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  • Township Violence and the End of Apartheid: war on the Reef by Gary Kynoch
Gary Kynoch (2018) Township Violence and the End of Apartheid: war on the Reef. Johannesburg: Wits University Press; Woodbridge, Suffolk: James Currey.

In 1990 the apartheid government of FW de Klerk unbanned theAfrican National Congress (ANC), the Pan-African Congress, the SouthAfrican Communist Party and other liberation movements. The release of long-term political prisoners was also announced. Thus began a four-year period of political transition as the major political groups negotiated the political and economic future of South Africa. History shows that the four years of this transition (1990 until the elections in April 1994) saw significant increases in political violence, with 'an estimated 14,000 deaths' (1). As Kynoch states the primary divide saw those supporting the ANC on one side, and those supporting the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) on the other. Entangled with this violence, in numerous ways, were the state security forces. Much of the post-1990 violence happened in the Vaal Triangle, in contrast to the political violence that had consumed much of Natal and parts of Zululand during the 1980s. Through wide-ranging fieldwork and the collection of extensive interviews with all parties to the Vaal conflict Gary Kynoch has scripted a fascinating historical account of this time of violence and conflict.

Kynoch argues against what he describes as 'an enduring narrative' of an alliance between security forces and the IFP that was jointly responsible for an 'onslaught against ANC supporters'. Instead he claims that the 'oppressor-resister dyad simplified the myriad contestations of the apartheid period'. Furthermore, he suggests, this analysis is even more problematic when employed to explain the violence of the early 1990s given 'the seismic political shifts of the transition era' (1). With the unbanning of the ANC in 1990 and political [End Page 154] negotiations unfolding, Kynoch argues that all parties were 'manoeuvring for advantage' (2). While he acknowledges that apartheid and Nationalist Party rule created the conditions for violence, his principal point is that all parties were competing for power, they all used violence to advance their interests and as such they all bear responsibility for the violence in this period.

The book is divided into two parts. Part one, 'War on the Reef', provides a broad overview of political violence in the East Rand. It comprises four chapters which set out the parameters and dynamics of the period. Chapter one, titled 'Beginnings', situates the violence within other violent dynamics of the time–criminality, taxi wars, hostilities between hostel and township dwellers and the existing conflicts between the major political actors. Chapter two, 'Rule of the gun: the ANC and the IFP at war', focuses on the 'war' between the ANC and the IFP, it sketches some of the history to this conflict, the way in which the different groups organised and their access to weapons. Kynoch argues that while the hostility between these two groups 'served as the master cleavage' (drawing from the work of Kalyvas) in the conflict, the conflict itself transcended this divide and a number of other armed groups materialised in this period (61). These other players form the subject of chapter three–'Rule of the gun: violence on multiple fronts'. Here Kynoch shines light on conflict between different groups within the ANC, conflicts between the ANC and non-Charterist groups, as well as the often thin line between crime and political violence. He suggests that the rule of law had long been eroded in South Africa's black townships by both the apartheid state and further by the uprisings of the 1980s. Violence, Kynoch argues, was routinely used by different groups to 'police their own members' and to 'resolve disputes with rivals', with criminals 'capitalising on the political turmoil' (84). Part one's last chapter focuses on 'State security forces and township conflict'. Kynoch points out that assessing the role of state security forces is a most difficult and controversial task. He suggests that the well-known script of security forces working together with the IFP to manipulate the transition needs interrogation (85). In this chapter he briefly reviews the role played by different units–both police and military during the transition. He makes the point that this was a period of political change and so the 'message' to the security forces from the political authorities was also changing. Ultimately he concludes that while the IFP was given more support from state security forces than was the ANC (117), overt support to the IFP did change over the period of the transition, declining over time. Generally both ANC and IFP supporters feared 'security force violence' (118).

The second part of the book focuses specifically on the narrative of political [End Page 155] violence in two townships; Katlehong and Thokoza. Kynoch carefully utilises the material from his many interviews with all parties to set out his narrative and the reader becomes drawn into the trauma of the warfare in these two places and what it meant to be a participant.

