Deadly symbolism of the gun

Politicians need to consider the social dynamics behind gun proliferation, argues Wits sociology professor Jacklyn Cock

GUN violence is about contested social identities. This is evident in the case of the Kalashnikov assault rifle, the AK-47. I want to use this particular weapon to introduce some of the key themes in a sociological analysis of gun violence in the South African social order, to demonstrate the value of an applied sociology that links history, theory, empirical social data and contemporary social issues.

The AK-47 is not just a gun; it is a potent symbol of conflict. Since it was first produced in 1947 some 70-million AKs have been manufactured. It has been described as the most effective assault weapon in the world and has changed the way wars are fought forever.

While the AK is invested with powerful symbolic force, this is also true of other types of weaponry – for example the tank is one of the century’s most potent global symbols – a symbol of the repressive power of the authoritarian state – illustrated by events in Budapest in 1956; Prague in 1968; Tiananmen Square in 1989. Similarly, the machine gun represented the power of the imperial armies, while the AK is an icon of revolutionary resistance.

Especially during the apartheid era for many young black South Africans, the AK became a mythic icon, a “marker” of group identity; a kind of code to assert one’s political allegiance that carried great significance for individuals.

The current global problem of gun violence is a social issue; guns have become embedded in the identities of diverse social groupings. In the post-Cold War world, violence is increasingly about contested identities.

Discussions of the supply of guns to South Africa tend to focus exclusively on one source – cross-border smuggling of AK-47s by Mozambican ex-combatants. The issue is more complex; the supply of guns is deeply embedded in the South African social and economic order. Struggles over access to guns and land were crucial themes in our past. Today, the supply of guns through the illegal arms trade is connected to many other social and economic activities which include the trade in ivory, rhino horn, diamonds, teak, drugs and even second-hand clothing.

The indigenous arms industry was built on linkages with most of South Africa’s major manufacturing companies.

Small arms are locally produced. The Denel subsidiary, Lyttleton Engineering, in Verwoerdburg (LIW), produces:

* The R4 and R5 automatic assault rifles, which are the standard weapons in the South African National Defence Force and the South African Police Service. According to their marketing blurb, “these are developments of the AK-47 assault rifle”;

* The Vektor small arms range, which sells about 15 000 pistols a year to the civilian market;

* The Vektor CP1 9mm parabellum compact pistol “is now available at your nearest gun dealer” for about R2 500.

One of the main weapons of violent crime is the 9mm pistol.

As regards the illegal arms market, there are three main sources of supply:

1. Smuggling of small arms across the porous borders of Swaziland, Namibia and Mozambique into South Africa is common. These smugglers then link up with highly organised criminal networks. One of my informants obtained his 9mm pistol simply by shooting the gang member who offered to sell it to him.

2. Illegal imports.

3. Leaks from poorly controlled state armouries and security force personnel. The pistol which killed Chris Hani was obtained in a raid from a state armoury.

The current proliferation of arms is not only a legacy of apartheid. In several ways the post-apartheid state is encouraging this proliferation and thus contributing to the erosion of its own authority. It is doing so through its support for the import, and especially the manufacture, of small arms, through the encouragement of private gun ownership in the form of liberal licensing, through the extensive arming of the security forces and weak control over their weaponry. Several informants maintained that security force personnel – especially poorly paid policemen – were themselves involved in the illegal arms trade.

The consequent proliferation of the means of violence, through multiple channels to all levels of society, is one of the most distinctive features of contemporary South African society.

The social categories involved with small arms include not only criminal networks and political groupings with paramilitary formations, but also sportsmen, including hunters, mercenaries, self-defence units, the security forces, citizens and private security firms.

These overlapping social categories include very different people. My argument is that small arms are often the basis of a militarised identity that is lethally connected to gender, ethnicity, race, nationality.

But analysing gun violence as a social phenomenon involves more than exploring individual biographies, motives and meanings; it also involves examining the diverse social organisations, cultural frameworks, social practices, group attachments, and institutions built up around guns. Collectively these constitute a robust “gun culture” in South Africa.

The values, social practices and institutions which together constitute this gun culture include what Raymond Williams calls “consumerist militarism”. It involves the normalisation – and even glorification – of war, weaponry, military force and violence through TV, films, books, songs, dances, games, sports and toys.

