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close this bookCountry Report South Africa - ICRC Worldwide Consultation on the Rules of War (International Committee of the Red Cross , 1999, 70 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentAbout the People on War Project
View the documentCountry context
View the documentCountry methodology
View the documentExecutive summary
Open this folder and view contentsThe conflict over apartheid
Open this folder and view contentsExperiencing the conflict: horror and disruption
Open this folder and view contentsLimiting the scope of the conflict
Open this folder and view contentsCivilians and prisoners at risk
Open this folder and view contentsBreakdown of limits
Open this folder and view contentsGeneva Conventions and the rules of armed conflict
Open this folder and view contentsInternational and non-governmental institutions
View the documentLooking forward
View the documentAnnex 1: General methodology
View the documentAnnex 2: Questionnaire *

Executive summary

The struggle to create an apartheid order in South Africa and the struggle to topple it is one of this century’s defining dramas. During the five decades from the advent of the National Party government in 1948 to the election of Nelson Mandela as President in 1994, a white-dominated regime developed a coercive system to sustain a racially segregated society, while the predominant number of blacks, 10 along with some whites, struggled to create a unitary society.

10 For the purposes of this report, the term “blacks” encompasses, as it commonly does in South Africa, three groups - blacks, coloureds (mixed race) and Asians - all of whom were subject to varying degrees of racial discrimination under apartheid. When wishing to refer to the black sub-group alone, the report uses the term “black South Africans”. There are 30.7 million black South Africans (76 per cent of the total population); 3.4 million coloured (8 per cent); 1 million Asians (3 per cent) and 5.2 million white South Africans (13 per cent) - Thompson, Leonard, A History of South Africa, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1995, p. 278.

The human toll was high, especially for blacks. In the imposition of apartheid rule, and in the protests and riots that eventually helped end it, thousands of activists and civilians were killed; tens of thousands were arrested, jailed and - in many cases - tortured; millions of individuals or families were forcibly displaced. Blacks were relocated to distant impoverished communities as a matter of policy.

After the suppression of black protest movements, some black organizations turned to more militant means, including bombings and other armed attacks, which resulted in the death or injury of hundreds of supporters of the white regime, including some civilians. Later, thousands of blacks died in the political violence among black South Africans that erupted as the white regime weakened and withdrew from black urban townships, and as it often incited violence between black factions that were vying for power.

South Africa’s conflict bore a number of unique characteristics. First, it was fundamentally political in nature, and revolved around the struggle to eliminate a political system founded on racial segregation. Second, it was a highly asymmetrical conflict, in which the white regime held the preponderance of economic and military power. Third, it was a conflict that affected only portions of the population despite the universal stakes involved: it directly involved only a sliver of the white population, and these were almost entirely men; and while the struggle violently engulfed specific black urban communities, a majority of blacks did not live where the conflict occurred, and did not experience any of its immediate consequences.

The ICRC consultation shows that a majority of both blacks and whites in South Africa believe that there should be limits on the conduct of war and armed conflicts and that these should include protection of civilians, and especially women and children, from harm. Yet it is also evident that the conflict in their country often rode roughshod over those very limits.

The consultation highlights four key reasons for the breakdown of these limits, with differing factors among whites and blacks.

Among whites, those who served in the security forces describe soldiers who lost control when confronted with protests or riots. Over a third of whites, 35 per cent, say that combatants “lose all sense during war”. In one focus group, former members of the South African Defense Force (SADF) described how, when confronted with riots, the security forces would narrow their focus to their own survival, explode with anger and open fire on crowds. Some of these former soldiers attribute the worst excesses to the overly aggressive and ultimately dangerous reactions of young and poorly trained members of the force.

White respondents in this consultation also maintain that the security forces were acting under orders to restore order as part of a larger plan. About a third of whites, 34 per cent, cite this as a reason why soldiers and fighters sometimes endanger civilians. Members of the SADF described many of their actions as “doing their duty” to “go in and clean up”. Throughout the survey, focus groups and in-depth interviews, white males, who far more than white women manned the apparatus of apartheid, expressed a particularly expansive view of how conflict can be waged.

The stated reasons for the breakdown of limits were somewhat different among blacks. Blacks report a sense of frustration, hopelessness and rage created by the apartheid order, and a sense of exhaustion regarding constrained resistance. Black participants in the focus groups and in-depth interviews described how the early commitment of the ANC to non-violence gave way to a determination to strike back against apartheid, and how the MK’s (“Spear of the Nation”) disciplined military code at times gave way to more indiscriminate attacks.

