Unveiling the late-Apartheid roots of South Africa’s crime and political violence – James Myburgh

James Myburgh explores the historical patterns of crime and violence in South Africa during the late-Apartheid period. He examines the traditional pattern of crime in unsettled black areas, where interpersonal violence and murder were prevalent, often perpetrated by young thugs known as “tsotsis.” He delves into the role of the African National Congress (ANC) and its strategy of People’s War, which aimed to eliminate collaborators and take the struggle to white areas. Myburgh highlights the complexities of understanding the violence that plagued South Africa, urging readers to confront the past and analyse primary historical sources to gain a clearer understanding of the country’s violent past and present.

The nightmare from which we have yet to awake (I)

By James Myburgh*

“The past is not dead. It is not even past.” – William Faulkner


It is not all that difficult to understand the African National Congress. For one thing, its core ideology was laid down in the Road to South African Freedom, drafted some sixty years ago, as was the programme it has been seeking to realise to this day, in the form of the “immediate tasks” of the National Democratic Revolution.

If the government suddenly lurches to adopt some destructive piece of legislation, you know that it thinks it has spotted a gap to finally realise another of the ultra-nationalist objectives laid out in this founding document.

There have been periods, particularly in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the ANC leadership had to obfuscate both its objectives and its nature, but such pretences were discarded very soon after it had consolidated its hold over political power.

Beyond that point, senior leaders often sounded conciliatory when addressing international or business audiences, but their speeches to party congresses seldom deviated from the line laid out in the Road to South African Freedom, which remains the lodestar guiding this country to disaster.

Much of this is of course lost on foreign observers who remain attached to the many comforting myths and illusions which have been spun around the ANC by its well-meaning sympathisers over decades.

As a result, there are many questions from the past that have never been properly asked or answered. One of the most central of these is why did once safe commercial farming and suburban areas in the eastern half of South Africa become so insecure in the 1990s, and why have they remained so to this day? What happened to the guardrails that were meant to protect citizens from criminal predation, and when and why were they removed?

As soon as one illusion starts to fade or become untenable in South Africa another rolls in from across the sea until the fog is so thick that one cannot see one’s own feet. We are now confidently assured by numerous authorities – from the New York Times to the BBC – that those living on farms and small holdings (let alone suburbanites) are at no special risk of being attacked at all. Indeed, it is now commonly accepted in such circles that the wave of violent crime that white South Africans believed they were experiencing post-apartheid was largely a figment of their imaginations.

There have recently been a number of books published to acclaim abroad dealing with South Africa and its dark past. One of these is Jonny Steinberg’s Nelson And Winnie, an account of the Mandela’s troubled marriage. (See Rian Malan’s review here.) Another important book is Justice Malala’s The Plot to Save South Africa: The Week Mandela Averted Civil War and Forged a New Nation, which deals with Nelson Mandela’s adept leadership in the aftermath of the assassination of Chris Hani in April 1993.

A third book, and one which is likely to prove highly influential in shaping American perceptions of South Africa, is “The Inheritors: An Intimate Portrait of a Brave and Bewildered Nation” by journalist Eve Fairbanks. Twelve years in the making, The Inheritors features an extraordinary account of the lives and times of Dipuo Mahlatsi, one of the ‘young lions’ of the mid-1980s uprising, and her daughter Malaika, a prodigiously talented writer and Fallist radical.  

Each of these books provides, at points, flashes of insight which illuminate important aspects of our dark past. Each, in their own way, also obscure our understanding of the past by leaving certain illusions untouched, introducing new ones, or just by ignoring certain realities entirely (for instance, none mention the National Democratic Revolution).

Talking of his book Jonny Steinberg recently commented that “I’m not sure that South Africa has yet reckoned with how horrible the violence of the 1980s and the early 1990s was, before democracy in 1994. It’s too ghastly to look in the eye. But you can certainly try to get close to it by telling Winnie’s and Nelson’s story.”

Facing up to the past in this way is important not just for its own sake, but because it is critical for understanding the violence that took place downstream of February 1990, when Mandela’s release signaled the coming of turbulent change. Often horrific in its own right, the criminal violence that South Africans have lived with since then exhibits highly abnormal characteristics, and yet has somehow just been accepted as part of the nature of things.

The differing insights in these books can advance our understanding of South Africa’s violent past (and present) as long as one can avoid getting lost and disorientated by the myths and illusions which continue to swirl through them. And this can be done by using one hand to hold very tightly to primary historical sources as one makes one’s way through such stretches of fog.

