Low Intensity Conflict: South Africa


Jacqui Boulle, Lawrence Sibisi and Rob Goldman

How does one apply concepts of social defence in countries with oppressive regimes? Struggling against one's own government and against low intensity conflict (LIC) is precisely what Jacqui Boulle, Lawrence Sibisi and Rob Goldman from South Africa are faced with. Jacqui was active with the once-banned End Conscription Campaign, Lawrence is chair of the Natal Anglican Justice and Reconciliation Committee, and Rob is the Justice and Reconciliation worker for the Anglican Church and is also active in the war resisters' movement. Together they presented their experiences.

Jacqui Boulle: Social defence is a very foreign term to us; we don't really know what it means. What we can talk about is people's power. A lot of the strategy used by the South African government is similar to that which is being used in Central America. Many strategists have spent time in the USA learning about Vietnam, Guatemala, and so on. We've used Namibia as a testing ground and now South Africa itself.

Since the majority of people is neutral, the state must work at co-opting the greatest amount possible and supporting them, along with eliminating those in opposition. A sophisticated network was developed (the National Security Management System) with small committees set up in all little towns. They gather information about what was happening in that area and distribute it to one of two committees. To a Security Committee, which would detain or assassinate people or ban organisations, raid offices; or to a Welfare Committee, which would look at grievances expressed. That method of ideological warfare (winning the hearts and minds of people and eliminating the opposition) was the major strategy of the state up to the '70s.

That strategy failed because it assumed that you could co-opt people through meeting certain welfare needs and that people weren't interested in political questions. In addition, there was pressure building up within the country exposing the LIC. There was a legitimacy crisis within the state, and the economic crisis meant that the state could no longer afford the welfare programmes and the upgrading of townships. Now the state realises it need to address the political questions.

Lawrence Sibisi: I work among the homeless, as well as the squatters, whom are regarded as the scum of the earth. We are faced with an oppressive regime whose brutality diminishes any chances of a nonviolent struggle for the black masses.

The system has used many forms in its external destabilisation programme. It has used vigilantes who are know as the Warlords, and who have killed a number of activists, especially those who side with progressive movements. These vigilantes are members of the Inkatha, which sadly seems to be the most acceptable organisation within the Western countries because of Chief Buthelezi who is its leader.

They have gone on rampages unapprehended to get rid of a notorious group called Amas Senores. This group has been going about shooting and destabilising people in black townships. They are a group of thugs who unfortunately are being supported by the police, who supply them with arms. The sophisticated machinery that they use cannot be found anywhere else except by the police. They rape and maim in the townships -- raping even pregnant women -- and whenever they are caught, nothing is done by the police because they are actively destabilising the communities.

We also have death squads in the form of the Civil Cooperation Bureau (CCB), which is part of the South African Defence Force (SADF) hit squad. This is presently being investigated by the arms commission. People are brutally killed and the allegations are strong that the CCB has been part and parcel of those killings. Recently we've heard of how vigilantes in municipalities have been spying. It has hired people to spy for it, which is one way in which the LIC is being operated.

Just as with the SADF, it has its own strategy which is called WHAM: winning hearts and minds of the people. It takes place in various forms like taking young people into camps, or the army playing soccer games with the township people. This has not been successful. The township dwellers are aware of their notorious activities and why it is in the townships. It's not just coming in to introduce life to the people: they are the instruments of death, they are the ones who have been shooting our people. We have rejected them completely.

What then have the oppressed masses done to frustrate the aims of the opponent?

Defence committees have been formed, along with street committees and area committees. We use these committees to spread information. For example, if we hear that the vigilantes will be attacking, this information will be spread to area committees. The area committees, because they are large, pass on information to street committees. This means that every street within the village gets the information.

Night vigils are organised when we hear a rumour that the vigilantes will attack. We place people in different areas, in strategic points where they will be able to see who is coming. So whenever somebody comes in, he or she has to be screened and tell who they are before they are allowed to pass. This has helped considerably in driving back the vigilantes.

At times, people have had to spend their nights in the fields for nothing and the vigilantes do not come. But it is very helpful, even if it is a hoax, that these people are on stand-by in case anything should happen.

We have used structures which are acceptable to the oppressed masses of our country, like civic and youth organisations, which are very effective with information and education for political change in our black communities.

We've also embarked on services which are geared to peace, like the one we'll have on Good Friday. The primary purpose is to highlight the need for peace in our troubled, torn country.

We are a peace loving people. Hence our various strategies which are peaceful and through which we try to show the world that yes, we want peace and justice in our country. Funerals have also been used to try to encourage the culture of our people in song as well as drama. Calls for peace can also be seen in our funerals.

Our drama relates to the death of the victims. We are trying to use an alternative theatre. Black communities which are very much oppressed by the regime are no longer interested in drama such as that of William Shakespeare. Instead the events which are happening in and around us are becoming the main focus of this alternative theatre. The Bruce Lees of the movies are very much outdated in our culture. But what has risen of late are the Mandelas and the Sisulus who are very much our heroes.

