Africa: an artificial patchwork?
Understanding the dynamics of ethnic conflicts in Africa means appreciating the role of ethnic identity
In 2011 Peter S. Larson, a professor at the University of Nagasaki, Japan, published an attempt to chart the interplay between ethnicity and African conflict. Larson used the 1959 map of 835 “ethnic regions” of Africa produced by anthropologist George Murdock. While admitting that Murdock’s map is “perhaps naïve”, Larson states that it remains an important source to Africanists. He then drew on the University of Sussex’s Armed Conflict and Event Location Database to plot current conflict events onto Murdock’s ethnographic map. Mapping conflict by national borders painted huge chunks of the African map red with danger, Larson found, but plotting the Sussex data onto the Murdock map altered the patterns. In particular, conflicts became identifiable as regional rather than as national or international. Moreover, he wrote, “one can see that conflict events largely occur within Murdock’s ethnic boundaries”. Yet he argued against the conclusion that African conflicts were mainly ethnicity-driven. As one example, Larson’s map revealed that the Algerian conflict is really a conflict between the government and the Amazigh, a Berber group of the Kabyle region of the Atlas Mountains who have a tradition of independence: Amazigh means “Free People”. By contrast, the map plots the ethnic element behind the secessionist war in Angola’s Cabinda enclave, where the Bakongo majority has developed a unique culture distinct from that of other Bakongo in the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Similar convergences of conflict and ethnicity can be seen in Ogoni and Ijaw militancy in the Niger Delta, the Tuareg insurrection of northern Mali, and other regions. Larson’s map was published just before the Arab Spring rolled out across the Maghreb. The latest Sussex map, published in 2015, shows the spread of conflict into Libya, especially to Benghazi.
Conflicts in Africa by ethnic region
Source: Peter S. Larson’s blog: https://peterslarson.com/2011/01/19/african-conflict-and-ethnic-distribution/
In Egypt it has moved into Sinai, where most people speak Bedawi Arabic, unlike Cairo’s Egyptian Arabic majority. In the former Somalia, conflict is centred in Mogadishu. Other conflicts are mapped in north-western Nigeria (Boko Haram), South Sudan, and the Central African Republic (CAR). The map shows that violence against civilians had declined in Zimbabwe, especially in Matabeleland. Meanwhile, civil protests continued in South Africa, as well as in many West African and Maghreb capitals after the lull following the Arab Spring. Perhaps more telling is Sussex’s 2015 map of the agents of violent conflict in Africa. Searching only for “communal militia” reveals a widespread tendency to armed communal violence, in distinct regions, that likely involves an element of ethnicity. For example, in Libya communal militia-driven conflict occurs in remote and coastal areas that are homogeneously Arab or Toubou. But the civil war is not only ethnicity-based; it is also a politico-confessional conflict between former Gaddafi supporters and Salafist and democratic forces.
