Behind the Headlines: Violence, Land, and People in a Changing Southern Africa


Behind the Headlines: Violence, Land, and People in a Changing Southern. Africa

Nelson Mandela's release in 1990 set in train, as Nadine Gordimer put it, "the complete reversal of everything that, for centuries, has ordered the lives of all our people." After decades of sanctions, boycotts, and isolation, the South African government moved to dismantle apartheid, graphically illustrating the effectiveness of non-violent strategies for changing immoral policies.

Three years later, although the media spotlight has shifted to the horrors of the Balkans and Somalia, it is time to visit not only South Africa but the whole southern Africa region, where events are broadly part of the global wave of democratization. South Africa is not the only multi-cultural, racially divided, ethnically plural country experiencing this transition - and its attendant problems. Like the Balkans, southern Africa has a potent mix of ethnic tensions and is undergoing a difficult transition to democracy. Like Somalia, the region is suffering the most severe drought in decades, and it also displays serious cracks in the edifice of civil structures, most ominously in the rise of warlords, self-styled leaders of independent armed gangs who challenge state authority.

It is especially appropriate for Cultural Survival to undertake this look at southern Africa. The great social-engineering disaster known as apartheid was cloaked in a rhetoric strikingly similar to that of this organization. This raises serious issues about the capture of "good" rhetoric for evil ends, especially by the state.

Indeed, generations of South African intellectuals have debated the question of whether multicultural South Africa - and all southern Africa as well - could survive as a plural society or would fragment like the Balkans have now done or implode like Somalia. Long before the notion of a "plural society" was popular in the United States, South Africa was the only state to have an ideology explicitly predicated on the irreconcilability of ethnic differences and tensions. Delete "the irreconcilability of" and the South African government might have been pleased with Cultural Survival rhetoric, if not its actions.

Rejecting stereotypes and intellectual duplicity, this issue of Cultural Survival Quarterly goes beyond easy clichés. In particular, it places violence, devastating famines, and the ongoing negotiation process - critical and mutually reinforcing areas of concern - in a wider sociocultural milieu in order to understand today's sometimes troubling, sometimes inspiring, events in southern Africa.

First, the famine: at present, it has placed some 20 million people in southern Africa "at risk," yet preventable actions have contributed to this situation. Second, the economic crisis in southern Africa has been generated by a variety of forces, but throughout the region is distinguished by rising unemployment and retrenchments from the mines, the traditional mainstay for many rural workers. Third, the violence - perhaps the most "visual" of all crises and hence featured on TV screens - cannot be ascribed simply to "ethnicity" or, more ominously, "ethnic cleansing."

Violence exacerbates the economic crisis and famine. Southern Africa's regional wars have cost over 2 million lives since 1981. These wars of destabilization, meant to protect white hegemony, have devastated the environment. Southern Angola's once great teak forests have been stripped and elephants have been slaughtered on an unimaginable scale to pay for wars in Angola and Mozambique. In both countries, the indiscriminate "seeding" of the soil with land mines has produced the world's highest number of amputees per capita, leaving a painful legacy that will last for decades. People have fled to refugee camps and to relatives in safe havens - usually a city - putting severe pressure on resources already stretched to capacity. In Maputo, Mozambique's capital, the nearest firewood is now some 30 miles distant.

In Angola, where Jonas Savimbi's UNITA has returned to war rather than accept the 1992 election results, the country is on the verge of total breakdown. That breakdown threatens more than 3 million people with hunger and disease, according to the World Food Program, the only relief agency fully operational there.

Ecological devastation and its human consequences set the stage for the ongoing drama that joins South Africa to southern Africa. But what has really made this a single coherent region was the discovery of diamonds and gold on the Witwatersrand, with Johannesburg as its epicenter, in the late nineteenth century. That event provided the impetus for South Africa to become the major industrial power in Africa, drawing cheap labor from as far afield as Angola, Zambia, and Tanzani. Later, South Africa secured its distinctiveness in the legally enshired doctrine of apartheid, which has ensured a grossly inequitable distribution of resources. South African whites enjoy one of the highest living standards in the world, and blacks have some of the lowest.