The political violence among blacks that surfaced in the late 1980s and early 1990s was characterized by intense fear and desire for revenge, fuelled by atrocities and brutal fighting at close quarters. About one-third of blacks, when asked why combatants sometimes attack civilians, say it is because combatants are “determined to win at any cost” or because they “hate the other side so much”. Both of these impulses helped throw fuel on the flames of conflict in the urban townships as the white government withdrew its authority, and as black factions - often aided and manipulated by white security forces - vied for power.

The main findings of this consultation in South Africa are summarized in the points below:

The conflict over the racial state. The fundamental point about the conflict in South Africa is that it was political in nature and revolved around the struggle to eliminate a political system founded on racial segregation.

· Participants in the South African consultation describe the primary cause of the conflict as blacks struggling to gain fundamental political rights against an apartheid regime that was built, enriched and sustained on forcible racial discrimination.

· Participants describe the conflict in terms of a struggle for “domination” rather than a struggle for racial “equality”.

The conflict over apartheid. The conflict in South Africa had three dimensions: contained violence with few partisans; the struggle between a black majority and white minority government over race-based political objectives characterized by a deep asymmetry of power; and political violence among black South Africans.

· Only 7 per cent of whites lived in the area where the armed conflict over apartheid occurred, and only 11 per cent in the areas where the political violence was mainly among black South Africans. In contrast, nearly three-quarters of the black population living in urban centres say the conflict over apartheid took place in the area where they were living.

· Both black and white participants in the consultation describe the conflict as a struggle for “domination”. Participants in the focus groups mentioned efforts to preserve control of the country’s vast resources, as well as an unequal access to firepower during the violence.

· Only 34 per cent of blacks and 37 per cent of whites say they supported a side in the fight against apartheid. On both sides, more men than women took a side in the fight: 43 per cent of white men compared with 31 per cent of white women, and 42 per cent of black men compared with 27 per cent of black women.

· A large number of participants in focus groups said that the political violence which took place among black South Africans was more horrible than the struggle for domination against the whites. They said that political violence included shooting of women and children, rapes, burning or bulldozing buildings with civilians inside, and “necklacing” - placing a tyre filled with gasoline (petrol) around an opponent’s neck and setting it on fire.

Experiencing the conflict: horror and disruption. The reactions to the conflict among blacks are ones of horror and hatefulness, while whites tend to focus on the sense of disruption.

· Nearly half of black participants (44 per cent) say the conflict was “horrible”, and more than one-third (36 per cent) say it was “hateful”. White men also describe the conflict as “horrible” (32 per cent), but nearly the same number (31 per cent) simply say it was “disruptive”. Twenty-five per cent describe the conflict as “hateful”.

· Blacks, who had the most contact with the conflict, and white women, who had the least, are more likely to describe the conflict as “horrible” (36 per cent) or “hateful” (28 per cent).

Limiting the scope of the conflict: protecting civilians. Both blacks and whites believe that civilians, particularly women and children, should be protected during conflict, but the different ways in which blacks and whites experienced the conflict fundamentally shape their views about how violence should be limited.

· Only 3 per cent of both white and black participants say it is acceptable to attack both combatants and civilians in order to weaken the enemy. Nearly two-thirds from each side - 62 per cent among blacks and 66 per cent among whites - believe the protection must be absolute and that combatants should “attack only combatants and leave civilians alone”. Fewer than one-third (31 per cent of blacks and 28 per cent of whites) say that when attacking the enemy, combatants should avoid civilians “as much as possible”.

· A majority of white participants say they could turn to the ICRC/Red Cross for protection during armed conflict, and another 11 per cent feel they can turn to the military. For blacks, the greatest share, 27 per cent, say they don’t know. Only 17 per cent of blacks say they could turn to the ICRC/Red Cross.

· Sixty-three per cent of blacks and 81 per cent of whites who believe there are certain things that combatants should not do when fighting their enemy say it is because these actions are “wrong”, rather than “they just cause too many problems”.

· Of those who responded that certain actions are “wrong”, both whites and blacks cite “human rights” as the main basis for these limits (59 per cent and 48 per cent, respectively). Blacks are much more likely than whites to cite the law as the reason for limits on combatants: 51 per cent, compared with only 19 per cent of whites. Whites, by contrast, are more likely to cite their “personal code”: (50 per cent), compared with only 23 per cent of blacks.

· Less than 15 per cent of whites say that weapons other than landmines and nuclear and biological weapons should be banned, including the ones that were most used in their country’s conflicts, such as bombs (6 per cent), guns (3 per cent) and grenades (3 per cent). More than one in six whites, 17 per cent, say there are no weapons that should be banned. Thirty-eight per cent of blacks say that guns, including machine guns, should be banned; this is six times the level among whites. Another 22 per cent of blacks say that bombs should not be allowed.

