and 2004, whereas a decrease was noted for Indian and white minorities.  They (2009: 11) write, “we observe significant differences across time for all race groups: a clear decrease in reconciliation for Africans, and increases for the other groups.”  Gibson & Claasen’s assessment of white attitudes is underscored by the view of the South African Institute of Race Relations, “much white opinion since the early 1990s has been moderate. White South Africa has been willing and often eager to cooperate with the Government in building an open, non-racial, and prosperous South Africa” (PRAAG, 2010).  While whites have, apart from highly publicized exceptions like the Reitz video, thus generally attempted to incorporate the ideal of the new democracy, racial identities are again imposed on whites as they were during the apartheid years. 

The present utilization of identity politics in turn reconstructs an Afrikaner laager mentality that played a major role in the construction and maintenance of apartheid in the first place: By 2003, Afrikaners numbered a mere 3.2 million, and this numerical disadvantage has been “the primary cause of fears regarding security and cultural survival” (Giliomee, 2004: xvi).  The result is what Valji, Harris and Simpson (2004) refer to as a “fear of crime fuelled by the mythology that whites are the primary targets merely because of their race.”  This perception is voiced by Warwick (2009) as well, “the de facto situation is that whites are under criminal siege explicitly because of their ‘race’.  Despite evasion in acknowledging this, enough media reports confirm a shockingly high degree of anti-white violence accompanied by racial insults.”  Unfortunately, the SAPS does not keep statistics on racial demographics in crime, and thus it is difficult to verify, quantify or contradict this view with certainty. 

The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation note “reasonable evidence that there are substantial differences in levels of risk of violent victimization and offending between different race groups in South Africa” (CSVR, 2007: 131), although lamenting the difficulty of finding accurate up-to-date information.  For instance, they cite data by the National Injury Mortality Surveillance System, collected from 32 mortuaries in 2001, which indicates that among deaths at those mortuaries, “51% of Colored deaths, 48% of African deaths, 27% of Asian deaths and 18% of White deaths were linked to homicide” (CSVR, 2007: 132).  They offer a careful explanation of these and other statistics,

This probably indicates that, of homicides among Coloureds, Africans and Indians, a high proportion is related to arguments and acquaintance violence. A higher proportion of homicides among Whites is probably related to robberies and perhaps burglaries of people in the 35–54 age band. These are probably people who have established careers and who therefore present more attractive targets for property crime. However, this does not necessarily mean that Whites suffer more than other groups from murders related to predatory crime. The higher overall rate of murder of members of other race groups may also include a substantial proportion of murders related to predatory crime.iv

In 2004, The Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University conducted a nationally representative survey of South Africans, “in order to shed light on South Africans’ attitudes towards and experiences with democracy, their level of trust in leaders and institutions, and their hopes and fears for the future of South Africa” (Hamel, Brodie and Morin, 2005: 351).  In such a representative survey, it is noteworthy that although a third of South Africans reported that they had been the victim of crime in the previous five years, the survey did not reflect a general consistency across races:  A majority of Whites (62%) and Indians (51%), and a smaller share of Coloreds (35%) and Blacks (28%) reported having been victims of crime (2005: 353).  Correlated with this uneven distribution, whites and Indians were found to be more pessimistic and have less confidence in government than coloreds or blacks (2005: 354), and the authors conclude that crime has a direct impact on these attitudes, “After controlling for other factors, those who have been a victim of crime or know someone close to them who has been a victim are more likely to say things have gotten worse since apartheid, and have lower confidence in government than those who have no experience with crime” (2005: 361).

Whites can also come to see the black population as a whole as criminals, and thus also contribute to the perpetuation of stereotypes.  Schuermans and Visser (2005: 288) acknowledge that “’whiteness’ is still associated with normal, comfortable lives, both by those whites who find themselves to be poor and those who are not poor.”  If not being poor has become part of white identity, being black suggests the possibility of being poor, and since the poor come to be viewed as the threat (Shapiro, 2009: 447), the swart gevaar (black menace) can manifest in a new, post-apartheid guise.  Valji, Harris and Simpson (2004) note how “'the hijacker' frequently means 'the young, black, male criminal' in white suburbia.” 

By seeing class as synonymous with race, South African society continues to be divided along racial lines.  The zero-sum outlook – of which the abovementioned provides evidence – risks demonizing whites in post-apartheid South Africa, for if “People with power and wealth presumably reached that position by exploiting others,” (Ross, Mirowsky and Pribesh, 2001: 570), and whites are perceived to be the demographic with wealth and power, attacks on whites can become justified.  Furthermore, as whites continue to feel threatened in the new South Africa, the trend observed by Gibson & Claassen may well be reversed and spark a new increase in white racism.


Contemporary war theory acknowledges that the categories war and crime are not mutually exclusive.  In this article, it was argued that some of the motivating factors of both criminal and war violence – including poverty, potential wealth, and identity politics – often overlap.  As in contemporary insurgencies, identity politics play an important role in some forms of violent crime, and indeed the violence of the new South Africa has much in common with the violence of contemporary conflicts – not to mention the comparability of the scale and intensity of violence.  Although identity is a human construction, it becomes reified in environments and serves as a justification for committing violence against innocent civilians, particularly if they become regarded as responsible for the wrongs of society, or worse even, if they are regarded as less than human.  As violence continues, alienation deepens, scarring the social fabric of South Africa again.  Future research can follow Ross, Mirowsky and Pribesh in quantifying the effect that violent crime has had on community relations in South Africa so far.

If violent crime is seen as a security issue sharing some characteristics with counterinsurgencies, Cock’s (2005: 803) contention that economic issues are a greater threat to human security in South Africa than military threats and should therefore be prioritized, is underscored by contemporary counterinsurgency theory.  Counterinsurgency theory sees conflict as multidimensional – Kilcullen (2006: 4) refers to the security, political, and economic aspects as the “three pillars” of counterinsurgency.    No counterinsurgency can be won without a legitimate political approach and economic incentives, and the same applies to crime: police alone will not end violent crime.  Kilcullen (2009: 13) argues, “perhaps counter-intuitively for some, activities to kill and capture terrorists seem (and are) offensive at the tactical level but are in fact strategically defensive, because they contain the problem rather than resolving it.” Without addressing the issues of identity politics and poverty, racially based violence will remain endemic to South Africa. 

This article has focused on the political element, particularly the utilization of identity politics as a means of diverting attention away from government failures and the violent human cost of such a strategy.  South Africa cannot hope to achieve a peaceful, non-racial society if the narrative “whites are rich because they exploited blacks” is not debunked in the public consciousness, but at the same time it would be naïve to propose an alternative narrative as the silver bullet for South Africa’s numerous violent problems.  As in counterinsurgency, a holistic approach must be followed that addresses all three pillars of the conflict, of which identity is but one small part.


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