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Public Culture 16.2 (2004) 315-335

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Nationalism As Such:

Violence during South Africa's Political Transition

The study of Africa has been prejudiced by omissions. Most glaring is the failure to treat the question of nationalism. The African state or the state in Africa (to allude to Jean-François Bayart's great ambivalence)1 is so often treated in relation to the colonial state; ethnicity; underdevelopment and imperialism; modernity; capitalism; bureaucratization; and traditional authority, ritualism, or power. It is rarely treated in relation to nationalism or the nation-state.2 This is surprising given that various struggles against British, French, Portuguese, and Belgian colonialism were often conducted under the auspices of African nationalism and in pursuit of independent African nation-states. This does not mean that nationalist movements have not been studied; it does mean that they are often treated as agents of many things other than nationalism: ethnicity, modernity, elite politics, bourgeois class politics, and so on. What is absent are studies of national movements that are vectors of, precisely, nations. What is an African nation? What is entailed in African nation building? It is precisely the failure to pose these questions that contributes to the apparent inscrutability of the African scene. I will suggest here, for example, that what has often been discussed in ethnic [End Page 315] terms—as ethnic conflicts—might be better viewed in terms of the logic of nationalism.

Even if nation building happens under the auspices of democratization, nation building would have us say that some citizens more authentically bear the national mission than others. As a result, nationalist politics are driven to define a limit that distinguishes between authentic national subjects and the rest—who may well be deemed citizens and granted full democratic rights. What they lack, however, are the appropriate (ethnic) marks to be counted as members of the nation. This paradox is the norm rather than an anomaly; and it is key to distinguishing the nation from a democratic community and the national subject from the citizen. It helps us understand why, even when granted full political rights in a liberal democratic dispensation, blacks, women, gays and lesbians, and (until recently) Jews struggle for access to positions of authority. It may also help us understand the terms of many so-called ethnic conflicts. Instead of a theoretical proof of this claim, however, I will show how this perspective helps us grasp the logic of a violent conflict that overcame three townships east of Johannesburg between 1990 and 1994.

Katlehong, Tokoza, and Vosloorus, collectively KATORUS, are three former African townships located on the eastern edge of the Johannesburg metropolitan area. Apart from an urbanized residential population without strong links to the rural areas, they are also home to thousands of migrant workers accommodated in massive, historically single-sex hostel complexes. Although they have been effectively city residents for years, even decades, the specificity of migrant workers qua migrant workers in South Africa lies not so much in the periodicity of their stay in the city as in the links they sustain with rurally based families. In 1990, violence broke out in the dense urban conurbations to the east and west of Johannesburg. Pitched battles broke out in Sebokeng, near Pretoria, in late July 1990 and spread quickly to KATORUS. More than fifteen hundred people were killed in the second half of 1990 alone. The scale of the violence was truly horrifying. On average the police collected eight bodies each day. Between June and October 1990 approximately 550 people died in a single township, all virtually on or around the infamous Khumalo Street in Tokoza.3 One hundred and forty-three people were killed in just one day. [End Page 316]

Violence remained high until the first democratic election in 1994. About a thousand people died in 1991 and double that number the following year. The violence peaked in 1993, when more than two thousand people were killed in fighting. Thousands were injured or fled and were displaced. Thousands of houses were destroyed, and hostels were razed...