Civilians and prisoners at risk. Participants on both sides of the conflict find it acceptable to target civilians who are actively assisting combatants, civilians who get in the way of the fight, and captive combatants who are wounded or have surrendered.

· Twenty-five per cent of whites say it is acceptable to attack civilians if they are giving food and shelter to enemy combatants, compared with 12 per cent of blacks. Whites are also twice as likely to say it is acceptable to attack civilians if they are transporting ammunition for enemy fighters - 40 per cent, compared with 19 per cent of blacks.

· One-third of whites, 33 per cent, say that it is “part of armed conflict”, and not “wrong”, to attack combatants in populated areas, even knowing that many civilians (or “women and children”) would be killed. This is more than twice the 14 per cent among blacks who express this view.

· Both black and white participants say that captives can be subjected to torture (30 per cent of whites and 32 per cent of blacks).

· Fifty-six per cent of blacks say that they would not help or save a wounded or surrendering soldier or fighter, compared with 48 per cent of whites. Only 33 per cent of blacks and 40 per cent of whites say that they would help or save such a fighter or soldier.

· Fifteen per cent of blacks and 14 per cent of whites approve of the idea of killing prisoners if the other side were doing so, and 14 per cent of blacks and 10 per cent of whites say that captive combatants sometimes deserve to die.

Breakdown of limits. Both blacks and whites acknowledge in general terms the importance of limits in conflicts and situations of violence, yet both blacks and whites crossed those limits, although in different ways and to differing degrees.

· One-third (33 per cent) of blacks say that soldiers or fighters attack civilians because they are “determined to win at any cost”, and the same number say it is because they “hate the other side so much”.

· Thirty-five per cent of whites say that soldiers or fighters harm civilians during conflict because they “lose all sense during war”; 16 per cent of whites volunteer this as a reason in an open-ended question.

· Thirty-four per cent of whites cite “carrying out orders” or “doing their job” as one of the two top reasons why fighters, including soldiers and security forces, sometimes attack civilians.

Geneva Conventions and the rules of armed conflict. There is a relatively low awareness of the rules that govern armed conflict among both whites and blacks in South Africa, but particularly among blacks.

· Only 8 per cent of blacks are aware of the Geneva Conventions and fewer than half of those who have heard of them (41 per cent) have an accurate understanding of what they are about. Two-thirds of blacks (66 per cent) believe that there are no laws against depriving civilians of food, medicine or water or do not know if such laws exist. Sixty-two per cent say that there are no laws, or they are not sure if there are, to prevent attacks on populated areas.

· Whites are highly aware of the Geneva Conventions (72 per cent) and more than one-third of those aware of them have an accurate understanding of what the Conventions are about. Fifty-nine per cent of whites, however, believe that the Geneva Conventions make no real difference.

· Blacks who say they are aware of the Geneva Conventions are more likely than those who are unaware to save a wounded or surrendering enemy combatant (48 per cent compared with 33 per cent). They are also more likely to believe captured combatants must be allowed to contact relatives (70 per cent compared with 54 per cent) or be visited by a representative of an independent organization (76 per cent compared with 51 per cent).

· Seventy-two per cent of whites say that there are rules during armed conflict so important that the person who breaks them should be punished. The number of blacks who believe that wrongdoers should be punished, however, is less than half the level among whites (32 per cent).

· Among participants who believe that people who break the rules of conflict should be punished, whites are more likely than blacks to base the rules on international law (67 per cent compared with 37 per cent), while blacks are more likely to look to South Africa’s laws (34 per cent compared with 8 per cent).

· Whites more than blacks look to an international criminal court as the proper venue for judgment and punishment (65 per cent compared with 27 per cent), while blacks are more likely to turn to the South African government to mete out punishment (38 per cent compared with 8 per cent of whites).

International and non-governmental institutions. When thinking about the role played by different organizations in the protection of civilians, whites are much more familiar with the ICRC/Red Cross, while blacks rely more on the country’s churches and religious organizations.

· While blacks see government leaders (27 per cent) and religious leaders (26 per cent) as having played an important role in helping civilians during the conflict, whites see the ICRC/Red Cross as the key organization.

Looking forward. Though the violent conflict in South Africa has ended, the society remains marked by racial divisions.

· Whites are more likely than blacks to see the current violence in the country as different from apartheid (90 per cent compared with 60 per cent).

· Forty-six per cent of blacks (compared with 8 per cent of whites) believe that peace will last, while 59 per cent of whites (compared with 17 per cent of blacks) believe that there will be more armed conflict in the future.