In this, the first article in a series, we deal with the crime and political violence of the late apartheid period.

Read more: Looting of South Africa is no accident – James Myburgh

The old apartheid pattern 1948-1984

The traditional pattern of crime and violence, under first segregation and then apartheid, was one where unsettled black areas in and around Johannesburg often had extraordinarily rates of inter-personal violence and murder, often related to drunken brawling, with wage-earners preyed upon and terrorised by the tsotsis (young thugs) who dominated the streets.

The tsotsis, as Jonny Steinberg describes them, were young men born and raised in and around Johannesburg, but who refused point-blank to do the backbreaking manual work people from the countryside were coming to the city to perform. Their “aspirations were sophisticated and thoroughly middle-class” he writes, but they were confined to the streets by a lack of formal education and their distaste for blue-collar work.

Even Nelson Mandela was a target for their predation. Shortly after arriving in Johannesburg in 1941 he had moved into a backyard shack in Alexandra. There was a gang in his area notorious for cleaning out the houses of their victims. One of his vivid memories of that period was being awoken by voices outside and hearing two men “arguing over whether to break down his door. One voice was pleading for Nelson: ‘No, man, this chap has no money, nothing, he’s just a student.’ But the other voice was insistent. Nelson listened intently, awaiting news of his fate. The voice of reason finally won out; the aggressive one reluctantly conceded that there was probably little to steal. He was so angry he had lost the argument that he gave Nelson’s door a furious kick. The bolt snapped and the door gaped open.”

Under apartheid the white areas were largely shielded from such violence, even if property crimes such as burglary were quite common. For example, between July 1978 and June 1979 there were 648 murders reported to police in Soweto – about one in ten of those reported in the country – a murder rate of around 75 per 100 000. During the same period 218 murders of white South Africans were reported in the whole of the country – 128 of which were white-on-white killings – giving a murder rate of 4,8 per 100 000.

Dipuo, one of the main subjects of Fairbanks’ book, grew up in Meadowlands, Soweto, the daughter of a single mother who supported her children by working in “the kitchens” in the white areas of Johannesburg. Fairbanks relates that as a child, Dipuo looked up to the tsotsi element in the township. The thugs were the ones who wore the fancy things, who would look after and protect you, if you dated one of them, and make sure you wore beautiful clothes. “Since nobody could easily leave the township, the thugs mostly robbed other black people,” Fairbanks writes – raiding schools and parties, and preying on commuters on trains. Although they were loathed by working adults, Dipuo for one admired their disregard for the rules in a system where the rules were discriminatory and unjust.

While Soweto may have been under-policed it was not unpoliced. In 1978/1979 there were 2 549 robberies reported to police – a rate of around 255 per 100 000 residents – with 1 175 cases brought to trial. In 1982 1 141 murders were reported to police, a rate of over 100 per 100 000, with 497 murder cases brought to court. The clearance rate thus hovered between forty and fifty percent.

Read more: From Tragedy to Triumph: Mandela’s heroic efforts to preserve peace amidst apartheid assassination

Years of insurrection 1984 to 1986

In the mid-1980s Dipuo was one of the thousands of young comrades who joined the mass national insurrection that broke out in September 1984 in response to National Party leader PW Botha’s inadequate attempts to reform South Africa politically.

The ANC leadership had either been imprisoned or exiled for two decades and by this stage, Fairbanks relates, “the ANC had started to seem like a group of ancient gods – prayed to, but no longer expected to show up in real life.” Dipuo and a group of fellow youth listened intently to the commandments handed down over Radio Freedom, the ANC’s radio station in exile which broadcast from Zambia.

The most golden of these gods was Chris Hani, the Political Commissar of the ANC’s armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). He was described by white leftists who knew him as “absolutely confident”, “highly intelligent”, “fearless” and a “hugely compelling revolutionary”. As Justice Malala writes in his book, if his generation of young black South Africans – the so-called lost generation – “had a hero, it was this man. Charismatic, energetic, articulate, he had built a reputation as a brave guerrilla fighter during his twenty-seven years in exile.”