When one looks around the black townships you'll see toddlers who no longer sing songs that are happy or irrelevant to them, but now sing songs that are very much relevant to the people's struggle.

We have also used people's courts. I know this will raise some people's ire when I speak about it because it has been portrayed as a very barbaric form of keeping law in our country. But we who are within the townships have found the people's courts more helpful than those courts set up by the Pretoria regime. These courts serve to stop those people who are committing acts of violence, robbery, and so on. Whereas when we take the culprits to the South African courts to be charged, we find them walking around the streets in the afternoon. The South African courts do not take seriously the need for these people to be punished -- particularly if it is black people causing harm to other black people. So we're trying to eliminate that by introducing our own people's courts. They may not be perfect, but they do supplement the South African regime's courts.

We've also used as a powerful weapon the boycott of community counsellors -- those people who are part of the regime. The regime has used these bodies to enhance its image within the country. However it has failed dismally. The people are aware that these people are harmless bodies. Hence the introduction of new structures that are acceptable and popular to the oppressed masses.

When organising boycotts of any form, we speak to the transport people, those who own cabs as well as their bosses. They are told that on a particular day there will be a stay-away, and they should not operate in order to achieve a complete standstill. This is how we've frustrated the regime. Even those who may be collaborators, and who may want to get to work, cannot because they have no means of transport.

Within the trade union movement, we have successfully mobilised and organised the workers, which means when there is a stay-away, it is a complete stay-away. The workers have been so unionised that they see the effect of their stay-away whenever there are such campaigns. We've also used consumer boycotts. For example, if a particular firm or store does not want to heed the call for a living wage, then a massive campaign is made against that particular firm or product so that people don't buy that product at all. These are some of the instruments which we have used which are nonviolent and which are very helpful. There are also rent boycotts, hunger strikes and sanctions which have been very effective nonviolent instruments in bringing about pressure.

We're hoping for the best -- that one day nations will turn their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks.

Rob Goldman: The LIC strategy of the South African government spreads all around the world. Millions of South African Rand are used in Europe and in the USA to spread the propaganda of the South African government. That is also part of LIC. Security networks in South Africa also work closely with security agencies in Europe and the USA.

Last year, for instance, I was travelling around Europe speaking, but when I got back home, my passport was restricted to a limited time period, which is not normal for the average citizen. This happened clearly because of this security network working in Europe. And my wife and three-week old baby's passports were also restricted.

The state is viewed by the majority as the aggressor against the people. The current regime is in power by the will of some 2 per cent of the population. Gene Sharp mentioned the various pillars one can look at that prop up a society. My experience with the End Conscription Campaign (ECC) is that we've identified the Defence Force as one of the major pillars, so our work involves chipping away at it. The ECC seeks to represent the views of those conscripts and their families and friends who do not support conscription in the current South African context. It helps organise that community to undertake effective opposition to conscription and to call for full recognition of conscientious objection.

It is crucial that the government, in its policy of capturing the "hearts and the minds of the people" also captures the hearts and minds within the white community as well. The white community benefits of course in almost every way from apartheid. But the one way in which it must pay is through conscription. Only those categorised as "whites" by the government are conscripted. And that is the cost for my community, if I may put it that way, for the privileges we have.

Those of us involved in the resistance movement see our task as changing the hearts and minds of the people and moving them from supporting the regime to supporting the opposition.

The continuance of the current South African government relies very heavily on conscripts such as myself. We in the war resisters movement are saying, "No, we refuse to participate in this system". Our campaigns try to influence the hearts and minds of our community and wean them away from supporting the SADF.

In addition to the night vigils mentioned by Lawrence, there is another type of vigil which just occurred three weeks ago. A women's organisation in a black community and in a white community got together for an all night vigil in a church in an area where there is a lot of violence. This was a witness of peace in that context.

It is an unfortunate part of the illness of apartheid, that a white face at a black funeral, or in a situation of violence, has the effect of reducing the level of state violence. But as a result of that truth, there have recently been support groups established. At the invitation of a family in a black community which feels it's going to be threatened, a white person or family comes into their home and sleeps there for a night or a week. There is a rota system, so that the home continually has a white presence in it, for as long as necessary. This has saved people's lives.

The most difficult area to work in is at the level of schools. This is the terrain the state most tightly controls since it is the young who can be so easily influenced. That is also part of LIC -- infiltrating the mindset of young people. Our experience of resistance from the state and harassment from the state has been the most intense when we've tried to get into schools to speak and present alternatives to the students. We have a system of high school paramilitary training in the white schools. The state has completely resisted when we've tried to come in to present alternatives to that.

