State Violence: A study in repression

State Violence: A study in repression

Coleman, M. (1990). State Violence: A study in repression. Paper presented at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.


Presenter: Max Coleman

Max Coleman is a former member of the Detainees Parents Support Committee

Date: 26 August 1990

Venue: University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa


The contents of the Pretoria Minute of 6th August 1990 came as something of a surprise, not only to the detractors of the ANC but also to many of its supporters. In declaring what amounts to a unilateral suspension of violence the ANC appears to have met the government considerably more than half way. Unilateral, because suspension of violence on the side of the government has only reached the stage of "ongoing review" of security legislation and its application, an undertaking "to consider" the lifting the State of Emergency in Natal "as early as possible", and an undertaking to "give immediate consideration" to repealing certain provisions of the Internal Security Act; in other words, promises to deliver at some time in the future, while on the ground, state violence continues in its many forms. A ceasefire agreement, which must precede serious negotiations, involves two parties, but at this point it seems that only one party has delivered and has put the other party on its honour to deliver. In this situation it is most important to be very clear as to what constitutes state violence as presently practised, and, of course, what is necessary to level the playing field before the game of negotiation can commence.

Historical Background

Some knowledge of the origins of the institutionalised violence of state repression in South Africa is of help in understanding the forms that this violence takes today. The modern ear of repression dates back to 1950 and to the grand-daddy of all our present day repressive legislation, namely, the Suppression of Communism Act of 1950. It arose out of a culture of repression that rapidly developed as an accompaniment to, and an enforcement of, the new social engineering experiment of apartheid and separate development. This culture fed off racial prejudices and hatred, born of long-standing racial discrimination and exploitation, and spread rapidly within the law enforcement agencies of the police and army. As time went on and international censure mounted, the repression culture flowered into a full-blown paranoia about a perceived "total onslaught" from within and without, and going as far as claiming that the whole source of conflict lay in the Soviet Union casting covetous eyes on the mineral wealth of Southern Africa, which if added to their own, would enable them to hold the world to ransom. The response to the perceived threat of the "total onslaught" found expression in what has come to be known as the "total strategy", a multi-component strategy developed by the security establishment, drawing upon the experience of other countries in counter-revolutionary warfare and low-intensity conflict, and refining and adding to such techniques within the South African context.

The domination of the securocrats in furthering the interests of the state peaked during the years of 1984 to 1987 which were characterised by the ramming through of highly unpopular structures of the Tricameral Parliament and Black Local Authorities; followed by the most brutal repression of a succession of States of Emergency. If the number of detentions without trial is an indication of the level of state violence then it is significant that two thirds of the massive total of nearly 80 000 detentions that have taken place during the last 30 years, have occurred in the last 5 years.

However, the dominance of the securocrats began wearing thin in early 1988. Total Strategy was showing serious signs of failing, both in its internal manifestation of the State of Emergency which had succeeded only in driving resistance underground, not crushing it; and in its external manifestation of destabilising the Southern African region which suddenly, after the battles of Ciuto Cuanavale, had become prohibitively costly, not only in terms of personpower, but especially in terms of economics. Just as serious was the unremitting foreign debt crisis brought about by South Africa's isolation from the world's financial system when it declared a State of Emergency in July 1985, resulting in a precipitous withdrawal of foreign investment and the refusal, continuing to this day, to make any new loans available until political and economic stability is perceived to have returned. South Africa, normally a capital importing country, has over the last 5 years become the exporter, not by choice, of R 30 billion, through foreign debt repayment and flight of capital. It still has a foreign debt of over R 50 billion, nearly half of which must be paid in the next 4 years, whilst reserves continue at a critically low level.

So it became abundantly clear early in 1988 that Total Strategy was turning into total disaster and that a new direction would have to be taken – a political direction, in order to break the international isolation and re-establish access to the world's finance. First indictions of the switch in direction came with the announcement in early 1988 of the South African government's decision to withdraw from Angola and commit itself to the implementation of Resolution 435 on Namibia. This announcement clearly had the support of the security establishment which thereby submitted itself to the wisdom of the politicians. The age of the securocrats seemed to be over; the politicians had prevailed. Out went P.W. Botha, the main architect of Total Strategy; in came F.W. De Klerk the apostle of the new strategy of outreach and negotiation.

But have we seen the last of the securocrats? It seems not; it seems the empire, or elements within it, is striking back, if one is to judge by the situation on the ground in the last while. All the elements of Total Strategy are still in place and actually functioning, whether by continuing direction from above, or by sheer momentum at the lower echelons. Are we witnessing a revolt against the new reform policy or simply knee-jerk reactions by security forces unable to break old habits?

Before we can attempt to answer such questions we need to look at the spectrum of repression which Total Strategy offers, and in what forms state violence is manifesting itself today.

The Spectrum of Total Strategy

The components of Total Strategy, from the most visible to the least visible are as follows:

  • Security legislation
  • Security management
  • Vigilantes
  • Hit squads

Each component uses methods less defensible publicly than the previous one and relies therefore on a greater degree of secrecy and covertness. The first relies on the existence of laws and public law enforcement agencies; the second on a management system which, while it has no constitutional status, draws on the support of the public structures; the third on the planting of a "fifth column" within communities; and the fourth on means of last resort, the actions of faceless assassins and strike groups.