Part two comprises three chapters. Chapter five, 'A tale of two townships', sets out the story of these two townships–the history, dynamics and trajectory of the violence. As in many of the townships of KwaZulu-Natal in the previous decade, the political violence in Katlehong and Thokoza became all consuming, space was divided and politicised and residents could not escape involvement. This was a war of great intensity, even if some of the weapons were not sophisticated. Thousands were killed, injured and displaced; houses and hostels were dismantled; the railway line through Katlehong and into the hostels was attacked and at times disabled; and, residents participated in and were subjected to immense brutality.

Chapter six–'Combatant stories'–tells the stories of the combatants: the ANC-aligned Self Defence Units (SDUs), the IFP-supporting hostel residents, and members of the Internal Stability Unit (ISU). Kynoch makes the point that the majority of combatants (with the exception of the ISU) were civilians drawn into the violence as it devoured their communities. Many of them, mostly but not exclusively men, had no choice but to become involved. Kynoch presents evidence that SDU members felt they had no choice but to fight, their survival and that of their families depended upon it. Hostel residents expressed similar sentiments: 'we knew we were on our own. So, we had only two options: to fight with all we had or flee and lose our rooms at the hostel and our jobs' (157). The third group of combatants to tell their stories are the ISU–many of them young men serving in the ISU as an alternative to apartheid military conscription indicated that they were unprepared for the conflict and had little understanding of the politics of the situation (162). This chapter is rich in detail and nuanced in its account. It illustrates the tragedy of the period, and in hindsight the futility of the violence; Kynoch makes the point that 'the line between perpetrators and victims was a shifting, murky and precarious divide. Virtually all combatants described in the book straddled that line' (173).

The final chapter of the book, chapter seven, reflects on daily life in this war-zone. No matter which side of the conflict, residents felt their life during those four years was one of fear; violence was all they knew. Towards the end of the period hostel residents were all but besieged, food was in short-supply, and medical supplies and attention difficult to obtain. As in chapter six the overwhelming narrative is one of brutality and a daily-life filled with fear. [End Page 156]

Both chapter six and seven give accounts of the additional danger faced by women–whether residents (either seen as IFP or ANC) or combatants. Women SDU members had to 'contend with sexual violence, from their comrades as well as from the enemy' (154). Women linked to the IFP became dependent on male hostel dwellers for accommodation and protection, 'exposing them to sexual exploitation and violence' (178). Women interviewed recounted stories of adult women residents and school-girls being raped by both Inkatha and SDU members, with at times rape being used as a way to punish women (189). The issue of sexual violence against women during political violence is often not written about when such violence is discussed, and any text that does so is to be welcomed. However, in my view the epidemic of extremely brutal gender-based violence that has always been prevalent in South Africa is just as much a legacy of political violence as are derelict and abandoned houses.

The book concludes with a reflection on the legacies of this violence. Kynoch argues that the direct legacy for the residents of Thokoza and Katlehong is easy to observe. He paints a tragic picture of combatants' displacement in a society returning to peace post-1994. In many cases the combatants (especially those aligned with the ANC) had abandoned their education during the violence; post-94 they remained unemployed, their 'sacrifices' often unacknowledged, and struggled with post-traumatic stress and substance abuse. A number later became involved in criminal activities. Many of the buildings in the war-torn zones remain derelict and there is little to remember or commemorate those who died. Inkatha members, he says fared no better: they were instructed not to participate in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and so were not able to benefit from amnesty and many former Inkatha members are also said to be part of criminal syndicates. While they managed to retain the presence of hostels and so provide an urban base for their members, the hostels remain without water and electricity to the present (194).

However, he argues what is more difficult to assess is the 'national legacy of transition violence' (197). He maintains that there is a distinct rupture from the political violence of previous decades where conflict was 'defined in insurrectionary terms' (198), including the 1980s UDF (United Democratic Front)-Inkatha violence in KwaZulu-Natal. He states that in the transition violence shifted from being 'insurrectionary to competitive as ANC and IFP supporters engaged in a deadly contest for political influence' (198). Kynoch argues that while all parties were implicated in the transition violence he is focusing on the ANC as they are the current government; in his view the ANC have 'yet to demonstrate a decisive break with (their) violent past' (200). [End Page 157] Furthermore as the ANC-led state came under increasing pressure into the 2000s, so, he argues, 'the ANC's reliance on violence has revealed troubling continuities' (200). In this regard he cites police action against service delivery protests; the more recent killings in KwaZulu-Natal; and, the Marikana massacre and cover-up. Finally Kynoch suggest that in order to understand the violence that still pervades South Africa it is necessary to 'recognise the nature and depth of these conflicts' (202).