The commandments issued over Radio Freedom were, in line with the first stage of the ANC’s People’s War strategy, for the “fighting youth” to organise themselves into small “combat units”, to arm themselves by any means possible, and to “eliminate” all “collaborators from our nation”. This was a call for the killing of black security policemen, suspected informers, ordinary policemen, municipal councillors and those participating in the homeland system, notably Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Inkatha movement. In September 1986 Buthelezi reported that more than 100 Inkatha officials and members had been killed in attacks by pro-ANC activists since 1984.

“The whole country must go up in flames”, was the exhortation transmitted over Radio Freedom. Dipuo, who took the nom de guerre “Stalin”, headed one of the “people’s committees” set up at the behest of the ANC. It did such work as enforcing consumer boycotts by grabbing the bags of shoppers and dumping their contents into the dirt. Wrongly suspecting that the black businessman who owned their local store was an informer, her group burned his building to the ground.

Her group also invaded to the house of a woman rumoured to be an impimpi. Dipuo dragged her out of bed into the yard where they “pelted her with stones”. What followed appears to have been one of the four hundred-odd “necklacings” that occurred between mid-1985 and the end of 1986 whereby victims had tyres put around their necks, were drenched with petrol or diesel and then burned alive. Fairbanks relates that “Dipuo didn’t say how the woman she stoned in Soweto ultimately died. But when I asked her whether she ever participated in a necklacing, she just looked down and was silent.”

Read more: James Myburgh: ANC race laws revolution. MUST READ!

The role of the MK cadre

An enduring but fatal misconception is that the central role of the MK cadre was to carry out armed guerrilla attacks on designated targets. Such “armed propaganda” was certainly important; among other purposes it was meant to enthuse the masses and show that the ANC was the most formidable revolutionary opponent of white rule. Such actions were by their nature high risk and they were intended to advertise the movement and its courage in confronting white power.

If an MK operation went too far, however, it risked causing serious blowback against the organisation. The ANC thus avoided directly ordering guerrilla attacks on white civilian targets and when they did so, as when white farmers were made a formal target for armed attack in mid-1985, they came up with a contrived rationale that recast such farmers as a legitimate military objective (on the grounds that males of a certain age were integrated into the commando system.)

The ANC was notably less restrained when it came to the sort of violence that it sought to unleash at one remove, as evident from its calls to action transmitted over Radio Freedom, and where lines of responsibility were far less clear, and culpability harder to pin on the leadership.

The critical role of MK cadres in People’s War was, as Chris Hani described it at the time, to converge with, and supply weapons, training, indoctrination and direction to, the fighting youth “to teach them the skills of warfare, to impart to them the tactics of fighting, to impart them the skill of fighting, the skills of ambushing the enemy, the skills of raiding for weapons in order to capture them, the skills of fighting in small groups, the skills of fighting and camouflaging, the skills of attacking when the enemy least expects you.”

In this role the MK cadre operated in the shadows. He would use a combat name, keep in the background, and when his work was done, disappear. The violence that the ANC could potentially orchestrate in this manner was more pervasive and, cumulatively, more deadly, than overt guerrilla actions, and it could be directed covertly. It would often prove impossible to distinguish such politically motivated attacks from murders or robberies committed by ordinary criminals.

Read more: Ian Cameron on “General” Cele’s crime stats fantasy – and encouraging data from Western Cape

Taking the struggle to the white areas

The first phase of People’s War strategy, as applied in South Africa, was to render the state ‘blind and deaf’ within black areas by eliminating representatives of state authority and eradicating informer networks, by whatever means necessary. Once this was accomplished, the next phase involved taking the fight to the main enemy. 

In August 1985 Oliver Tambo, speaking on behalf of the ANC’s NEC on Radio Freedom, instructed his followers to take the struggle “into the white areas of South Africa.” Among those leaders who took up and repeated this call within South Africa was Steve Tshwete, a United Democratic Front leader in the Eastern Cape. As the New York Times reported, “At funeral rallies in the restive Eastern Cape, [Tshwete] has urged that the unrest of the townships be carried into white areas.”

This was meant to involve not just armed actions by MK, but mass popular violence of the type that had made the townships ungovernable as well. The “arena of battle” would now expand from the townships into leafy suburbs, such as Lower Houghton in Johannesburg, “where our white compatriots are being safely kept away from knowing what is happening in their own country”.

Tambo concluded the January 8th statement of the ANC NEC in 1986 by calling on the movement’s supporters in South Africa to turn every corner of the country “into a battlefield! … Every patriot a combatant: every combatant a patriot!”

