FREEDOM DAY 1994 – 2017 : REFLECTIONS ON VIOLENCE THEN AND NOW

While the first democratic elections on 27 April 1994 proceeded relatively peacefully, the run up to those elections had been marked by unprecedented levels of violence. The victims were primarily ANC or IFP supporters but the drivers of it were the apartheid security forces, especially right wing elements in the police who were opposed to the sweeping changes initiated by then President de Klerk. The context was one in which negotiations about the nature of the future state were highly contested, with conservative forces pushing for greater devolution of powers to regions, and the IFP refusing to participate in elections until certain preconditions were met. The impasse was resolved days before the elections when the IFP announced that it would participate, and violence levels dropped. However, a similar pattern of violence was to continue for the next few years (4000 were killed between May 1994 and December 1998) but was to gradually diminish. While inter-party tensions and incidents continued into the new millennium, especially around election times, intra-party conflict – especially that linked to local government issues – increased. There have been approximately 35 politically-linked deaths in the province since the beginning of 2016, but, and another seventy plus murders in Glebelands hostel – most linked to internal ANC dynamics – since early 2014.
South Africa has, historically, been a violent society, fuelled by repression, powerlessness and, especially, the violence into which too many children are born and grow up. This violence intensified during the increased repression of the 1980s and what is now KwaZulu-Natal became its epicentre, driven by a proliferation of guns which have never been properly accounted for. While murder linked to politics and corruption – the two often go hand-in hand – occur all over South Africa, levels remain highest in KZN. The current context is one in which there are deep divisions within the ANC over who becomes its next president, for this province has become its main support base and eThekwini its largest party voting region.
During the liberation and negotiation period ANC supporters were the main victims because the full might of the apartheid state was brought against them. Now, in addition to internal party divisions, and individual conflict over coveted positions, the formerly oppressed are themselves accused of the type of intolerance and oppression they themselves experienced. In the run up to the 1994 elections, the Inanda shack area of Bhambayi, an ANC stronghold, experienced extremely high levels of ‘third force’ state-sponsored violence. Now the shack dwellers movement Abahlali base Mjondolo reports that a new armed vigilante group linked to two ANC councillors in Inanda is intimidating and attacking its members, and that the local station commander has not taken action against them, but referred the group’s leadership to the local councillor (a common pattern, police deferring to councillors) There has been a similar targeting of the movement in other areas, including in Cato Crest where, in June 2013 a housing activist was shot dead after being threatened by the then regional chairperson of the ANC.
Politically –linked killings are part and parcel of the abnormally high levels of violence in our society, and the failure of the criminal justice system to deal with it. Attacks on political office bearers have spawned a proliferation of armed bodyguards who – because of lax controls over the security industry – may not even be registered with PSIRA. Taxi operators have virtual private armies. Well trained hit men are used in many killings, and there seems to be no concerted effort to deal with this phenomenon. Who is training them? Where do they get their guns from? It is known that armed hit men hide at Glebelands hostel – yet the police take no action against them. Nor have any convictions been secured for the approximately 80 murders in Glebelands since early 2014, or the five in Westville since early 2016.
Transforming the brutal and racist apartheid police force was probably the biggest challenge faced by the ANC government when it took office, and it failed abysmally. Instead of identifying and promoting long serving black members with proven track records it placed its own cadres, who were hopelessly out of their depth, into key positions. While brutality remains, efficiency has continued to decline and deterioration has been conspicuous in the past seven years. Political interference and the appointment of the wrong people to key management positions – apparently for political reasons – is responsible for the dysfunctional state of the service (but there are many members who strive to do their jobs professionally –and risk their lives because corruption in the service is not dealt with adequately).
All state institutions have suffered because of the marked deterioration in governance in recent years, which is accompanied by a culture of secrecy and an increasing lack of accountability bordering on contempt for the taxpaying public – a far cry from the government which took office in 1994. With some exceptions – which depend largely on the quality of police station management – it has become virtually impossible to get constructive action taken against those responsible for breaking the law with impunity. The situation is one of virtual anarchy which jeopardises everyone’s safety and security, and the gains made in building democracy. It is a situation which calls for vigilance on the part of all citizens to ensure that it does not get even worse.