Review of "A Nation Without Guns," by CSVR Executive Director Adèle Kirsten

Review of "A Nation Without Guns," by CSVR Executive Director Adèle Kirsten

Kirsten, Adèle, 2007. A Nation Without Guns? The Story of Gun Free South Africa. Scottsville: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press. xx 244 pp. ISBN 9781869141356.

Feinstein, Andrew, 2007. After the Party: A Personal and Political Journey Inside the ANC. Johannesburg: Jonathan Bull. xiv 287 pp. ISBN 9781868422623.

From very different standpoints, these authors have written two fascinating accounts of South African politics during the decade after the country's first democratic election in 1994. Andrew Feinstein was an MP who led the ANC's representation in the parliament's Public Accounts Committee. At first, his book is auto-biographical and outlines his upbringing, education, activism and marriage. But most the chapters describe how the initial optimism and commitment to democracy of the ANC government were replaced with growing authoritarianism and corruption. Feinstein details the intellectual corruption of Thabo Mbeki's Aids denialism and financial corruption of the arms deal. He records how the ANC leadership prevented an investigation into the deal – which is worth some US$ 7.5 billion – even though the European arms manufacturers have been investigated by their governments for corruption associated with it.

His most striking allegation is that one of the Page 4 main beneficiaries of the multi-million dollar bribes was the ANC itself – it used the money to fight the 1999 election campaign. Attempts at parliamentary scrutiny were quashed by an ANC leadership which replaced the vigorous discussion of the opposition years with a rigid insistence on
loyalty to the party, and Feinstein states that the prevention of an investigation into the deal led him to resign in 2001. As Feinstein concedes, such antics will hold few surprises for those who have followed the careers of Blair, Mitterrand or Berlusconi. But South Africa cannot afford a leadership which denies treatment to the some five million people infected with HIV and squanders billions on weapons.

Kirsten has written an insider account of the NGO Gun Free South Africa (GFSA), an organization dedicated to preventing violence by reducing the number of guns available in South Africa. Kirsten was GFSA's national coordinator between 1995 and 2002. The book outlines the history of GFSA and explains its strategy. It starts in 1994, and Kirsten asserts that gun control initiatives were an important component of peace building. Handing in weapons was a powerful symbol that the armed struggle was over, and GFSA organized a national firearms amnesty in December 1994, after the first democratic elections. GFSA then embarked upon an ambitious three-part strategy. First, at the grass-roots level, it supported the establishment of gun-free zones – by which buildings or communities would declare themselves to be gun free. Second, it organized an ambitious media campaign, and some of the advertisements are included in the book. Last, and perhaps most successfully, it lobbied for a change in South African firearms legislation. From the outset, GFSA took a pragmatic strategy. It decided, early on, to aim to reduce the number of firearms rather than to eradicate guns. Moreover, Kirsten states that it focused upon short-term projects that were designed to achieve long-term goals.

The book provides many insights into South Africa in the years after apartheid – the NGO sector was developed along with the country's nascent democracy. Kirsten also notes the importance of research. GFSA placed an early emphasis upon obtaining, in partnership with the health sector, the data it used to make its case. If Feinstein details how the country's optimism was betrayed, Kirsten shows that progressive causes could succeed in South Africa's vibrant democratic spaces. The books reveal two facets of a country still remaking itself after the end of a unique and still unraveling conflict.

By Nicholas Marsh, Journal of Peace Research Book Notes, May 2008, p. 438.

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CSVR is a multi-disciplinary institute that seeks to understand and prevent violence, heal its effects and build sustainable peace at the community, national and regional levels.

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