In broadcasts from early 1986 Chris Hani described what the ANC intended to do next. It was difficult at the time to smuggle weapons into the country and get them into the hands of the fighting youth, so “our people” need to go out and grab weapons: “Not only from the police and army … but every white home has got a weapon, every farm has got a weapon, every black policeman has got a weapon, every black and white soldier, they have got weapons, every white businessman has got weapons.” This was a call, in other words, for young comrades to go out and target every white farm, every white business, and every white household in the country, for robbery.

The fighting youth, Hani declared, should then use these weapons against the enemy. “Our people,” he said, “must begin to deal with the ruling class,” which inescapably meant whites. “So what we are saying is that the struggle should be intensified to destroy all those who are oppressing our people.” (Emphasis added).

“Nothing,” he concluded, “will save those who are primarily responsible for the misery of our people from the same wrath of our people that we see now consuming the stooges and the puppets.” A narrow bridge to salvation was however always kept open to those who became “white democrats” – those whites who submitted themselves to the ANC’s revolutionary cause – and it would become an ever-more crowded one.

Fairbanks relates that Dipuo took such rhetoric from Hani, Tambo and others to mean that “everyone” – white people and their black collaborators – must be made to violently suffer for what apartheid had done to the black majority. Her mission was to “kill every white person I saw,” she told Fairbanks. “I hated whites. I would have killed any white person if I had seen one. They deserved to die. If you threatened our freedom, you did not deserve to live.” It was not easy for Dipuo to give effect to this aspiration, however, as the state security forces could and did seal off the township areas. As Fairbanks puts it: “Imprisoned in Soweto, she almost never saw white people”.

MK’s plans to breach this cordon failed, partly because MK’s forces were marooned in bases in far- off Angola and elsewhere, but also because it was riddled with state informers. As previously mentioned, it was enormously difficult to infiltrate armed cadres into South Africa, and those who made it across the border would soon find themselves relentlessly harried by the Security Police and its askaris.

Read more: Jay Naidoo: Remembering assassinated anti-apartheid activist Dulcie September – unanswered questions and an enduring legacy

The insurrection fails

By 1987 the state had managed through severe repression – including, not least, mass detentions without trial – to put the lid back on the cauldron and the revolutionary violence receded. Despite the ferment of the period, the security situation had been temporarily stabilised.

Some 616 deaths were attributed to political violence in 1987 by the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR), down from 1 298 the year before. In 1985 there had been 67 necklace murders, rising to 306 in 1986 at the height of the insurrection. There were only 19 in 1987, at which point the ANC leadership belatedly told its supporters to cease with this method of eliminating the enemy within.

In this period, covert units in the police and military increasingly acted outside of the law, assassinating rather than arresting their revolutionary adversaries. There were also a series of gruesome extra-judicial killings of young ANC-supporting comrades by the Security Police. Though National Party ministers could “plausibly deny” responsibility for these deaths, the ANC’s supporters knew well enough where responsibility lay, and such unpunished killings served only to sharpen the sense of injustice, and bring yet further international opprobrium onto the white state. Such actions also had the effect of compromising the state from within as not only had capital crimes been committed by its own agents, but they also now had to be covered up, sometimes by further murders. In such cases policemen were no longer enforcing the law but subverting it from within.

If one turns to the crime situation from that era 9 800 murders were recorded by the South African Police in 1987, down slightly from the 9 913 recorded the year before. Of these, 313 victims were white. In total, 5 972 of reported murders had been solved by the following year (a clearance rate of 60%). The total incidents of robbery recorded by the SAP increased by about a quarter between 1984 and 1986, from 39 302 to 48 533.

But here too the situation seems to have been stabilised by 1987, with the number of robberies reported falling to 46 288. Of these just over half, 25 957, were categorised as robberies committed under aggravating circumstances – meaning the perpetrators had been armed with dangerous weapons and/or had inflicted or threatened to inflict grievous bodily harm on their victims.

These statistics did not, it is important to note, cover the whole of the country. From the mid-1970s to early 1980s four Bantustans (Transkei, Venda, Bophuthatswana and Ciskei) acquired “independence,” which meant their crime figures were no longer included in SAP statistics but reported separately if at all. On the other hand, SAP statistics did cover the urban areas most seriously affected by crime, along with the entire territory once known as “white South Africa”.