There is a fifth component, namely the destabilisation of South Africa's neighbours, but we confine our attention here to internal state violence.

Security Legislation

The two main pieces of legislation which generate the powers under which security forces can act, are:

  • The Public Safety Act (PSA) enabling the declaration of a State of Emergency (SOE) and thereby unleashing an extremely wide range of powers, usable on a mass scale, with virtual indemnity from prosecution and away from the prying eyes and ears of the media. An SOE is currently in operation only in Natal (including KwaZulu), but this constitutes an obstacle to a cease-fire in terms of the violence which the state is able to exercise in this context.

  • The Internal Security Act (ISA), permanently in place, with wide powers of detention without trial, banning of persons, organisations, gatherings and publications, and of imprisonment for various political actions. The past use of the ISA (and of its forerunners and homelands imitators) is well known, and in its present-day form must be seen as a modern high-powered product of the securocrat culture. The ISA is still firmly on the statute books with all of its provisions totally intact. The application of the powers to ban persons, ban organisations and ban publications has been put on hold. "Immediate consideration" is being given to repealing the listing of persons, and the question of the release of political prisoners and the cessation of political trials seem to be well addressed. Nevertheless there are two areas of great concern.

Firstly, detention without trial continues to be used unabated. Over 100 detainees are currently held in solitary confinement, cut off from access to the due processes of law and subject to the very real dangers of torture and even death. Reports are currently emerging that torture is in fact taking place, and we have fresh in our memory the records of three deaths in detention this year already. This form of state violence stands, as it always has, as a serious impediment in the way of free political expression.

Secondly, the banning of outdoor gatherings continues even though the repeal of the ISA is not a necessary prerequisite for the cessation of this practice. The ban on outdoor gatherings is subject to proclamation by the Minister of Law and Order at any time and for the last 15 years he has reimposed an annual ban, the most recent on 1st April, 1990. He is likewise able to withdraw that ban at any time. Nevertheless it continues in effect and has become a major cause of violence in the country today. During the early months of the Defiance Campaign in 1989, permission was for the first time quite readily granted for marches, rallies, processions and presentation of petitions and the police behaved in a restrained and low-key fashion so that peaceful gatherings became the norm. Since then there has been a reversion to the police behaviour of the worst years of the SOE. Large numbers of deaths and injuries have occurred and are occurring as a result, many of them totally unnecessary and totally avoidable. Records kept by the HRC since F.W.De Klerk's address to Parliament on 2nd February show that well over 200 people have been killed and over 2 000 injured, some maimed for life as a result directly or indirectly, of police action against gatherings for which permission was refused, or which occurred spontaneously. During the month of July alone, 147 incidents of police action were recorded resulting in 20 deaths, 652 injured and 1 346 arrests. Virtually all of these gatherings were for the purpose of expressing grievances around the issues of housing, education, health services, township services and infrastructure, and many others. The needless brutality with which peaceful protest is so often met, carries with it the danger that communities (and particularly the youth) will conclude that peaceful methods of articulating their demands will lead nowhere. This retrogression on the part of the police is extremely disturbing in terms of its huge potential for violence and raises the question as to whether it represents a deliberate attempt on the part of elements within the security forces to sabotage the negotiation initiatives. Regardless of the motives, it is an issue of state violence which must be dealt with firmly and quickly in order to keep the peace process on course.

Security Management

The concept of security management gained full expression in the National Security Management System (NSMS), created in the mid-80s by army generals and police chiefs and designed to co-ordinate the activities of all the components of Total Strategy. In this sense it must be regarded as having been the policy and operations centre of the security system. At the top of the system was the State Security Council (SSC), effectively a secretive super-cabinet, being continually fed with information from a network of regional, district and local committees (Joint Management Centres (JMCs), on matters of security patterns in every corner of the country, matters such as the activities of opposition organisations and the identities, whereabouts and activities of political activists. Input and representation on JMCs would include not only state security organs such as Security Police, Military Intelligence and National Intelligence Service (NIS) but also members of the business community, town councils, local industry, etc. The information fed to the SSC would be continuously digested to form an overall security profile and to make decisions on security action. The instruments for implementing such decisions could cover the full spectrum of available means such as riot police, security police, army personnel, municipal police, and "kitskonstabels", and using powers of detention, restriction , banning, spying, monitoring and harassment. Vigilante groups and hit squads cannot be excluded from this scenario.

In late November 1989, President De Klerk announced what amounted to the down-grading of the NSMS with the National Security Council retained but subordinated to the cabinet. Other features have been retained, but committees given different names. The entire system has been renamed as the "National Coordinating Mechanism" and attempts made to emphasise the welfare role and downplay the security role of the network. Few are convinced that the leopard has really changed its spots, but the significance of the move lies in its manifestation of the power struggle between the securocrat and political camps within the government, that has by no means run its course.