Toy guns are a significant component of this culture – a total of 48 different varieties of toy guns were on offer at a Johannesburg shop in December 1996.

All of these cultural forms constitute a kind of “banal militarism” which operates near the surface of social life. It is embedded in everyday activities and works through prosaic routines and rituals to make war, weaponry and violence appear natural and inevitable. It is exemplified in war games such as paintball, which simulates killing and has become increasingly popular among white South Africans since 1985.

This gun culture contains a highly heterogeneous set of resources; it does not only operate to glamourise war and weaponry, but also to “normalise” these social practices. Part of this “normalisation” is the notion that private gun ownership is legitimate; it is a right, not a privilege.

A key institution which promotes this notion is the South African Gun Owners’ Association (Saga). In 1995 Saga organised 14 410 petitions to the Constitutional Assembly, stating that the Constitution should be amended to recognise the right to own firearms and to place a limitation on government’s power to disarm the civilian population. Saga maintains that “the anti- gun lobby’s emphasis should not be on guns. It should be on people. Guns are to crime as cameras are to pornography, but they don’t ban cameras.”

The notion that private gun ownership is legitimate is linked to the notion that guns are a necessary form of protection. Now, the gun combines two contradictory images – it is a means of both order and of violence; paradoxically it is believed to provide protection from violence through the potential threat of violence.

Since the 1980s there has been a “privatisation of security”, as increasing numbers of citizens have lost confidence in the state to protect them, and have come to rely on individual gun ownership, diverse forms of vigilantism and private security arrangements.

A common theme articulated by many of my informants who had purchased guns for self protection was a sense of being powerless. But the psychodynamic power of the gun as protection is largely illusionary; legally owned weapons contribute to the problem of violent crime.

The fact that over 17 000 licensed firearms probably fell into criminal hands last year dramatises the dangerously self- contradictory potential of guns as a means of protection.

To a diverse number of young South African men guns are a mark of status, and signal a particular style. For example, to many members of organised crime syndicates in Soweto, ostentatiously displayed firearms indicate the status of being a “big man”.

However, the style that guns signal is not restricted to political allegiance or criminal defiance. Guns are a form of social display which can signal male affluence as well. Among a diverse group of young men informants – not only gang members from Soweto, but also middle-class men from Lenasia and Sandton – guns seem important as a means of social display, and firearms compete with cellphones for pride of place on a man’s belt.

Women’s response to this militarised masculinity is ambiguous. In South Africa increasing numbers of women are purchasing guns, which could indicate that a male style is being homogenised and spread more widely.

The gendered nature of gun violence is significant; but gender, class, race and ethnic identities are inseparable; they construct and reinforce each other. Much gun violence relates to deep-seated fears that are grounded in racial and ethnic identities which are antagonistically defined.

At present, for many South Africans, ethnic identities are the strongest source of social cohesion. The mobilisation of ethnicity to secure economic and political goals by Inkatha has deepened animosities along ethnic lines, and the supply of weaponry enables these animosities to be expressed in lethal ways. Similarly, some right-wing Afrikaner groupings have mobilised around a politicised ethnicity, and have formed armed, paramilitary organisations.

The availability of guns encourages these militant political groups to engage in violent rather than democratic opposition. In 1996, for the first time, guns were killing people more than any other weapon in political conflict in KwaZulu-Natal.

Guns are connected to various overlapping social identities, particularly those defined by gender, race, class, age, political affiliation, nationality and ethnicity. All of these are strong representations of common interests and carry powerful mobilising sentiments within them. They are all relational identities; they involve boundaries demarcating “us” from “them”; they mark lines of difference which perceptions of external threat, and access to weaponry make potentially lethal.

Any solution to the proliferation of guns has to deal with these social relations and contested identities. At present the state has established a number of structures to come up with policy proposals to reduce the number of firearms available to the general public.

But a control policy that ignores the historically and socially constructed meanings attached to firearms will not be effective; we need to alter the allegiances and identities which underly acts of gun violence.

This piece is an edited version of Jacklyn Cock’s inaugural lecture, given this week

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