South Africa: Warlords and Shanty Dwellers

By Jonathan Barker | 1991-01-01 12:00:00

In the townships and shanty towns of Natal and the Transvaal in South Africa, gang fights, killings, and armed assaults on whole communities have caused thousands of deaths. "Warlords"-the word used in South Africa-have established partial or predominant political control of many settlements. Reports of the so-called "black-on-black violence" bring some to wonder whether the dismantling of apartheid is a step toward peace.

Apartheid is founded and maintained in violence. Africans are forced to live in reserves and townships, have a limited range of jobs, and are excluded from political rights. They are subject to countless controls over social life. In the 1980s apartheid began to break down. Africans in large numbers have left the homelands to gather in shanty towns on urban fringes; more and more job categories are open to Africans; some of the social controls of petty apartheid have been removed; Africans have begun to organize political power through trade unions and community organizations and, most recently, political parties. But blacks still do not have the rights and structures to vote, to take part in government, and to shape basic economic and social policies. Apartheid is unraveling, it is discredited, but its fundamental violence continues.

The breakdown of the spatial divisions of apartheid is an important source of conflict among Africans. Spatial segregation forced Africans to live in townships under strong state control. Able now to escape the poverty of the homelands, thousands of migrant workers push their shanty settlements up close to the older organized settlements of urban dwellers who have a regular system of renting houses. The people in the established townships have organized community groups and trade unions and many of these have affiliated to the large confederation of South African Trade Unions, the nationwide United Democratic Front, and the newly legal African National Congress, to fight the violence of apartheid.

But there are rival organizations, especially in the shantytowns. In Natal, Inkatha, the Zulu-based organization founded by Chief Buthelezi of the KwaZulu homeland, has an advantage because so many migrant workers are still subject to homeland political power. Moreover, without legal or secure land parcels and deprived of adequate services, the shanty towns are prey to strongmen who organize armed gangs. They extract levies from people to pay gang members, and offer protection in return. Many such gangs have affiliation with Inkatha.

The older townships have their gangs as well, often called "comrades" because of the association with anti-apartheid politics. But some comrades are more like gangsters, taking advantage of the uncertain police control and the need for protection of competing gangs. There is danger of attack by shantytown gangs bent upon raiding the somewhat less poor dwellings in the townships, and jealous of the advantages of better services and rental rights.

Thus does the breakdown of apartheid lock people into conflicting organizations. Overlays of tribalism are present, and units of police or right wing white groups wanting to create havoc can readily exacerbate the conflict.

The agreement of the ANC to suspend the armed struggle, and the undertaking of the government to use its police powers to restore order, are essential beginning points for maintaining and extending the zone of political peace. Should De Klerk's government, with the participation of major African organizations, begin a process of rapid constitutional reform, much political energy would find a productive focus. At the right moment, a meeting of Mandela of the ANC and Buthelezi of Inkatha could help shift a major organizational and ideological conflict away from violence.

Since the local conflicts are rooted in local social divisions and in the new inequalities produced by the disorganized breakdown of spatial apartheid, leaders and activists in local conflicts also need to meet and to place their conflicts on a peaceful political footing. At the same time concerted government action is required to meet some of the major material grievances which draw Africans into futile violence. For example, with secure rights to house and plot, shanty dwellers will be less vulnerable to the executions of warlords.

Jonathan Barker is a professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto, and the author of Rural Communities Under Stress, Peasant Farmers and the State in Africa.

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1991

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1991, page 15. Some rights reserved.

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