This book in my view appears to have two different purposes. The first is to tell the story of a time of violence, a story that has previously not been told in its entirety, particularly in this place. And in this respect the book is excellent. Township Violence and the End of Apartheid (especially Part 2) is rich in detail with narratives and evidence drawn from 156 in-depth interviews as well as archival sources (primarily testimony given to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission). The book gives voice to the forgotten (particularly hostel dwellers) and provides a rich and detailed account of an exceptionally traumatic time in our history. The stories of combatants and the particulars of daily life during this time are particularly harrowing to read. Kynoch presents a sympathetic view of all his participants–in some ways they were all victims, struggling to survive, with little agency over the larger political manoeuvres and narratives of the time. Ensconced in the view from the ground, Kynoch's argument that the political conflict 'unleashed an explosion of violence and an assortment of armed groups with disparate agendas that is not adequately captured by the oppressor-resister binary' (197), seems plausible. Nevertheless, even if this was not to use Kynoch's term 'insurrectionary violence', when describing daily life and the politicisation of space in the Vaal, there are strong parallels with the violence in KwaZulu-Natal during the 1980s.

However, it is the second argument, that 'the ANC's reliance on violence has revealed troubling continuities' into the present, that I have the most trouble with. While I appreciate the general point that contemporary South Africa is a troubled, exceedingly violent, society and we have to look to our past to understand these dynamics, the empirical material discussed in this book is specific to the period 1990-1994. In my view these claims, set out in the conclusion, are not substantiated by the evidence presented in the book. I suggest that substantiating these arguments would require the author to present a different set of evidence and engage with a different group of informants.

Nevertheless, as Kynoch stated in the 'Introduction' the primary purpose of the book is to 'reassess transition violence' (11). In my view he could have explored this argument in greater depth. Without doubt he demonstrates that a [End Page 158] detailed and engaged account of conflict and violence, focusing on the local, does demonstrate how civil wars function as 'concatenations of multiple and often disparate local cleavages more or less loosely arrayed around the master cleavage' (12). But does this book also 'offer new possibilities for understanding South Africa's transition violence' (12)? There I am not so sure. In order to convincingly demonstrate that this violence was also about political parties competing for power at the negotiating table during the transition I would have thought one would need to explore the connections between the 'micro' and the 'macro'. A chapter that examined the parallels between events in these communities and the dynamics of the national negotiations, that tried to map and periodise the negotiations against the violence, could have indicated the connections. Also useful in building such an argument would have been reflections from combatants on national politics during this period and how it did or didn't influence their strategies. Did national politicians have any influence in the area? How connected were the SDUs, residents, hostel dwellers to broader party structures? I would suggest that all of these would be fruitful avenues to explore in making this argument.

In a few places the book reflects some historical inaccuracies that need to be mentioned for the record. Firstly, the LRC is the Legal Resources Centre and not the Legal Reference Centre (8). Secondly, COSATU did not 'join the UDF' (21) and was never an affiliate.

At its 1987 Congress, COSATU delegates debated a resolution on 'rebuilding the mass democratic movement' [… and] 'eventually reaffirmed "the strategic alliance of Cosatu and UDF", and called on union members to be active in strengthening and rebuilding structures at national, regional and local levels' (Baskin 1991:353). Thus while COSATU and the UDF cooperated in an alliance known as the Mass Democratic Alliance following the banning of the UDF, COSATU never affiliated to the UDF. Thirdly, the author refers to 'battle(s) over positions within ANC civics or ANC affiliates' (199). The point here is somewhat unclear as the ANC did not have civics or affiliates; while I suspect it should read as 'ANC-aligned civics' it should also be noted that the ANC did not have affiliates; rather it had members, who were individuals and not organisations. [End Page 159]

Debby Bonnin

Deborah Bonnin is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Head of Department of Sociology at the University of Pretoria.


Baskin, J (1991) Striking Back: a history of COSATU. Braamfontein: Ravan Press.

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