Ban Firearms in South Africa 

By Mpumelelo Toyise

Too many images broadcast to the world about our country are of horrific incidents of violent crime.

Contrary to widely propagated beliefs it is the majority, poor and black people, who mainly fall prey to this sickening level of terror. It is mainly women and children who are the face of these gruesome images. The survivors are direct victims, for example, due to rape, or indirect victims, such as widows and orphans. It has been said that any offence that touches women and children is the deepest invasion and intrusion of the family, the nation and humanity. In accepting a patriarchal order of society, this observation concludes that there are no more men to protect those we consider vulnerable and dear in our society. Our society is on its knees, begging for mercy at the hands of terrorists that have hijacked our freedom.

This situation cannot be accepted as inevitable for as the society we wield much more power than we recognise and admit. We bear some responsibility for creating an enabling environment for this kind of terrorism to flourish. We raise the would-be criminals, manufacture the arms and abuse our freedoms, setting the scene for the terrorist to take over. There is no credible need for the small arms industry to exist and for civilians to own guns. There is no evidence that crime will flourish in a gun-free society. The recent hullabaloo over tighter gun control legislation leaves one wondering whether we are really committed to a less violent environment where we can raise our children and prosper. Formerly legal guns, now turned illegal, are ravaging our country. Legal gun owners are also responsible for violent crimes like the growing number of femicides and family killings.

We are seeing those who can be part of the legalised private arms race opting for the illegal route. When one person buys a firearm, his neighbour wants to buy a bigger and better gun, causing an escalation to the uncontrollable levels we now witness. Before the upswing of political violence in the 80s and 90s, the majority of our people felt they stood a better chance to survive and tell the story of a violent encounter. It was easier to escape from or fend off knife-wielding thugs, even without a weapon. Thugs would molest and manhandle but rarely would they kill, compared to current encounters. You were safer behind a physical barrier like a car or burglar door.

Hospital records show a higher survival rate for assaults by knobkerries or knives than those by guns.  Now the criminals reign supreme because they don’t need to within your reach or to overcome a physical barrier to injure and kill you. One reason that thugs have grown more deadly is to counter the likelihood that their victim might be armed with a gun. Their natural response is to shoot first to eliminate that possibility.

In the past nobody would dare parade a gun, even if legally owned. In black communities people owning a gun, or rumoured to own one, invited all kinds of interest and police harassment. This kind of attention and oddness of a black person owning a gun facilitated easier operations for crime intelligence. Gun owners were very careful to the extent that even in their drunkenness they would not dare talk about, let alone show off, their guns. There were no guns ringing all night long; only the silence of the night and soldiers’ footsteps were a cause for fear.

The eighties brought the unruly Self Defence Units and the returning cadres from the older section of the exiled liberation movement, both notorious for using the necklace, the black curse of the 20th Century. In this era Inkatha’s notorious brigades emerged, with the backing of the apartheid state and security agencies. All hell broke loose; arms of every description and calibre were available in the ensuing race to terrorise the black community. As Steve Biko said, every black soul was alone.

Some felt they had to be armed to survive the terror unleashed by all these groups. Some misguidedly believed that they were fighting a just cause that necessarily limited itself to burning schools and maiming the black community. That culture of misguided violence was to remain with the black community, and simply broadened in scope and coverage after 1994 to venture into formerly white suburban areas.

Fanon talked about what he called a Manichaean world where the native responded to the absolute violence of the settler. The problem with our country is that this violent response was arrested at its infancy, when it was driven by spontaneity and not political consciousness.

As such, with the ushering in of the democratic government, this violence, which had already begun to acquire criminal rather than political content, simply flourished and was exacerbated by massive inflow of  mainly illegal immigrants which came with its own violent baggage. Except for few countries that successfully managed the disarmament process after decolonisation, the greater part of Africa was labouring under the violent strife of civil war—sponsored by western and former colonial powers.

In Mozambique and Angola, RENAMO and UNITA respectively, waged genocide. Even Zimbabwe, which managed disarmament far relatively well, was subject to remnants of ZAPU that refused to surrender their arms after defeat of the settler. The resulting civil strife could have destroyed that nation.

Within this context at various stages in our history, there have been calls and resolutions at multilateral forums to ban and eradicate the small arms trade, particular in Africa, where the history of instability and civil wars owes its origins solely to the small arms proliferation. Whilst the context of the proliferation was understandable within the context of the liberation struggle against colonialism, there can be no justification to the existence of the small arms industry or trade in modern Africa.

Arms in decolonised societies have done little else but destabilise the new democracies and nation states. They have undermined their capacity to bring peace and order, a condition necessary for transformation and development. The only beneficiaries of arms trade and disorder, in whatever guise, have been western powers that continue to plunder and stifle growth and development of the new economies.

Two sectors of society allow the status quo to remain. The lumpen-proletariat is defined in the Communist Manifesto as “that sector of the population that, having been denied a legitimate way to make a living, resorts to the illegitimate”. This class, especially in its unorganised form, has constituted a politically and morally weak class, easily manipulated into subversive action both during the liberation struggle and after, wherever it has not been properly conscientised.

The neo-colonial settler is either pessimistic about the new nation state or actively campaigning against it, and what better way to achieve this if not by mobilising anarchy and profiteering from it by crime? There can be no telling as to the extent to which these forces are undermining the stability of the new nation state. The refusal, mainly by a section of the white community, to disarm or at least submit to tighter gun control, must be seen as a vote of no confidence against the new nation state and instead an agitation for a Wild West society where only anarchy survives.

The Azanian People’s Organisation (AZAPO) believes that our country should have implemented a full disarmament programme and calls for disarmament of the civilian population. The armed forces must carry guns only during working hours, not in public, and should leave those arms in safe storage as soon as they knock off.

In addition, we must as citizens waive some of our civil liberties for a while to allow the security forces to comb our country for any arms that might be left. Once that is done we will know that anyone carrying a gun is committing a crime and we will be empowered to blow the whistle. We should not have the situation where police are afraid to respond to emergency calls and leave us to our own devices.

Mpumelelo Toyise is a trade unionist, anti-gun campaigner and politician. He is a member of the Azanian People’s Organisation, founded as the Black Consciousness Movement by Steven Bantu Biko.

posted 15 October 2006

update 29 December 2011