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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 behaviour in conflict

The starting point for a desire for limits is the strong belief among both blacks and whites that civilians must be protected during armed conflict. Only 3 per cent from each side 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 say 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) take a more relativistic position, and say that when attacking the enemy, combatants should “avoid civilians as much as possible”.


FIGURE 4. Combatants and civilians (per cent of total population responding)

This belief in protecting civilians also emerges when South Africans are asked in an open-ended question if there is anything that “fighters, soldiers and members of the security forces should not be allowed to do in fighting the enemy”. The most common responses for both blacks and whites involve the protection of civilians and non-combatants. Forty-six per cent of black respondents provide answers that touch on this idea, saying either that combatants should not kill or harm civilians or non-combatants, or women and children. The same is true for 48 per cent of whites. (See Figure 6.) This notion also emerges strongly in the focus groups and interviews.

A civilian knows nothing, just like a child who knows nothing. They are innocent hence do not deserve to be attacked. (FG, widows, Bambaay township)

[If civilians are endangered in a fight] a section leader will send two troops to go and pull the guy, or the male or female or the kids, normally kids down to the ground and cover them with their own bodies. Whites, black or whatever because you know they’ve been caught in something... (FG, former SADF members, Cape Town)

Nowhere to turn for protection. There is a consensus that civilians deserve to be sheltered from armed violence, yet there are few places if any they can turn for protection. A majority of white South Africans feel they could turn to the ICRC/Red Cross for protection during armed conflict, and another 11 per cent feel they could turn to the military. For blacks, however, there is no clear place to turn. The greatest share, 27 per cent, say they don’t know. Twenty-three per cent say they would turn to the government, but that is clearly a new feeling since 1994. Only 17 per cent of blacks say they could turn to the ICRC/Red Cross. Fully one-seventh, 14 per cent, bluntly say there is nowhere to turn.


FIGURE 5. Turn to for help (per cent of total population responding)

The feeling among blacks that civilians often have no place to flee emerges clearly from the focus groups and interviews.

They run away leaving the safety of their houses and get to the safe places like the halls, hospital, schools and churches. (FG, SPU [IFP], Thokoza township)

You just run away not knowing where you are going. (FG, widows, Bambaay township)

They’re just going to flee. Grab the children and flee now, for their lives. (FG, mothers, Mannenberg township)

Special protection for women and children. Both sides place special emphasis on the protection of women and children. In an open-ended question, 12 per cent of blacks say that combatants specifically should not kill (8 per cent), injure (2 per cent) or abuse (2 per cent) women and children. The figure is 14 per cent among whites, with 4 per cent saying combatants should not kill women and children, and 5 per cent each saying that they should not injure or abuse women and children. (See Figure 6.)


FIGURE 6. What combatants should not do (per cent of total population responding) (open question)

Blacks and whites provide slightly different reasons for the emphasis on women and children. Among whites, the dominant theme is that women and children are weak and know nothing about the nature of the conflict.

I think they [women and children] are too weak to protect themselves... Civilians are unarmed - they are the aged and women and children. The men are away fighting; let the men fight. But the aged and the women and the children are the ones who are the remaining civilians and one takes pity on them on both sides of the conflict. (IDI, white woman, Pretoria)

Blacks, by contrast, place a much greater emphasis on the role of women and children in ensuring the survival of the nation. They more frequently emphasize four points: that women know little about the ways of violence; that all members of the community were borne by women; that women are the source of future population growth, especially to replace the losses in the fighting; and that children represent the future of the community.

The last point is the killing of kids, women, old people was the worst. Some were burned alive inside their homes. You can kick me, I’m a man, a fighter, but killing children and women seems inhuman. That’s the worst anyone could do. (FG, SDU [ANC], Thokoza township)

Women breed children and children are our future. They need to be protected. If it were for me, women would get involved in the war too. (FG, SDU [ANC], Thokoza township)

Men are the ones who go to fight. After the fight is over, these women are the ones who are going to bring other men or the new generation into this world. We should not kill the seed. It is better to kill the old tree than to destroy the seeds from it. (FG, SPU [IFP], Thokoza township)

Women are not involved in the fighting. They... know nothing about violence. Hence women and children should get special protection. Only men were involved in the violence. That was not happening because as soon as the fighting started you’d be trapped in the house by bullets fired from all angles. Women did not have guns. (FG, widows, Bambaay township)