Spread of main languages in Africa
Source: Peter S. Larson’s blog: https://peterslarson.com/2011/01/19/african-conflict-and-ethnic-distribution/
Militia conflict in south-central Nigeria occurs in the Christian Igbo heartland, far away from Boko Haram’s strongholds. The conflict on the CAR/Congo border is primarily confessional, between Muslim Séléka and Christian Anti-Balaka militia. The conflict in Darfur, in the Sudan, involves a number of ethnicities, as well as ethnicised environmental drivers. In South Kivu, in the DRC, the conflict involves several ethnicities, as well as ethnicised drivers deriving from the long aftermath of the Rwandan genocide—complicated by relations with endogenous political militia sometimes supported by foreign governments. Community conflict in highland Kenya is regional and ethnic, and relatively isolated from the multiculturalism of Nairobi. The emergence of communal militia in South Sudan is mostly a result of the breakdown of the Dinka-Nuer ethnic compact, but is also driven by the fragility of the new state and a tendency by all parties to resort to military “solutions”. Communal armed conflict in former Somalia involves a power struggle between six major Somali clans, plus Al-Shabaab, and only a smattering of “outsiders”. This brief overview is an indication of the difficulty of accurately charting the role of ethnic identity in African conflicts. Each involves many facets, including the influence of ethnicity, which is itself complicated by history. Even distinctly ethnic civil conflicts such as the 2007/08 pogroms in Kenya and the wave of violence in 2008 in South Africa involved a blend of other factors and influences. In Kenya, where perhaps 1,500 were killed and perhaps 600,000 displaced, the crisis was rooted in political unrest following the contested election of President Mwai Kibaki. Opposition supporters of his opponent, Raila Odinga, went on the warpath, killing members of Kibaki’s ethnic group, the Kikuyu. This ethnicised the conflict, with Kikuyu striking back at the Luo and Kalejin ethnic groups. In South Africa 62 people were killed and 100,000 displaced in violence supposedly directed only at foreigners. But the media’s “xenophobic” tag was inaccurate; only two thirds of those killed were foreigners, among them Somalis and Mozambicans. Resource contestation and business jealousy were the root causes, while the violence also had elements of sheer criminality and the settling of personal scores. This was also the case in Kenya where land, hunger, poverty and criminality skewed ethnic tensions. More coherently, ethnic conflicts include those where a particular, identifiable group seeks to establish a secessionist movement. For instance, the ethnic Alliance of the Bakongo political party, established in 1955, wanted a Kongo Kingdom covering parts of the DRC, Congo, Angola and Cabinda, with the long-term aim of restoring the pre-colonial Kongo Kingdom of 1390-1857. But other than South Sudan and Eritrea, both of which had distinct ethno-nationalist foundations, secessionist wars have always failed in Africa.
Africa: the scourge of ethnicity
Understanding ethnicity—inherited or imposed—can go a long way to ensure accurate coverage of conflict in Africa
As a journalist I have covered a range of conflicts, some of which had a clearly ethnic dimension. But ethnicity is a multidimensional concept that blends race, colour, creed, class, clan, language, lifestyle, identity and culture in an ephemeral and continually shifting matrix. This can make it a tricky subject at the best of times. Moreover, politics can be distorted through an ethnic lens, making it treacherous territory for journalists, especially when they can’t speak local dialects or know little of the ethnic dynamics they are reporting on. There is also a historical dimension. Some ethnic conflicts have their roots in precolonial times, yet they survive tenaciously into the current era, amplified by access to modern technologies.
Michael Schmidt and colleagues in South Sudan
In South Africa, for instance, rural conflicts are often written off as “tribal”, even when they occur between clans of the same tribe. In 1996, I reported on intense fighting in the Umvoti River Valley in Zululand. The area was chicken-and-goat territory, the hills studded with thatched rondavels, tiny mielie patches and dozing cattle, but the belligerents were armed with modern assault rifles. Old grudges continued to simmer in a contemporary context. The conflict had started in 1951 when a rebel chief formed his own clan and the two factions had been at war ever since. This had included the assassination of the first-born son of the chief of the original faction. Moreover, the bloody conflict had got caught up in political warfare between the African National Congress (ANC) and its rival, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). Former soldiers, taxi warlords, and white right-wing farmers in the area also played shadowy roles. Journalists are mostly urban-based and disdainful of provincial folk, and the situation was dismissed as a clash between ignorant peasants. But the urban-rural divide is an important inflection of ethnic identity. Because of the apartheid migrant labour system, the Bomvu clan feud had moved to the cities, with murders in Johannesburg and Durban. South Africa’s population is two-thirds urbanised, but