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Review of The Theatre of Violence: Narratives of Protagonists in the South African Conflict


By Michael McGowan

The Theatre of Violence: Narratives of Protagonists in the South African Conflict. Eds. Don Foster, Paul Haupt and Maresa de Beer. Oxford: James Currey, 2005. Pp.376. ISBN 978-0-85255-886-7 (pb.) £16.95

This powerful account of political violence in South Africa during the apartheid era documents the stories of the perpetrators of violence who outline in detail what they say they have done and describe how they came to be perpetrators. The thrust of the study in probing the minds and thoughts of perpetrators from different sides of the conflict appears to be a conviction that ‘truth’ is the road to ‘truth and reconciliation’ and the careful and sensitive questioning is driven by a determination to get at the facts. Unlike the many accounts which deal with the victims of political violence in South Africa, this study focuses on perpetrators and through their recognition of truth and acceptance of responsibility for their actions offers some hope and optimism.

I began to learn about political violence in apartheid South Africa when I first met the late Archbishop Trevor Huddleston. He had returned from his work in South Africa to the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield in the West Riding of Yorkshire. I was 13 years of age and he came to speak to my class at Heckmondwike Grammar School just down the road from Mirfield.

Trevor Huddleston had left apartheid South Africa, either kicked out by the regime or recalled by his church, as a result of his outspoken opposition to apartheid. He wrote an account of his experience in South Africa in Naught For Your Comfort and committed himself to work to expose and campaign for the ending of apartheid. Huddleston was determined to tell the world the truth, the facts, about what was happening in apartheid South Africa. He did this relentlessly for the rest of his life, travelling the globe and communicating the reality of the apartheid he had experienced. And he lived to see the official ending of apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela as President of the new South Africa.

The Theatre of Violence is part of the continuing search for the truth of political violence. The stories come from both sides of the apartheid divide, from state security structures to the African National Congress, the Pan Africa Congress and grassroots activists, besides examining the workings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and how the media influences public perceptions of perpetrators.

The state security side includes an interview with a former Commissioner of Police, a former general of military intelligence and an agent with the National Intelligence Service. Accounts from the liberation movement are given by a former MK Commander and a former APLA Head of Operations and there are contributions from those who worked in a Self-Protection Unit and a Self-Defence Unit who talk about their experience in township conflicts.

Perpetrators from the liberation movement and township conflict admit involvement in violence, accepting responsibility, and claiming justification, whereas those on the state security side generally evade responsibility, some passing responsibility to politicians, some that they were doing their job and “maintaining law and order”. The sensitive portrayal of some of the perpetrators shows how they were not conspicuously different from the rest of the population but through circumstances became perpetrators of violence. And that some of the perpetrators, in retrospect, wished they had “taken a stand” against actions of abuse and even expressions of prejudice which at the time seemed minor or trivial but proved to be worse. But the study is basically optimistic. If it has a conclusion, it is that it is only by getting at the facts and understanding perpetrators that one can begin to prevent and bring conflict to an end and break the chain of political violence. It is about seeking the truth, including understanding perpetrators, and accepting responsibility.

That Leeds has developed a twinning link with Durban in South Africa provides opportunities for those who live and work in the city to learn through direct dialogue about the complexities of political violence in apartheid South Africa. And this powerful and sensitive study poses important questions and thoughts about understanding perpetrators in conflicts in other regions of the world including Rwanda, The Balkans and Algeria.

My experience of South Africa during the past 25 years on missions to South Africa on behalf of the European Union and Socialist International, as a United Nations observer in KwaZulu Natal at the elections in April 1994, and meeting Mandela in South Africa, Brussels and Leeds – he is a Freeman of the City of Leeds – gave me more understanding of the victims rather than the minds and thoughts of the perpetrators of violence. The Theatre of Violence, however, has shattered that complacency and lack of understanding and curiosity with a sharp stab of reality and determination to investigate the truth about perpetrators of political violence, without which understanding, any thoughts of accepting responsibility and achieving ‘reconciliation’ may be but a dangerous dream.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 70 (2008), pp. 86-88]

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