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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.)
close this folderLimiting the scope of the conflict
View the documentProtecting civilians
View the documentLimits on behaviour in conflict
View the documentLimits on weapons

Limits on weapons

Most South Africans also believe that there should be limits on the use of weapons in conflict. Yet the divergent experiences of conflict between blacks and whites produce differing views about whether any kinds of weapons should be disallowed, and if so, what kinds.

Whites express strong disapproval for the use of weapons of mass destruction. Fifty-two per cent say chemical and biological weapons should never be used, and 50 per cent say this about nuclear weapons. Yet these were not weapons used in the South African conflict. Apart from landmines, discussed below, fewer than 15 per cent of whites cite any other weapon that 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.

Blacks, by contrast, tend to focus more on banning the weapons that were most used in their country’s violence, and this is most true for those blacks who had the most contact with the conflict. There is little focus on weapons of mass destruction: only 4 per cent cite nuclear arms, and only 3 per cent cite chemical and biological weapons. Rather, the concern among blacks is with guns. Thirty-eight per cent of blacks say that guns, including machine guns, should be banned; this is 12 times the level among whites. Another 22 per cent say that bombs should not be allowed. Nine per cent say that “traditional” weapons should never be used such as knives and spears - a response that white respondents do not provide at all. In addition, several black focus group participants expressed disapproval of sending tanks and armoured vehicles into civilian areas, such as the townships.

The view that guns were responsible for the spiral of violence and atrocities in South Africa is a common theme in focus groups and in-depth interviews with blacks. They feel strongly that the availability of guns led to an escalation of the violence that otherwise would not have occurred. Several stressed that the black South African combatants should have used only traditional African weapons, as this would have produced fewer deaths and left more room for reconciliation.

Fight, but not use guns. Many people died because of the usage of guns. (FG, widows, Bambaay township)

In my home we used a spear. It was our gun but it was used in a way that the chiefs had agreed it should be used. Not today where people use guns. [Are you saying guns should not be used?] Guns are not local weapons, they are weapons from overseas. Local people are taken overseas to be taught how to use a gun. (IDI, black elder of community, KwaZulu Natal)

We should not have guns. When we grew up there were fights but people used to hit each other with sticks and spears. Now it’s guns. If we can get rid of guns I believe we will get everything right. We will go back to men fighting with sticks, just to discipline each other, then it will be over. Thereafter the guys would shake hands. That is no longer done. (IDI, black widow, Ndwedwe)

Guns and bombs [should be banned]. And I think that with being Zulu, our traditional wars we fight with sticks and spears - you see in the township we used to fight with knives but with a knife your life is not so at risk, because I can stab you but you will never die, because the knife will never reach the heart, but with a gun you are shot. (IDI, black artist, South Africa)

Landmines. There is more consensus between whites and blacks about whether the use of landmines is acceptable. These weapons saw limited use in the South African conflict itself, although they were widely used in the related conflicts in nearby States, such as Angola, and so they are fairly salient to the South African public. Nearly one-third of whites volunteer that landmines should never be used, but only 8 per cent of blacks do so.

Yet there is broad agreement across racial lines that use of these weapons should not be permitted. Over two-thirds in both groups - 87 per cent of blacks and 77 per cent of whites - say that it is not acceptable to use mines to stop the movement of enemy combatants. Participants in the focus groups and in-depth interviews had strong feelings on this issue. Although not everyone agreed that mines should be banned, most saw these weapons as inhumane, militarily ineffective or harmful to the land that is necessary to support the country.

It is never okay because landmines kill the people and kill the soil as well, because we need our soil. People had to plough to get something to eat and so you are ploughing and when it blows it kills the richness of the soil, so we should not spoil the earth that God gave us. (IDI, black artist, South Africa)

I think we could very well do without landmines, and the tremendous suffering and mutilation which these things cost and the huge amount of damage that they do, not only to people, but also the country in which they are buried. So I think it is a very good thing to ban. (IDI, white former ambassador, Pretoria)

If you are into the business of killing, then the only thing one could really say not to ever use is landmines. (IDI, white farmer, Pietermaritzburg)

No, they are nasty weapons, landmines. At the time they had a great utility and they were very effective... guerrilla organizations now even still use them, but those are the [weapons] of the weak. (IDI, white former MK fighter and current SADF member, Pretoria)