the country’s cities continue to be affected by rural contestations since most of its citizens are rural-born. Then again, an urban ethnic identity can be fluid and creatively cosmopolitan, with new supra-tribal ethnicities being formed, as I found reporting from Kinshasa in 2003 on the implementation of the Pretoria Peace Accords. The country, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), is a vast hinterland of more than 250 ethnicities including whites and Twa. To live in Kinshasa and jive to the music of Werrason is to be quintessentially Kinois, regardless of one’s ethnic origins. Yet an undertow of ethnicity prevails in the political arena, as with persistent rumours that President Joseph Kabila is Tanzanian and not Congolese by birth. Ethnicity is supposedly inherited; but it is just as often imposed. In 2007, I reported on the Darfur conflict in Sudan. But Sudan was not at all what I had supposed it to be. The mystical Sufi version of Islam was more in evidence than the hardline Salafism with which Khartoum had been erroneously associated. And in Darfur itself it rapidly became obvious that the Western characterisation of the war as a confessional race war between Muslim Arabs and Christian blacks was a projection. I was part of a team of journalists, one black, two white. Although we were briefly detained on arrival in El Fasher, we were leapfrogged in the queue for permits. We had readier access to the warzone than the Westerners we left languishing in Khartoum. A journalist’s real or perceived ethnicity may have a bearing on his or her access to stories. White Africans are often seen as outsiders in Africa, like Western aid workers. This may get them better access, but may also confront them with anti-Western hostility. Meanwhile, a slender light-skinned Tswana photojournalist friend and colleague had trouble taking pictures in refugee camps in South Sudan because he was thought to “look like a Janjaweed”, or a member of the camel-herding militia that was plaguing the region with violence. In El Fasher, the region’s capital city, the Fur and Arabic languages cohabited, apparently peacefully, with other regional Nilotic, Mande and Kanuri tongues. Both in the town itself and in its sprawling refugee camp a visitor expecting clearly delineated evidence of ethnic conflict was immediately disoriented. Yet the drivers of the conflict lay as far back as 1972, when Gaafar Nimeiry’s socialist regime tried to break the power of the Fur chieftains. Undermining their authority weakened centuries-old agreements on the sharing of watering holes. Meanwhile, the Sahara was marching implacably eastwards at the rate of about 5km per year, swallowing up the increasingly contested remaining wells. Disputes over Darfur’s oil also contributed to the conflict, which was exacerbated by the availability of modern weaponry. A resource battle had been ethnicised by unscrupulous local leaders and by Western observers— for whom an Islam-versus-Christianity narrative was attractive of political support and donor funding. Darfur was more about power than it was about creed or colour, as I would find again with the Israeli “Summer War” on Lebanon, which I covered in 2006. The tendency to ethnicise a pre-existing resource contest is not unique to Africa. Ethnicising a conflict obscures the asset-stripping objectives of many partisan leaders. Perhaps, more importantly, it provides warlords with a pool of potential fighters for their cause. I experienced this in the Solomon Islands, South Pacific, in 2010, where I trained journalists to cover a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that had been established in the wake of a war between the two primary islands of Guadalcanal and Malaita between 1998 and 2003. The “Tensions”, as the war was euphemistically known locally, were almost invariably described as an ethnic clash between Guales and Malaitans in an increasingly bitter struggle for scarce jobs and land. Upon further investigation, it emerged that multinationals had purchased swathes of timberland, displacing large numbers of peasants. The work of a brilliant investigative journalist, Mary Louise O’Callaghan, had also shown that the “improper” acquisition of Guadalcanal land by Malaitans had occurred because Guale men had subverted the traditional matrilineal control of land to make a quick buck selling land to Malaitans, and had then blamed the buyers for the resulting dissatisfaction. In making these observations I’m not reducing such conflicts to the purely economic sphere, as Marxists tend to do. Ethnicity can be a powerful mobilising force though its compelling aspects can often be invisible to foreign correspondents who have been “parachuted” into a complex fight on short notice, and who are not stationed long-term in the countries they cover. Working in Bamako and Ségou in Mali in 2008 I was unaware that I was in the heartland of the Bambara ethnic group—Mali’s largest at 25 percent of the population. I had no indication of tensions with the Tuareg I met, even though they were in the middle of their fourth insurrection since 1916, demanding ethnic balance in the government and military. Though I knew of the potential ferocity of the Tuareg nomads, whose homeland was the Sahel band to the north-east of Timbuktu, I was unprepared for the anti-Bambara brutality of the Ansar al-Dine and other rebel groups