As the nerve centre of state repression, past or present, the Security Management System, by whatever name, has great potential as a source of state violence and a threat to future peace. Its continued existence is cause for great concern.


Vigilante groups have their origins in the support systems which have been built up around the unpopular apartheid-created structures of:

  • "Homeland" authorities
  • Black Local authorities

They are recruited either from conservative "traditional" elements, from criminal elements, or simply from the ranks of desperate unemployed. Their growth has been actively encouraged or tacitly condoned by the state through thinly disguised support of the security forces and local police; in fact vigilantes often serve as a recruiting source for homeland and council police, earning them the description of "vigilantes in uniform".

Vigilantes have a vested interest in the maintenance of the homeland and black council structures, and will intervene in any situation which threatens those structures, such as calls for such authorities to resign. Intervention of this kind is lethal in intent and has as its express purpose the elimination of leadership and rank-and-file members of opposition organisations. The vigilante phenomenon cannot be dismissed as black-on-black violence as the state would have us do. Nor can it be characterised as ethnic violence or faction fighting. Responsibility lies with the state as the creators of the structures which serve the interests of the few and which are rejected by the vast majority as instruments of their repression. Vigilante violence ranks with police violence as the most destructive force in South Africa today. Statistics being kept by the Human Rights Commission (HRC) show that during the month of July alone vigilante action caused the deaths of 111 persons, of whom 69 died in Natal and 37 in the PWV area.

Just as the responsibility for the creation and growth of vigilantism lies with the system of apartheid government, so too the responsibility to control, prosecute and dismantle this form of violence lies with the state.

Hit Squads

The existence of hit squads has been felt for many years through assassinations and other acts which have occurred since the mid-70s, and which were clearly of a political nature. In the 80s, and especially during the years of the Emergency, these incidents escalated sharply in frequency and level of sophistication, both internally and externally. It became clear that such actions were the work, not of individuals acting on the spur of the moment, but of well organised hit squads operating with the advantages of expertise, skills, information, equipment, financial resources and, it seemed, immunity from discovery or prosecution. It also became clear that their purposes were the elimination of anti-apartheid political activists by assassination, or their intimidation by harassment of every conceivable kind; and the crippling or disruption of anti-apartheid organisations through destroying their offices by bombing or fire or through burgling or wrecking their equipment and records.

A common denominator for all of these attacks was the access which the perpetrators seemed to have to intimate details and intelligence of the victims movements, habits and activities and the targets areas' physical layout and accessibility. All the indications pointed in the direction of state-based structures. It then came as no surprise when a now familiar sequence of events commencing in late 1989 led to the revelations that such hit squads were indeed spawned within the structures of the South African Police (specifically the Security Branch) and within the structures of the South African Defence Force (specifically the Special Forces Division). Nor will it come as a surprise to find that the hit squad concept, as a means of "last-resort", was evolved or at least adopted and expanded by the Total Strategy proponents, and that it has flourished under the guidance of the State Security Council, as but one of the many strings in its bow. It is inconceivable that the very considerable budgets needed, and approved, for such activities, could have been created without the knowledge and blessing of those at the very top.

In the meantime, in spite of Commissions of Enquiry, and an undertaking by the government to disband the notorious Civil Cooperation Bureau (CCB), nevertheless the activities of hit squads continue. In July alone, the HRC recorded 10 hit squad attacks resulting in the deaths of 4 people.

The full and unequivocal dismantling of all such state-based hit squads becomes a matter of extreme importance to the process of creating an acceptable negotiating climate. Assurances are also needed that these structures cannot again be resuscitated, or carried over into a post-apartheid era.

Additionally, mention needs to be made of the alarming emergence of right-wing hit squads, which, while not the direct creation of the state undoubtedly are fostered in part by elements within the state security apparatus with access to state resources. HRC records show that for the month of July, right wing hit squads accounted for 20 attacks resulting in 9 deaths. Here again the state must bear responsibility for their neutralisation.

Ending State Violence

Having explored the elements of state violence and denied what needs to be addressed by the state on its side to ensure a ceasefire agreement, we still need to examine the real prospects for the ending of state violence. Essentially te prospects revolve around the political will of the government in the first instance. Has it the will to control the violence of its security forces, still clinging to their culture of repression? Has it the will to withstand the revolt of securocrats, still besotted with Total Strategy and red plots and not wanting to let go of draconian security legislation, including detention without trial? Has it the will to dismantle the last vestiges of the insidious system of security management? Has it the will to withdraw support for the vigilante surrogates of the homeland and black councils, and beyond that, dismantle those structures themselves? Has it the will to root out the sinister state-based hit squads once and for all? And finally has it the will to stand up to the right-wing terror that is emerging to bedevil the progress to peace? For all of these things are necessary.

The present government, led by F.W. De Klerk, has already demonstrated that it has a strong political will in having come this far, and there is no reason to believe that they are about to abort the process. The political and economic imperatives which have driven them to this point are still in place. Let us hope that those pressures keep moving the government in the right direction and that in the meanwhile the "political" camp will prevail over the camp of the securocrats.

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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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