In its zeal to keep not only black and white but all ethnic groups separate, South African apartheid gave the region its special warp. No other country that has been industrialized for over a century still relies on migrant labor; at one point, South Africa drew an estimated three million blacks into its labor market. Trying to change this inhuman migratory system has been a major feature in generating violence as vested black and white interests resist new competition for increasingly scarce jobs and privileges like access to schools and housing.

Even more than labor markets, land allocation is central to understanding apartheid. At most, 13 percent of the land in South Africa is reserved for the black 80 percent of the population. The key pieces of legislation are the 1913 Land Act and the infamous Group AReas Act, enacted in the 1950s. These measures transformed both urban and rural areas, fostered the relocation of "surplus" people - defined as the "aged, unfit, widows, women with dependent children" - and created a class of commuter migrants dubbed a nation of sleepwalkers, people who had to take six-hour bus rides to work. Working in white cities, they live in rural ghetto, besmeared with metal shanties and mud houses in an almost unbroken sea of resettlement sites." Such sites "can be seen in other countries, usually as a result of famine or war."

In its heyday, apartheid rivaled the Soviet Gulag with an estimated 3.5 million forced removals. Land allocated to blacks - known as homelands in South Africa or communal lands in Zimbabwe and Namibia - were subject to massive ecological damage. With the land exhausted from decades of agricultural abuse, managing the land sensibly is a priority issue in many countries seeking to make rural subsistence a sustainable enterprise once more.

Of course, it is war that captures the media's attention. The chickens are coming home to roost as violence on the periphery increasingly spills into South Africa, where a smuggled AK-47 can be bought on the black market for six dollars. Surprisingly, however, the violence is relatively contained, with few high-profile political assassinations. According to the independent South African Human Rights Commission, about 3,500 people, including 129 security force members, were killed in 1992. These deaths largely occurred in two places: South Africa's industrial heartland and Natal, stronghold of the Inkatha Freedom Party and the rival of the African National Congress (ANC) for power in a majority-ruled South Africa.

The reasons for violence are complex: they include poverty, competing traditional modernizing authority structures, and the lack of state legitimacy epitomized by widespread belief in the bias or ineffectiveness of the police and courts. Nevertheless, compared to Serbia, for example, violence in South Africa is minor in both quality and quantity. Unlike Serbia, religion and ethnicity do not for the most part interpenetrate to create a volatile mixture. The absence of outside sponsors and heavy weapons ensure that violence remains sporadic and local.

As journalist Herbert Adam perceptively notes, the motivation for South Africa violence is not ethnic or tribal secession; rather, the killings are typical battles for power in a time of transition. The real dividing lines in southern Africa are not between ethnic groups or even between the ANC and Inkatha but between insiders and outsiders, between those who procured rights, housing, jobs or education under apartheid and those who did not.

In this context, ethnicity is a convenient or acceptable - but misleading - label for the violence used by the press and outsiders because it has been so embedded in southern African rhetoric. A similar analysis can be made of Mozambique, which represents not so much a conflict between the ideologies of RENAMO's free-market bandits and the socialist government but a question of sensitivity to local cultural traditions and access to local resources.


That question is central to economics as well as to violence. Poverty in southern Africa has at least four dimensions: race, class, location and gender. The epitome of poverty in the region is a rural black household headed by a woman. Even in South Africa, the regional powerhouse, about half of all households fall under the poverty line. For black families, the figure is about 60 percent; in the reserves and homelands it is 81 percent.

As a drain on resources, regional wars of destabilization aggravate a natural vulnerability to famine. Rainfall has been below average for the last three years; in 1992, Zimbabwe, normally a wheat exporter, had to import over 2 million tons; South Africa, which normally produces 8 million tons a year, produced 2 million. The small enclave of Lesotho experienced its worst drought since 1933, and lack of water almost forced and closure of its only university and brewery.