Recently we held a peace fair with games and competitions which was part of our campaign. It was quite popular and many people came. The morning of the fair a helicopter dropped pamphlets over the crowd against us and our organisation. Fortunately, some eagle-eyed person managed to pick up the registration number of the helicopter. Tracing later showed that it was a helicopter hired out by the SADF. Through one of our contacts in the white assembly of parliament we asked questions of the relevant ministers of defence and police. They completely denied that the state had anything to do with the helicopter escapade. But the matter was pursued and they were eventually forced into a corner. In fact, they had to admit that they were responsible -- at taxpayer's expense -- for hiring a helicopter to drop stupid pamphlets over a fun fair.

In their defence, they used the reasoning that South Africa is involved in a state of war, thus the normal processes of law can be suspended in carrying out the defence of the state. That is an example of LIC strategy.

Hit squads are also a part of this reasoning that normal processes are suspended. One of our activists was on a hit squad list, but because he was constantly moving around, he wasn't found. Then he had a meeting with the hit squad person assigned the task of eliminating him -- quite a bizarre situation. And this person said in the interview that he felt he was completely justified in carrying out the assassination because it was in the interests of the security of the state. He felt completely above the law in being able to do that.

We are in a situation of growing militarisation -- a situation where militarised mentality is the order of the day. And it's been growing, particularly during the P W Botha era where security management systems and conscription were on the increase, and Europe and other countries were not supporting the arms embargo and were building up the military forces.

Julio Quan mentioned that in Nicaragua one in every ten people are armed. Well, in South Africa in the white community, one in every two people own firearms. Some of those own more than one weapon each. And those are the weapons that are officially owned through licences. In the black community where it is not so easy to get a licence to buy arms, there is massive production of amazingly innovative weapons. It's gotten so serious that when Nelson Mandela came to speak a few weeks ago he made an impassioned plea that went as follows:

"My message to those of you involved in this battle is take your guns, your knives and your pangas and throw them into the sea. Close down the death factories. End this war now."

Last year in South Africa [1989], there was one murder every 45 minutes, one serious assault every 4 minutes, one rape every 26 minutes, one car theft every 9 minutes, one robbery every 10 minutes, one burglary every 3 minutes.

That shows the extent of this spiral of violence and the whole culture of militarisation that we have and that is our challenge to try to change. And it isn't simply going to change once the apartheid government is removed from power. It is a long term challenge for us and for the concept of nonviolent action and civilian defence.

Lawrence: We are in fact very grateful to our white brothers and sisters who have stood by us in times of persecution, like when the vigilantes attack or when the police harass the black communities. Their presence has actually stopped some attacks from taking place.

But we are easy targets, and it's a shame we have to ask the white community for help, to serve as repellents. These are acts of desperation, but they serve to extend a hand of friendship and love to our white brothers and sisters in South Africa. Therefore we value their presence.

When a black person reports something after having witnessed an attack or act of violence, even though it is the truth, chances are very slim that people will believe what he or she says. But when something is witnessed by a white person, it is taken to be the truth. When these attacks happen, which happen sometimes even with white people there, it is a least taken to be the truth when a white person has witnessed it, and people act accordingly.

But I would like to sound a word of warning. We don't accept just any white. We are very careful who comes in to give us the kind of protection we need. So it must be people who identify solely with our struggle and who long to see a new alternative society come about peacefully.

Like the Indians in Central America, whose government is working to destroy their culture, we too have lost our dignity and humanity as a result of an oppressive regime. Our people are just beginning to try to rediscover their ways and humanity. It has so brutalised us, not just militarily, that our culture has also been persecuted. Our people now look down on their own culture.

Our culture requires us to live a communal life. But it is no longer communal with the introduction of Western civilisation. We are no longer concerned about the needs of our neighbours. These are some of the things we are tying to regain. The Coca-Cola and hamburger culture has viciously fought for the destruction of that profound culture that black people had in their land of birth.

Any culture which is not geared to bring about one nation, self-respect, or self-reliance is a culture that has to be rejected with the contempt it deserves. We are in a process of trying to revive our culture and those things that made our communities one, those things that built up our people into one human entity.

We are not giving in to LIC. We are empowering our people, developing our people through such things as self-help projects, where people learn to be self-reliant. We have developed communal gardens, so we don't have to go to a white man to buy our vegetables.

Other projects such as sewing and candy-making allow people to raise money. In these ways we try to frustrate the regime, so that we're not entirely dependent on its mercy. We too can develop our lives so we get to a point where we can say in a new society that we need nothing from white people.

But another warning for those who think we want nothing to do with white people. In the new South Africa that we're looking for, there will be one nation built by one humanity, where the dispossessed will have a share in the land of their birth, where the disenfranchised will have a vote as well as a future which will determine the humanity of white people as well. As long as we blacks are seen as being inhuman, so will white people be seen in return. So long as our freedom is denied us, freedom will also not exist for white people. For freedom is indivisible.

Programmes & Projects
Other publications

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

8 + 5 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.