that swept to power in the entire north of the country by January 2013. I did not have the “ethnic radar” or the languages I needed to pick up on the undercurrents. My ignorance was partly a factor of geography. Ethnicities in Africa can be resiliently localised, even when they bridge colonial-era national borders, as in the Sahara, in the Sahel and the Great Lakes regions. But it was also partly because ethnicity can fade in and out of the foreground as a focus of national tensions. South Africa is a good example. After the advent of democracy in 1994 the ANC maintained a public ethic of multiracialism during the Mandela presidency. But with the Thabo Mbeki presidency, rumbling dissatisfaction within the country’s largest ethnic group, the Zulus, at the favoured status of the “Xhosa-Nostra” resulted in the rise of Jacob Zuma, an isiZulu speaker, whose presidency has seen a reversion to an atavistic, ethnicised politics. And when ethnicity is suddenly foregrounded, it can be with a barely matched explosiveness. As is generally known, the Rwandan genocide was trip-wired by the downing of President Juvénal Habyarimana’s jet on April 6, 1994. But it had been simmering ever since the 1950s, when the Belgian colonisers introduced “ethnic” classification cards for groups identified as Tutsis, Hutus and Twa. These were, however, essentially fake ethnicities. Of the 18 clans in Rwanda, all, except arguably the royal clan, were ethnic mixes of groups that had intermarried over a millennium. Those classified Tutsi had to own more than 10 cattle, and it helped if they were tall. In fact, this was a class designation with spurious racial elements appended. The result of this faux ethnicisation was 100,000 slaughtered in 1959 and 800,000 in 1994. The spillover from the latter continues to generate fresh ethnic and ethnicised conflicts in the Great Lakes today.
Protesting students (foreground) are watched by students (background) attending lectures, at the University of Cape Town on October 3, 2016. – Groups of students with the Fees Must Fall movement moved around the campus singing and dancing to disrupt lectures on the first day of classes after weeks of closures at this and other universities around South Africa. (Photo by Rodger Bosch / AFP)
Post-colonial theory: the strong arm of identity
I have always been mistrustful of the rhetoric on decolonisation. Our difficulty deciding its meaning not only consigns it to a realm of needless obscurity but also frustrates our cause, which I understand to be the reimagining of the entire knowledge-making apparatus in the pursuit of a just, humane and equitable social order.
The major problem with the term “decolonisation” is its status as empty signifier. My concern is that the radical potential of decolonisation discourse — because of its indeterminacy — is always at risk of being co-opted by hegemonic political formations. We have witnessed such reversals already in the fate of the so-called African Renaissance, an idiom that was meant to signify continental rebirth but was converted instead into the ideological glue that rationalised former South African President Thabo Mbeki’s export of free-market economics across Africa. We also observe it in university life today with the relentless commodification of engaged scholarship into just another signpost on the road to tenure.
I would regard “decolonisation” as being another one of those radical chic terms. Everyone who cares about the future of higher education in South Africa is talking about it, yet most admit they do not know what it actually means. It is no accident that the looseness of the term is consistent with the anti-foundationalist values of the intellectual tradition with which it is most closely associated, namely, post-colonial theory. Indeed, the post-colonial genre is itself difficult to master, being viewed in some quarters as not theory at all. It has been regarded even as a form of post-theory: criticise a post-colonial writer, Vivek Chibber warns in his book Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (2013), and you may be dismissed for having misunderstood.
But there is a second problem with the term “decolonisation”: it seals us within a colonial imaginary in which the binaries of coloniser and colonised, white and black become impossible to displace. If we are committed to a non-racial future as enshrined in our constitution, it is difficult to imagine how that can ever be realised for as long as we continue to reify — and weaponise — certain highly contentious markers of social difference.
I am, of course, speaking about race, for despite the common sense that it is a social construction, some of us continue to assert the value of strategic essentialism. It cannot be denied that racism remains an integral part of lived experience in South Africa, but it has to be distinguished from race, which, again, has no external referent.
Post-colonial theory proceeds from the premise of social difference, an insistence that underpins its trademark critiques of eurocentrism, colonial ideology and economic determinism, as Chibber argues in his 2013 book. The result is an abiding suspicion of grand theory and a corresponding focus on marginality, alterity, and particularity instead. Inevitably, identity becomes the basis for political mobilisation as the possibility for universal comradeship slowly disintegrates.
