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  • Legacies of political violence:an examination of political conflict in Mpumalanga Township, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
  • Debby Bonnin (bio)


Whenever political disagreements between the African National Congress (ANC) and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) in the province of KwaZulu-Natal become too heated, some member of the provincial parliament threatens us with the possibilities of returning to the violent politics of the 1980s. This politics was characterised by violent political struggles between supporters of the ANC-aligned United Democratic Front (UDF) on the one hand, and the Zulu ethnic movement, Inkatha, on the other.

Tensions between Inkatha and community groups later affiliated to the UDF began to surface in the early 1980s. In the wake of the murder of local UDF leader Victoria Mxenge, these tensions deteriorated into open and violent conflict between Inkatha and protesting youth. Thereafter Inkatha seemed increasingly determined to rein in all opposition to its leadership and policies. Starting with schools, local leadership, on instruction from above, began demanding that youth declare their political affiliation. Those who refused were labelled as part of the opposition and chased away from the area, under threat of death. UDF-aligned youth refused to accept Inkatha's attempt to control the political terrain and the conflict soon turned bloody. Thousands were killed, yet more thousands became internal refugees fleeing their homes as political violence engulfed most of the province, from the large urban townships around Durban to small rural villages in the north and south of the province. The province became spatially divided between areas under control of Inkatha and others under control of the UDF/ANC and it was dangerous for someone unknown to those who lived in that area to enter (see Kentridge 1990, Minaar 1992, and Jeffery 1997, for [End Page 59] more detailed accounts of the political violence during this period). These no-go areas remained in force long after political violence had abated from the levels of intensity seen during the 1980s and early 1990s. Even the most recent local government elections were marked by areas that declared themselves for one or other political party; those from other parties were threatened to prevent them from campaigning there.

These threats (both the specific and the more general) remind us of the historical continuities in patterns of political contestation. Despite the relatively peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy at the level of national politics, there remain pockets of territory in which non-democratic and violent modes of political behaviour persist and where apartheid-era conflicts have not been resolved. If there is an area in which the compromises and bargains of the transitional period are most likely to unravel, it is KwaZulu-Natal. The potential for violence in this region reflects deep-rooted patterns of collective action that have not been easily re-channelled and contained by formal political structures and rules. To be sure, the threats and reminders of violence which simmer beneath the formal level of politics reveal the fragility of South African democracy. However, they also offer an opportunity to analyse the obstacles to building a democratic culture rather than simply democratic institutions. This exercise requires a fine-grained examination both of the ways in which local level political conflict articulated with provincial and national dynamics, and of the ways political violence then became socially rooted and validated at the local level.

In this paper I argue that violence is embedded in the complex relationships between, on the one hand, political interests, social groups and organisational forms, and on the other, the dynamics of gender and generation within particular communities. These relationships are explored through an investigation of local level political violence in Mpumalanga Township, located about half way between Pietermaritzburg and Durban, an area that was acutely enmeshed in political violence in the 1980s. This closely-focused case study provides an opportunity to examine continuities and shifts in the nature of violence, the ways in which conflicts played out on the larger regional political stage act to shape local-level interests and alliances, and the ways in which political identities are shaped by the relationships people build in the particular spaces of households and neighbourhoods. [End Page 60]

Constructing the space of...


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pp. 59-83
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