Although [men] do suffer, they are more capable of bouncing back and looking for new wives. Men are no strangers to hardship, so it’s not so bad. A man whose wife dies will be miserable for only a short while. After about two weeks, he starts looking around for a replacement. (FG, teachers, Ndaleni township)

Ambivalence regarding women. Despite the general consensus that women and children deserve special protection from armed conflict, both blacks and whites expressed ambivalence about the role of women. For several white participants, in particular, there was a sense that at least some women now want to be considered equal to men in all ways, and that some women actively participated as fighters in the South African conflict.

Children who are defenceless... Women are rather less defenceless because I see more and more that women are becoming combatants (IDI, white former ambassador, Pretoria)

No, women today want to be men, they want equal rights. You say a woman can’t do this or that and they prove to you that they can. There are women in the army and I hate to say it but they are not as physically powerful as men but they can fight in a jet plane better. But yes, the women who are civilians deserve to be protected. (IDI, white male businessman, Cape Town)

I think one does try to protect children. I am not sure in this feminist world if one should protect women any more, because if they want to be feminists, they must take their chances. I myself am not a feminist and I believe women should be protected as far as possible. (IDI, white farmer, Pietermaritzburg)

The desire to cordon off civilians from the fight. The concern for protecting civilians leads some South Africans to feel that special areas should be designated for combat. This feeling is intensified by the awareness, noted earlier, that the conflict was often waged in a guerrilla fashion, with attacks often carried out in areas populated by civilians. This awareness fuels a desire for a return to the days in which armies of combatants faced each other on the plain of battle, far removed from civilian populations.

It’s difficult to say, but there should be demarcated zones where people who want to fight would have to go there and leave the poor people alone or even evacuate the civilians first. (FG, medical personnel, Soweto township)

Maybe we should do it the way it was done in the old days where if we had two areas that were conflicting there would be a designated piece of land upon which they would fight it out. But the situation is different, the whole situation regarding war has changed. (FG, displaced coloured persons, Cape Town)

Although the feeling is widespread among whites and blacks in the consultation that combatants must spare civilians in a conflict, it is not universal. A significant minority, especially among whites, say there is nothing combatants should not do in a conflict. Fifteen per cent of all whites say this and the figure is even higher - 19 per cent - among white men. 18

18 The corresponding number among blacks overall and among black men is 5 per cent.

Constraints on conflict grounded in principle. The majority of blacks and whites who feel there should be constraints on the behaviour of combatants see these limits as grounded in principle more than practicality. Strong majorities of those who say that combatants should be barred from certain actions see these actions as “wrong”, as opposed to simply causing too many problems. Sixty-three per cent of blacks and 81 per cent of whites who suggest there should be limits in conflict cite this reason.

Whites and blacks have some common reasons for believing that certain actions in warfare are wrong. Both see “human rights” as a dominant reason. This is the most frequent response from whites (59 per cent), and the second most frequent from blacks (48 per cent).

Religion is also an important source of such convictions for both groups, with 35 per cent of blacks and 31 per cent of whites citing it as the reason that fighters should not do certain things. The importance of religious beliefs in South Africa is discussed more extensively below.


FIGURE 7. Basis for the norm (per cent of total population responding “it’s wrong”) (top two choices)

Black faith in law versus the whites’ personal code. There are differences, however, in the principles that both blacks and whites in South Africa draw on as the basis for limits in conflict. Blacks are much more likely than whites to look to the law; 51 per cent say this is the reason why certain actions in conflict are wrong, compared with only 19 per cent of whites. This divergence likely reflects the legitimacy in the eyes of blacks of the current government, not in the former regime and its apartheid laws. It may also reflect a belief among blacks that they should have had legal protection, even under the apartheid regime. Blacks are also more likely to cite their culture as the source for such mores, with 14 per cent of blacks choosing this option, compared with only 1 per cent of whites.

Whites, by contrast, are far more likely to cite their “personal code” as the reason that certain actions should be out of bounds for combatants: 50 per cent, compared with only 23 per cent of blacks. It may be that whites, who have seen both their government and their Church change positions on basic issues of right and wrong such as apartheid, are increasingly turning for guidance to their own personal codes.