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September 27, 2001 Violence and vigilantes entrenched in South Africa



Gary Kynoch

Gary Kynoch during his time in Lesotho, South Africa. His little friend is a green lizard he picked up near a waterfall.

by Frank Kuin

In his several years as a volunteer high-school teacher, PhD student and postdoctoral fellow in South Africa, Gary Kynoch has become intimately familiar with the immense problem of violent crime plaguing that country. Now, he hopes his extensive research project will become part of its solution.

Kynoch, a new full-time professor in the Department of History, is examining the impact of violent crime on the lives of residents of the townships around Johannesburg. Ultimately, his findings about the historical development of attitudes of both citizens and police might play a role in efforts to break what he called “a very firmly entrenched culture of violence.”

Through 500 interviews with township residents, mostly with law-abiding people, but also with those involved in gang crime, Kynoch hopes to gain a better understanding of the hostility between police, residents, gangs and vigilante self-policing groups. These insights may then be used in workshops with police officers.

“Hopefully, to look at the history of a culture of violence in the townships will help police understand the dynamics of the relationship between communities and police,” said Kynoch, a postdoctoral fellow at Johannesburg’s University of Witwatersrand. “We will show them that antagonism was not always necessarily the relationship that existed.”

While he has never been a victim of violent crime himself, Kynoch, who lived in Johannesburg for three out of the past four years, knows South Africa’s culture of violence well. Along with Colombia and Russia, he pointed out, South Africa has one of the highest rates of violent crime in the world.

“You can’t live in Johannesburg and not be aware of your violent surroundings,” Kynoch said of gang warfare, armed robbery and other prevalent forms of violent crime. “Everybody has been intimately affected. Either they themselves have been victimized, or they have friends who have been victimized. It’s just the reality of the South African situation.”

Kynoch’s research project, which should continue for the next three years, seeks to clarify the historical reasons for the situation. Having examined police archives and newspapers, Kynoch is asking why criminal violence in townships around Johannesburg developed to higher levels than in any other colonial African city.

His tentative explanation is that restoring order in the black townships was not a priority for the white city governments of Johannesburg’s early days as a mining boomtown. “White organized crime was brought under control” during the era when mining labourers from all over the continent were flooding in, as well as Europeans. “But violence in black townships wasn’t addressed, as it did not impinge on white lives.”

This neglect gave rise to a culture of solving problems by violence, he explained. Self-policing movements appeared which, as they gained influence, became engaged in criminal activity themselves. These vigilante movements would then clash with police, and a spiral of violence developed.

As the violence escalated, Kynoch said, “people learned that the only way to get justice in the townships was to take it into your own hands.” Indeed, South Africans have very little faith in the police officers. “They’re not seen as responsive to community needs at all,” Kynoch said. “And the police themselves are bitter and paranoid because so many of their officers are killed every year.”

Aided by research assistants in South Africa, Kynoch wants to examine why relationships deteriorated, in order to help reverse the process. “A different culture of policing has to emerge, where police act with their communities instead of against them,” he said. “It’s going to be a long-term process, and I hope I can contribute to it.”

Concordia conference follows Durban

A conference on the rights of minorities of African descent in the Americas is underway at Concordia. It follows on the UN World Conference Against Racism held late this summer in Durban, S.A.

The Concordia event, scheduled for Sept. 27-30 in the downtown D.B. Clarke Theatre, was convened by the United Nations Working Group on Minorities, and is organized jointly by the Association for Canadian Studies, the Concordia branch of the Concordia-UQAM Chair in Ethnic Studies, and their partners.

For more information on this conference, please call Servine Labelle or Mathias Olivia, at 987-7784.