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Why so much violence in South Africa? Activist- educator offers insights

STANFORD -- One night soon after Jonathan Jansen returned to his South African home, a neighbor was shot in the head and killed.

"I was shaken the next morning," said Jansen, who received his doctorate in education from Stanford University last year. "In my 12th floor office, I decided it was important to take five minutes at the beginning of the day, close my eyes and get everything out of my system.

"Just then, I heard the sound of AK47s - 'rat-a-tat-tat-tat' - out in the street. I looked out the window, and eight young men were robbing a bank. I decided my idea was probably not going to work."

He was going to try again at lunchtime, relaxing over some newspapers. At 12:30 p.m., he returned to his Johannesburg office for a quiet lunch with a bundle of reading.

"But there, on the front page of the first newspaper: Five people were killed on the trains the previous day.

"It is extremely traumatic to observe the constant and endless sea of violence in South Africa. I want to attempt to unravel its causes," Jansen told an audience at Stanford's Bechtel International Center in early November.

Jansen is director of ABEL (Advancing Basic Education and Literacy), which provides educational training for the non-governmental organizations instrumental to South Africa's future. He is also serving on the National Education Policy Investigation of the democratic movement in South Africa, assisting in the design of alternative curriculums.

A personal friend of Nelson Mandela and a member of the African National Congress (ANC), Jansen was a featured speaker during the Comparative and International Education Society's regional conference sponsored by the Stanford International Development Education Committee.

Racist explanations

Jansen said that 195 people died in South African violence last August alone. Two events over the last year drew particular attention: violence in Boipatong, near Johannesburg, where 42 people were killed last June, and in Bisho, in the Ciskei province, where at least 20 people were killed last September.

Jansen cited four popular explanations for the ongoing violence in South Africa; none of them, he qualified, was entirely plausible.

The most common explanation offered until recently, said Jansen, was the "racial explanation," in which "white power instituted by the state is seen as the major factor in unleashing violence."

The second explanation, that the violence is tribal in origin, focuses on "black people killing black people." Jansen said that racism was implicit in this explanation, since no one offered a similar argument during the Boer War (1899-1902), when whites - the British and the Afrikaners - "slaughtered each other at a rate not seen before or since." This argument, said Jansen, implies that "there is something almost genetic that drives black people to conflict."

A third explanation notes that the South African people are all competing for economic resources. A fourth, looking at the larger picture, sees South Africa as "a culture of violence."

Jansen described many kinds of African violence, not all of which command attention in the Western press: wars between rival taxi associations; train killings, where strangers shoot passengers "without even asking what their political associations are or finding out if they even speak Zulu"; hostel, squatter camp and township violence; political assassination; homeland violence, where government-appointed black leaders are in conflict with new political groups, exemplified by the Bisho incident; and the routine carjackings, thefts and muggings, all of which are "on the increase."

He pointed out that more than 100 policemen had been killed in a six-month period last year. Last summer alone (June-August), 73 policemen were murdered.

Jansen further noted a tendency among Afrikaner men to "wipe out their own families, shooting their wives and children - something that happens frequently, and in the past two years, increasingly."

Seven theses

Jansen offered his own "seven theses" to help people describe and understand South African violence:

"That shift in power is a very significant factor in the violence - and one that is underestimated by everyone at the negotiating table," he said.

Also, he said, "there is an increasingly tremendous strain on limited resources at a time of economic recession." He noted the rapid urbanization of many areas, and the "increasing tension between those who are poor and those who are completely impoverished."

"Every act of violence has a detailed and complex history that precedes it," he said. "But on TV you often see someone burned in a tire, or somebody mowed down in Ciskei, and it's presented as something spontaneous."

He cited the case of the killings in Heidelberg, in the Transvaal: "Up to June 1991, it had been a relatively stable community. Then, suddenly, the media showed scenes of buses burning and people being mowed down.

"Before that, however, unions had been in a power struggle over a meat factory," Jansen said. "That continued for at least a year before the explosion of violence."

"Some people say, 'If only [Inkatha chief] Buthelezi and Mandela could get together and talk,' " but these leaders are unable to quell such violence, he said. The violence will not stop in the near future, Jansen said, regardless of the outcome of negotiations, elections and politics.

Later, the audience asked Jansen who was responsible for the "third force."

He deferred to Sipho Gcabashe, a member of the ANC and also a speaker on campus the first week of November, who said, "The third force is what our own people have used to draw a line between what the government is doing openly and what it is doing covertly." Gcabashe also noted the involvement of foreign governments, such as the United States, as part of the unrecognized "third force."

A member of the audience said some have spoken of the third force "as if there were some ghost out there instigating violence. But the resources behind it suggest it is something more substantial than a ghost."

Jansen added that "these ghosts don't necessarily come in one color."

Jansen warned that his last two theses were controversial and likely to provoke opposition:

For example, he said, "it is very unlikely that what the right wing wants, it will get.... The black middle class is being accommodated at a rate about equal to the rate whites are falling out of the system."

Jansen recalls witnessing a moment in Pretoria that was emblematic of the potential for violence as social relationships shift: A young white man in his 30s was standing with an empty can, begging for money, while a passing black businessman, in a pin-striped suit, dropped some money into it.

"At that moment, I wished I had a camera," said Jansen.

According to Jansen, "In the transition away from authoritarianism, as the stakes for power increase, so, unfortunately, will the violence."

Questions, answers

During a question-and-answer period, someone asked if the need for retribution and vengeance will motivate violence in South Africa's future, and noted the South African government's refusal to acknowledge its historic role in the violence as F.W. DeKlerk's government tries to "close the book," as it says repeatedly, on apartheid.

"The problem with DeKlerk 'closing the books' is that when he does so, he always finds a few pages missing," Jansen said. "We've got to come clean. We have to say this was what happened, this is what's involved and it needs this response - for all negotiating parties, especially the government."

Another member of the audience noted the similarities between South African violence and U.S. urban violence.

"I think there are striking parallels - but also important differences," Jansen responded. He said that the violence reflected "the extent to which, in both societies, people are falling out of the system. This provides the grounds for a lot of social unrest and instability."

However, he added, in the United States, "you could call out the National Guard and restore some semblance of order.

"If you call out our equivalent of the National Guard," Jansen said, "you would have another riot on your hands."



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