Read more: Financial Times perspective: SA unrest worst since apartheid

Aftermath of the insurrection

Despite the failure of the ANC’s attempted insurrection, the shock caused by its force and fury had caused a fracture to develop within the state machinery. Hardliners within the security services sought to prevent a Rhodesian-style black-on-white revolutionary war by keeping political violence on a ‘black-on-black’ track. This was done by training and arming the ANC’s traditionalist adversaries in the black community, most notably Inkatha.

The soft-liners within the state led by the National Intelligence Service (NIS) also sought to avoid a Rhodesian-style scenario, but by pursuing a negotiated settlement from a position of strength, and before the security situation had completely deteriorated, as it had done in the 1970s under Ian Smith.

President PW Botha had ridden both horses, encouraging the police and the military to “take the gloves off” in the fight against the ANC while simultaneously allowing the NIS to explore the possibility of a negotiated settlement, an effort that included extensive discussions with Nelson Mandela in prison and informal contacts with the ANC in exile.

The ANC also pursued a dual-track strategy as the prospect of a negotiated settlement opened up. ANC leaders would set about charming a succession of white interlocutors, claiming that their movement’s struggle was only against “the system”. The ANC also pulled back from the racial violence it had previously tried to unleash, suspending its landmine campaign against white farmers after numerous civilian deaths, both black and white. At the same time, it sought to quietly build up the ANC’s underground presence within South Africa through Operation Vula, which involved extensive gun running and stockpiling in preparation for a future resumption of a full scale insurrection.

In 1987 Hani was appointed MK Chief of Staff, the number two position in the organisation. He ensured that the position he vacated, Political Commissar of MK, was filled by his close friend and comrade, Steve Tshwete, who had fled into exile some time before.

In early June 1988 the journalist John Battersby conducted an extensive interview with Hani and Tshwete in Lusaka for an article for the New York Times. Hani was quite blunt that it was still ANC policy to “eliminate” all black collaborators. He also said that it was MK policy to recruit and train local operatives in Natal, and to provide them with small weapons with which to assassinate Inkatha leaders.

If it was ANC policy to kill black people who collaborated with the enemy, what was the attitude to the enemy itself? Hani and Tshwete were somewhat less forthright when asked whether it was MK policy to go after white civilians. Both men denied such a policy but suggested that it would be no bad thing if white South Africans were put in fear of their lives by the armed actions of MK.

As Tshwete put it: “It must be driven into their minds – by the termination of the good life in their midst – that there is a struggle going on in South Africa.” MK actions in white areas, Hani commented, even if not too indiscriminate, would show whites that it was too “dangerous to hang around the Carlton Centre” anymore and “so the best thing is to move and barricade myself in my nice house in Lower Houghton”.

On 2 July 1988 a special operations unit of MK, under Hani’s direction, detonated a car bomb outside Ellis Park stadium, following the Transvaal-Orange Free State rugby game. Two civilians were killed and thirty-seven injured. This attack attracted serious criticism from the ANC’s moderate supporters within South Africa. The following month the ANC National Executive Committee formally distanced itself from such attacks on civilian targets, and shifted Tshwete out of his position as Political Commissar of MK and onto the NEC.

Read more: Jay Naidoo: ‘New Apartheid’ is even worse than Nats, it’s determined to take our lives

Crime at the end of apartheid

The table above offers a snapshot of crime in apartheid’s final decade, before the political transition was set in motion in 1989. As you see, it features a marked emergence of deaths related to political violence in the second half of the 1980s, and this drove up the overall murder numbers.

The jump in political killings in 1988 was largely a regional phenomenon,  driven by the escalating conflict between Inkatha and ANC supporters in the townships around Pietermaritzburg and Durban in Natal. According to the SAIRR, 912 (79%) of 1 149 deaths resulting from political violence in this year took place in this region.

The violence in Natal drove overall murders to a new high in 1988 while obscuring a telling fact – only 302 of 10 631 murder victims nationally were white, according to the SAP – a murder rate of 6 per 100 000 people. The number of robberies also declined slightly from 1987.

Lack of completeness notwithstanding, these SAP figures tell us something important: despite incendiary calls to action by Hani, Tambo and others, and the resonance that this had for Dipuo and others, the ANC had for the most part failed to take the struggle into the white areas.

For the most part, the revolutionary violence that swept through the townships between 1984 and 1986 had reached whites in the suburbs and farms only as an ominous echo.

To be continued…

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This article first appeared on Konsequent and is republished with permission