The influence of post-colonial theory on student movements in South Africa has been substantial. Unwilling to frame their struggle in terms of the universal values of dignity, security and equality, protestors have opted for the particulars of white privilege and black pain, practising a form of identity politics that is unmistakably middle class.
Trapped in a self-referential form of protest, a certain narcissism has set in, as self-styled radicals reveal a decidedly unradical preoccupation with their own bourgeois destinies. Whereas the May 1968 generation pursued causes that extended far beyond the confines of the academy, to date our students have shown little interest in backing the causes of the South African majority – most of whom will never set foot inside a university. Young people who are functionally illiterate and virtually unemployable have no interest in decolonising consciousness, let alone in resurrecting the past glories of the colour black.
I am not attempting to disavow or trivialise the lived experiences of protesting students. What they perceive more than anything is an acute sense of dislocation – a feeling of otherness that is the fate of anyone entering an institutional space that is deeply alienating. But these psychological concerns must be recognised for what they are, namely, an emergent elite’s struggle for a coherent sense of self, rather than a movement for radical social change. The future of South Africa does not depend on the middle class – black or white. It depends on the millions of South Africans whose terminal state of wretchedness is both a necessary and sufficient condition for revolution.
The fact that decolonisation discourse is saturated with bourgeois concerns also tells us that something is seriously wrong with the academy. The marketisation of knowledge-making processes over the past four decades – and the gradual insertion of South African higher education institutions into that global landscape in the post-apartheid years – has resulted in the assembly-line production of graduates who are quickly assimilated into the well-oiled machineries of a market-friendly economy. Yet decolonisation activists, by and large, do not seem to take issue with the instrumentalisation of their education, directing all their energies towards the attainment of what they call “free, quality, decolonised education”. Instead of a materialist reading of the asymmetries of academic life, they support an agenda that centres on high-level abstractions, such as “epistemic violence” and the like.
There is another reason to question the decolonisation agenda – specifically, its suggestion that the academic disciplines we have inherited remain suitable as disciplines in a society as historically contingent as ours. For example, it is one thing to question the topics and methods of a discipline such as psychology, but it is another matter entirely to question the existence of psychology altogether.
Disciplines as they exist today do not represent, in the words of Plato, “the carving of nature at its joints”. They only exist because particular societies have deemed particular problems worthy of investigation. There is nothing given about a disciplinary order, which only emerges as a result of specific arrangements between knowledge-making communities and powerful interest groups. Approaching decolonisation as an intellectual project that targets individual disciplines, therefore, is a non-starter.
In the 1970s, the theorist Gayatri Spivak castigated French feminists for expressing solidarity with Vietnamese women. It was the first time in the history of the socialist left that someone from the Global South had questioned the possibility of universal comradeship. From there, post-colonial theory took off, its popularity in no small measure the result of the general disarray of the left.
Today, internecine conflicts among academics and students – both in South Africa and internationally – find socialists and anti-racists being put down as conservative and racist. And that is perhaps the most pernicious effect of decolonisation discourse: the now widespread belief that one’s identity constitutes an argument in and of itself, a belief that is surely antithetical to the very concept of a university.
The idea that only black people may speak for black people, that only women may speak for women, that only disabled people may speak for disabled people, that only disabled black women may speak for disabled black women – in short, the idea that only the oppressed may speak for the oppressed, and only if they are identically oppressed – is one of the most absurd yet dangerous ideas in circulation today.
Post-colonial theory denies the possibility of empathy – of a shared humanity – and it is for that reason that it cannot provide the ethical vision we need now more than ever.
First published under a Creative Commons licence by Africa is Not a Country on 26 November 2018.
