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Type Conference Paper - Conflicts and Urban Violence panel, Foro Social Mundial Tematico, Cartagena, Colombia, 16-20 June 2003.
Title Spaces of violence, places of fear: urban conflict in post-apartheid South Africa
Publication (Day/Month/Year) 2003
URL https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/103416/englishspaces.pdf
It is perhaps a cliché to suggest that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
But, nine years after South Africa's first democratic elections, we still hear of racial
polarization and hatred within communities. Inequality, poverty and access to justice
remain key obstacles to establishing a human rights culture. High levels of violence
continue to mark the society; and mistrust, suspicion and fear define many inter-personal
relationships. Contrary to the popular representation of South Africa as a "miracle" nation,
high levels of violence testify that a post-apartheid South Africa is not conflict-free.
The more things stay the same, however, the more they also change. This is evident in the
many positive changes that separate the new South Africa from the old: the criminalization
of racism, an internationally acclaimed Constitution, and systems and institutions that
protect and promote human rights. But, alongside these positives, new forms of conflict and
prejudice have also emerged, for example, xenophobic hostility towards foreigners, extralegal
vigilante actions of "crime fighting", and socio-economic struggles around issues of
land and services. Social explanations, understandings and engagement with issues of
violence have also changed with South Africa's transition. In the past, violence was largely
framed as "political", both on the part of the apartheid state and through resistance to it. By
contrast, violence today is commonly (and simplistically) labelled "criminal" (cf. Simpson,
2001). Such a discursive shift has redefined not only violence but issues of crime,
legitimacy and justice. In the process, it has criminalised certain forms of violence but has
simultaneously opened a space for – and legitimised - new violent actions (for example
"crime fighting").These new trends and explanations of conflict, together with the persistence of old patterns
of violence, threaten South Africa's fragile democracy. They challenge the notion that
legislated change and a human rights framework will automatically bring an end to
violence within an already violent, militarised society. The persistence of violence within
South Africa also highlights what has been termed a "culture of violence" within the
country (cf. Simpson, Mokwena & Segal, 1992; Hamber, 1998). Such a culture, wherein
violence is upheld as the primary "solution" to daily problems and challenges, necessitates
the introduction of individual identity and group norms, as well as structural and material
factors, into an understanding of violence during political transition.
This paper explores South Africa's culture of violence; it engages with trends, patterns and
expressions of conflict in the post-apartheid nation. Drawing on research conducted by the
Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR), an NGO based in
Johannesburg, it reflects on some of the continuities and changes in violence over the
nation's transition from apartheid to democracy. As such, it is situated within CSVR's
general theoretical and research orientation, which is underpinned by the following
• How does the past continue to impact on the trends of violence that define postapartheid
South Africa?
• How has the process of democracy itself created a space for the expression of
• What has been the role of transitional justice institutions such as the Truth and
Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on contemporary manifestations of violence?
• And how does violence – and the fear thereof – manifest in further violence?
While the scope of this paper is restricted and thus these questions cannot be fully engaged
with, it is important that they are introduced as a point of orientation. In addition, these
questions are set against the backdrop of urban living, where space is represented as both a
reflection of, and a conduit for, violence.1
They are also highlighted through anecdotes told
by members of certain constituencies, namely, foreigners, school going youth, excombatants
and vigilantes. These particular groupings have been chosen because of their
proximity to conflict - either in the past and/or at present.

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