Public violence: Its roots and results in 1990 and 2021

September 1st, 2021

Public violence results in the breakdown of the rule of law. It needs immediate treatment in the criminal justice system. The treatment should focus on the historical, sociological, anthropological, and social psychological in the mid- to long-term period.

Related to 1990, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, volume 3 concluded, ‘Arson was by far the most common type of severe ill treatment, with nearly 4 000 cases reported, followed by shooting, beating and stabbing. Material losses, destruction of property and burning also feature in the top eight types of ill treatment. All these reflect the nature of the violence in this area, in which whole communities were targeted.’ It also recorded 47 types of human rights violations, which surpassed the 20 types of torture identified by the Istanbul Protocol.

The ten days wherein the recent looting and violence took place in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng resulted in 337 deaths, 161 attacks on malls and shopping centres, 3 000 shops being looted, including 11 warehouses, 161 liquor stores, 90 pharmacies, 50 000 informal traders; 300 bank branches and post offices were vandalised; 1 300 bank branches were shut down; 1 400 ATMs were damaged; 32 schools were damaged; and 3 407 people arrested.

In the 118 incidents of public violence, an unknown number of vehicles were damaged, trucks were hijacked and burned, and roads damaged. Before and during the violence 353 000 tonnes of sugarcane were lost to arson. What is impossible to quantify is the psychological damages done to the national state of the mind.

The loss in economic output was R 50 billion and 150 000 jobs were at risk. The fall in rand/dollar exchange rate was 2%.

The breakdown in the rule of law in both 1990 and 2021 manifested themselves in peculiar ways. In proportion to local demographics there were undertones or overtones of racism, ethnicism, tribalism, clanism, male chauvinism, xenophobia, and vigilantism.

On 25 February 1990, ‘two weeks after being released from prison, [former President, Mr Nelson Mandela] was in a 100 000-packed Kings Park stadium in Durban’ (Yonela Diko ‘The menace of the years found him unafraid’ (, accessed 19-8-2021)) and said: ‘My message to those of you involved in this battle of brother against brother is this: take your guns, your knives, and your pangas, and throw them into the sea. Close down the death factories. End this war.’

Departing from his prepared text he said that he could not understand why Africans killed Africans. Then he had neither legal nor political powers but only moral and ethical authority.

On 5 August 2021, President Cyril Ramaphosa removed the stand-alone State Security Agency and incorporated it directly in his Presidency. He corrected a serious error of history. Before and during the violence there was no coordination of the strategic ministries of intelligence, police, and army, which internally imperilled the rule of law and resulted in public violence as a ‘failed insurrection’.

Another error of history that still must be seen to be corrected is the failure of democracy to gather political intelligence within and outside the African National Congress. This failure provided fertile ground for the breeding of factions as antagonistic fractions of the ruling elite. One fraction of it misappropriated for itself the delusionary power to break the rule of law with impunity.

On 16 July 2021, President Ramaphosa said, ‘It is clear now that the events of the past week were nothing less than a deliberate, coordinated and well-planned attack on our democracy.’

The breakdown in the rule of law in 1990 (under Apartheid) and in 2021 (under democracy) has manifested itself in peculiar ways. In proportion to local demographics there were undertones or overtones of misanthropic expressions like racism and tribalism. The commonality to them was that they had their origins in feudalism with a regional approach.

Feudalism had well-established societies along tribal/clan/ethnic/patriarchal lines in the pre-nation state. How will SA re-establish societies from pre- to post-nation state? How will SA value labour and the use of communal land, water and private cattle from pre- to post-nation state? How will SA use land/water for food production on an industrial scale?

The earlier sociological transformation from feudalism had demanded masculine labour and made history look so masculine that the unpaid labour of women and girl-children became invisible, which is now visible and vocal.

Feudalism and patriarchal authoritarian rule are dying and need to be pushed into their common grave. Gender-based violence (GBV) – as features of indigenous/capitalist patriarchies – such as, child labour, child trafficking, child prostitution, ukuthwala, child marriages, child abuse, child pornography, women/men abuse, and male/female rape should be made into the rotting bones of a dying feudalism.

The modern urbanised capitalist system demands high levels of literacy, numeracy, education, training, expertise, and skills as a condition for individual and collective survival. Those with knowledge find it easy to adapt to a capitalist society and press for speedier advance to industrialisation (the cry for jobs).

As associational life grows in dynamism, labour grows in strength as a distinct and powerful constituency that accelerates historical development from feudalism to capitalism to socialism.

South Africa is challenged with how to deal with rural and urban morphologies (forms of things), cultural/spiritual substance, social psychology, ethnography, livestock rearing, science and technology, and feudal/capitalist patriarchies.

The fratricidal crime to which Mr Mandela had referred cannot be explained by textbook-style sociological causes of crime. It symptomises the deeper cultural and spiritual malaise of an interruption in the generational transmission of the humane indigenous value-system (Ubuntu). The interruption miscreated urban space for a show of public disdain for centres of compassion, such as hospitals, dialysis centres, x-ray facilities, ambulances, blood services, pharmacies, COVID-19 vaccination sites, and the delivery of food and medicine to health facilities.

The criminal justice system can only provide symptomatic relief to a historically traumatised society, which is still in transition from Apartheid to democracy. It will take the whole of society to eradicate incrementally the causes of the systematic traumas.

It requires of political leadership to transcend political, economic, social, and psychological fractions and out-dated binaries. Among the many historical needs are:

  • The inclusion of the deracialisation of the human mind in the curriculums of public education.
  • An anti-racist strategy that simultaneously prevents misanthropic behaviour.
  • The House of Traditional Leaders to help shift from reliance on the oral tradition of Ubuntu to one that is a written code, as the constant for humane behaviour.

The legal community needs to play a role beyond legal justice. Although the primary purpose of history is to explain the past truthfully, history should also function as a guide to liberate human minds and emotions from misanthropism.

Haroon Aziz is a retired physicist, author, and researcher and is part of the leadership collective of the Apartheid Victims’ Families Group (AVFG) and Shireen Mahomed is the Editorial Secretary at De Rebus.

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2021 (Sept) DR 37.

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