A man unloads meat as tyres, which were set alight during service delivery protests, burn behind him on June 2, 2010, in Monwabisi Park, Khayelitsha, about 30Km from the centre of Cape Town. South African police on June 1, 2010 arrested 26 protestors who burned tyres, threw stones and blocked roads over the removal of open-air toilets which have caused a stink for Cape Town officials. Police reacted to three separate uprisings in Khayelitsha, a poor shack-filled area in the east of the city, firing rubber bullets at two of the crowds. AFP PHOTO/ RODGER BOSCH (Photo by RODGER BOSCH / AFP)
South Africa: dying for change
In early 2012, Ayanda Kota, leader of the Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM) in the Eastern Cape, made his way to the Grahamstown police station. As an activist, he’d had an eventful year – to the extent that he had won some local fame, featuring in reports in Grocotts Mail, a community newspaper.
His visit to the station that day, however, had nothing to do with his public life; he was there to attend to a personal matter. Kota had misplaced some books he’d borrowed from Rhodes University sociology lecturer Dr Claudia Martinez-Mullen, who had laid a charge of theft against him in August 2011.
But the fact that he was now a media figure would have nasty consequences. He was about to experience violence that would shock the Grahamstown community. Arriving at the station, accompanied by Rhodes sociology lecturer Dr Richard Pithouse, Kota was recognised by six police officers who proceeded to assault him.
“A whole group of them just assaulted him,” Pithouse, who said he had witnessed the incident, told GroundUp in an October 2016 article. Forced to the ground, he was held down and kicked and punched. To humiliate him further, the police officers pulled down his pants and dragged him down a corridor while the abuse continued. “Look who is the newsmaker of the year now,” one of the policemen reportedly said.
The theft charge for not returning borrowed books was later withdrawn, but Kota’s treatment at the hands of the police outraged fellow activists across South Africa, who offered solidarity and support. With the help of the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa, Kota sued the South African Police Service (SAPS), which resulted in a R120,000 settlement. “What I experienced was hard and painful but the struggle must go on,” he said.
This was not the first time that Kota’s activism had resulted in violence and intimidation. Prior to founding the UPM, Kota was national secretary for political education for the Azanian Students Convention (AZASCO), a youth wing of the Azanian People’s Organisation (AZAPO). He left the organisation in 2001 after he received death threats and was assaulted by fellow members angered by his opposition to AZAPO leader Aaron Mosibudi Mangena’s appointment as deputy minister of education, which Kota believed was an ANC attempt to neutralise AZAPO.
Kota is unapologetic about his activism. As leader of the UPM, which he founded in 2009, he has consistently opposed the Makana Municipality of which Grahamstown is part. The UPM campaigns for better housing, water, sanitation and municipal services for Grahamstown residents. They also demand that South Africans are allowed more involvement in political decision-making processes that affect the country. Kota’s activism has given him a media profile on radio, in newspapers and online. As a form of protest, he has also been known to take faecal material to the premises of Makana Municipality as an expression of his contempt for the local authority’s failure to provide residents with clean water.
Both he and other UPM members have been subjected to telephonic death threats from anonymous callers, and the police have responded to UPM protest action with rubber bullets, baton charges, pepper spray and arrests. “What intimidation has taught us as activists for change,” Kota says, “is we must always be ready to take off the coat of fear.”
The UPM is not the only South African grassroots organisation whose members have been assaulted and intimidated, even killed, for challenging the status quo. Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM) is a shack dweller’s movement, which campaigns against evictions and for public housing. Founded in 2005 and based largely in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) – although it also has branches in various parts of South Africa – the organisation has about 50,000 members. Its general secretary, Thapelo Mohapi, claims that under the auspices of the ANC, activists are regularly assaulted and their homes raided. He gave the example of one incident in Cato Manor, Durban on 16 November last year, when the doors of people’s homes were reportedly kicked in and the properties raided. The home invaders assaulted people, five of whom were badly injured.
Abahlali baseMjondolo says its members have been tortured in police custody, while at least one activist has been murdered; two ANC councillors are currently serving life imprisonment for the 2014 assassination of Abahlali baseMjondolo member Thuli Ndlovu. And last year, Durban police confirmed there had been an attempt on the life of Abahlali BaseMjondolo member S’bu Zikode. His car was tampered with on two occasions and he was forced to go into hiding. Last year, too, armed men interrupted an Abahlali baseMjondolo meeting on the East Rand in Gauteng and threatened to fire shots in the air if the meeting was not stopped.