That same year, over 370,000 head of cattle perished in Zimbabwe alone. Not only does this affect beef exports, plowing and transportation. The government had three months' warning of the impending drought from the World Meteorological Service, but bureaucratic ineptitude and conditions attached to World Bank loans meant that very little was done.

Apart from inadequate government handouts, many of Zimbabwe's poor try to survive drought and famine by depending on urban-based kin, but regional economic decline has made urban jobs even more difficult to obtain. People have also switched from maize to more drought-resistant crops like sorghum.

The drought, which has broken only in parts of the region and only recently, sends a frightening message that the region's water resources are limited. Yet if one accepts the notion that the poor know their situation in the southern African periphery is even more desperate than in the center. Many people firmly believe that South African reaping an extensive "brain gain" as black academics and other skilled personnel take up positions there, but even ordinary people are migrating to the country. After all, it makes sense for a town in Zaire to pool its resources to fly a representative to Johannesburg to hawk local curious and then buy food to bring back home.


Optimistic observers of South Africa see a new pragmatism emerging based on the realization that all will sink or swim together. The best hope for a negotiated future is that the ANC can't return to armed struggle, if only because the Soviet Union, its chief sponsor, has disintegrated, while raised expectations prevent the National Party from returning to apartheid and minority rule. With the major parties stuck with each other, they face daunting hurdles in replacing the earlier social engineering of apartheid with new institutions on the same grand scale. At the same time, they know from first-hand experience that the civic and state structures of neighboring countries are disintegrating, a future that could easily be their own unless constructive action is taken. Similarly, neighboring states see a peaceful South Africa as the key to their own civic salvation.

Creating jobs will be a major challenge, especially with little large-scale investment on the horizon. Multinational corporations apparently prefer to look to Mexico and Argentina because they dislike the ANC's stances toward nationalization and foreign-exchange controls, as well as to related issues of productivity, management, and quality control. Sensitive to this corporate unease, the ANC has started to back-peddle on some of these questions.

Redistribution will be another problem. Consider, for example, the fact that Natal/KwaZulu is South Africa's second poorest region and also the most populous, with nearly a quarter of the country's people. Any government concerned with social justice will have to pour resources into the area, but this is Inkatha's heartland. The ANC will be hard-pressed to tell its vocal supporters in urban areas like Soweto that they the highest per-capita black incomes on the continent and must be patient while resources are diverted to their rivals' redoubt.

Finally, the right-wing threat remains serious. South Africans of all political persuasions have been remarkably adept at manipulating "tradition," but the white right has developed this into a fine art, most notably in its use of spirit mediums in covert operations.

On a more intellectual level, the right frequently perverted the rhetoric of anthropology to legitimate apartheid. It still does. Thus, a discredited South African Secretary of Information started an organization called "The International Center for the Protection of Cultural Diversity and Human Rights in Africa." This group has accused Namibia of "violating cultural and minority rights" and "cultural genocide" for advocating the return of a $3 million grant made by the pre-independence Administration for Whites to an organization that promotes Western European cultures in Namibia.

Of course, Cultural Survival's concern is with promoting the rights of the weaker against the strong, not the other way round as the apologists of apartheid would have it. A network of advocates dedicated to the rights and importance of plural societies, indigenous peoples, and ethnic minorities could play a significant role in southern Africa's difficult regional transition to democracy.

For one thing, Savimbi's refusal to accept the Angolan election results has sent shock-waves through electorates-to-be. Mozambique and South africa are both slated to have democratic elections within the year. Precluding the "Savimbi Option" from future elections will demand many things, including trustworthy brokers and observers. That is one possible role human-rights activists might play at the local level. On the wider stage, the "recolonization" of southern Africa by the World Bank and similar bodies makes the creation of effective advocacy networks imperative as a way to link South African groups to those in other southern African countries. In the final analysis, morality and decency dictate that we have little choice but to become involved in the transition and consolidation of democracy in the potentially rich but troubled region.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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