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Behind the violence

The bodies that lay in the swamps of Katlehong and along the railway tracks of Soweto this week were a grisly reminder of a prophetic warning by former Inkatha general-secretary Oscar Dhlomo. He warned that leaders who were ”ethnicising” political differences among blacks were preparing the worst scenario South Africa could possibly contemplate. 

In an interview this week he singled out Inkatha leaders as particularly guilty of converting an ideological debate into a much more ”highly charged ” ethnic war. Inkatha leaders in the Transvaal as well as the ANC believe the conflict in Sebokeng, Kagiso, the East Rand and and Soweto is a replica of the strife that has claimed 4 000 lives in Natal. But the language used by residents indicates that many of those affected perceive the conflict in ethnic terms: ”We are the Zulus and we are fighting the Xhosas” – or vice versa – were refrains frequently heard this week. This apparent contradiction between the everyday discourse and the political is dealt with by Dhlomo’s claim that certain leaders are mobilising and organising their constituencies by deliberately playing on ethnic identity. And in the Transvaal the evidence points to lnkatha – with its virtually all-Zulu past – rather than the non-racial, non-tribal ANC, as primarily responsible for this. 

University of Natal sociologist Gerhard Mare points out that the Zulu identity is a potent factor in the lives of migrant workers from kwaZulu. ”Anyone who is forced to have contact with a homeland is forced to have in part an ethnic identity,” he observed. The very existence of the homelands – and the colonial structures which preceded them – depended on fostering ethnicity, Mare pointed out. 

Chiefs and homeland officials would dispense their patronage and favours in such a way as to reinforce this ethnic pattern and perpetuate their own positions. This kind of ethnic consciousness, says Natal sociologist Doug Hindson, is especially strong amongst Zulu hostel dwellers because thousands of people from the province still rely on the migrant labour system – and rural familial and social networks – for their subsistence.In many ways Natal contrasts with other provinces, where extreme poverty md social fragmentation is causing migrancy to break down: male workers end to bring their families with them and rely less on links with their ethnic heritage to survive. Hence the Thokoza clashes this week took the form of clashes between migrant ”Zulus” and urbanised ”Xhosas”. 

Since lnkatha was the ruling party in kwaZulu it was not strange that there could be ”a total overlap of lnkatha and ethnicity in people’s minds,” argued Mare. To be Zulu, was to be lnkatha. He pointed out that members of the kwaZulu Legislative Assembly frequently equated Xhosa people with the ANC or suggested that the ANC was a non-Zulu organization. Inkatha’s president Mangosuthu Buthelezi had also invoked the notion of Zulu ethnicity quite pointedly, Mare said. One example was Buthelezi’s response to an ANC advertisement which called for the dismantling of the kwaZulu homeland. The chief minister branded the campaign as an act of contempt for the Zulu king, the Zulu nation and the kingdom of kwaZulu. 

Buthelezi added: ”I hope that the Zulu people, whatever their political affiliations, will realise that the ANC campaign of vilification is no longer just against me and lnkatha, but also against the Zulu people, as Zulu people are being singled out by the ANC/SACP/ UDF/Cosatu alliance for vilification, intimidation and killings.” Such pronouncements, the spate of pamphlets obviously designed to stoke ethnic hostility of Zulu people (for instance, by instigating them to revolt against ”Xhosa and Indian” leadership of the ANC) lend weight to accusations that lnkatha has chosen to cast the struggle in an ethnic mould. Why the hostels of the PWV have figured so consistently in the recent bloodshed is not hard to figure. If Inkatha is to engage – either politically or physically – with its opponents in the PWV it cannot do without its hostel constituency. 

A recent study by Market Research Africa showed that a mere two percent of black people outside of Natal supported lnkatha. With this shrinking support, the hostels – which have traditionally been Inkatha strongholds and which Zulu workers appear to rely on more extensively than others – represent an increasingly significant factor. Regional lnkatha Youth League chairman Themba Khoza claims that lnkatha has a dominant presence in many hostels and that it has long been established there. 

According to Lloyd Vogelman, director of the Project for the Study of Violence at Wits University, hostels are particularly fertile organising territory for any organisation. They foster a tight identity, a sense of exclusiveness, conformity and a sense of grievance. ”Hostels are easy to organize – people congregate naturally and you can organise much more swiftly there than out in the community,” commended Vogelman. ”That alone makes planned attacks much more easy to execute.” 

There was virtually no privacy in a hostel, no place for dissenters to hide and every chance that breaking ranks with the group would result in ostracisation – or even physical harm. ”People come into the hostels with frustrations. The hatreds from Natal are carried into the Transvaal, into the hostel,” Vogelman pointed out. Because of the tight group identity and the extreme pressure to conform, the commonly held position ”becomes more and more extreme” and the possibility of large groups being hijacked by a minority was far from far-fetched. With the ground prepared, hostels could in a few moves become the sol¬diers’ barracks they so much resemble. Or even fortresses. 

Vogelman’s observations apply equally to fighting within the hostels -between lnkatha supporters and other residents – as they do to conflict between lnkatha migrants and the surrounding community. Attacks by conservative hostel dwellers on the broader community have occurred fairly regularly during peaks of militant mobilisation in the townships, starting with Soweto in 1976. The violent divisions within hostels, which formed pan of the recent pattern in Thokoza, Kagiso and Soweto, are rather newer and observers are hesitant to supply a meaning. 

One thesis is that the political culture of the township – that is, for the most part, support for the ANC – is filtering through the hostels. In Sebokeng for instance, the hostels are known to be strongholds of progressive union and community organization. They were allegedly attacked by Inkatha-supporting hostel dwellers from other areas and subsequently disarmed when 5 000 police and soldiers swooped in the dead of night in a “crime prevention” operation – Jo-Anne Collinge

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.


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