“Our members have faced torture and death threats from the police and members of the executive committee of the ruling party at branch level,” Mohapi said, speaking from Durban.
In 2014, Sello Mokhalipi, a former provincial chairperson of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), which campaigns for the treatment of HIV/AIDS was the target of intimidation. Mokhalipi, who split from the TAC and started a rival organisation, was part of a fierce battle the TAC waged against the Free State province health department over deteriorating health services. In an article on the Daily Maverick website in January 2016, Mokhalipi described receiving a threatening anonymous phone call demanding he stop his campaigning. “My activities were going to have a negative impact on the ANC and that it [sic] cannot be tolerated, especially while elections are around the corner,” he said. Mokhalipi was told he would be harmed if he disobeyed the caller.
A June 2018 article in South African weekly newspaper the Mail and Guardian reported there were 284 political killings across South Africa between 2000 and 2017, the majority of them in KZN. An earlier report, in 2013, noted there had been 447 political killings in KZN since 1994.
So why have South Africa’s independent civic activists and organisations found themselves on the wrong side of the police and members of the ruling party? In 2014, the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa released a report, which claimed that police and local government were criminalising protest action. According to the report, local authorities were manipulating legislation to enable them use force against people who were exercising their right to protest publicly.
One example given in the report was a 2014 incident in Philippi East, Cape Town, in which police used live ammunition to fire on protestors. Another Cape Town incident in 2014, which aroused public attention was a police raid on Siqualo, an informal settlement in Mitchell’s Plain. Police reportedly assaulted and arrested several people, including community leaders suspected of leading local protests against voter registration. A Siqualo resident, Lungiswa Bashe, whose shack was damaged in the raid, claimed that the police involved told residents they were acting on President Zuma’s instruction.
Clearly, members of community organisations who protest against poor state health care, lack of public housing and other government service delivery failures are being intimidated and harassed. The question is: why? According to Rhodes University sociology professor Lucien van der Walt, one reason is that politicians have a lot to lose in an environment where officials stand to corruptly benefit from private-sector tenders. “Politicians have a material stake in political intimidation and have a great deal to lose in leaving office,” he told Africa in Fact.
Proceedings before the South African Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Accounts (SCOPA), which oversees the management of state funds, have exposed numerous examples of dodgy tender processes. Private-sector tender submissions to government are riddled with irregularities. Bidding processes that are supposed to be competitive have been nothing of the sort, with kickbacks to politicians and other state officials. Van der Walt suggests that state officials benefit financially from tendering processes to such an extent that they are afraid of losing these benefits, giving them a material stake in the intimidation of activists who threaten the status quo.
Dr Johan Burger, of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), concurs that government members feel threatened by their opponents because they don’t wish to lose power. Government members, he says, feel so threatened by their opponents that intimidation is now a feature of South African politics. If government members feel threatened by their opposition, it is reasonable to assume that the likes of Kota instil significant fear in them. “And as there is an election pending,” Burger says, “acts of intimidation in some instances are likely, as they are part and parcel of our politics.”
Hugo van der Merwe, director of research at the Cape Town branch of the Centre for Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR), says the right to protest is regularly violated and met with violence. “The issue of the right to protest is not sufficiently recognised and is often met with excessive violence,” he says. “This is an issue of great concern.” Both Burger and van der Walt suggest that the fear of losing power is a driving factor in the way government officials and their proxies respond to community-based protest action and service delivery activism. Kota’s assault at the Grahamstown police station and the intimidation and violence experienced by other community activists is illustrative of this fear.
These examples all amount to an abuse of critical human rights, including the right to protest, and clearly reveal an unmanaged fear of grassroots opposition that is defensive and suggests psychological inadequacies. Indeed, one is compelled to assume that some people in government, driven by fear of grassroots opposition, demonstrate poor psychological health in their intimidation of people who seek to bring change to South Africa.