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Nancy Scheper-Hughes

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Who’s the Killer? Popular Justice and Human Rights in a South African Squatter Camp

Anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes elaborates on her research concerning “everyday violence” in the Chris Hani squatter camp, which is based on exploratory fieldwork on the political transition in Franschhoek, a conservative South African farm community. This provocative article also delves into the stoning to death of Fulbright scholar Amy Biehl by angry youth and analyzes media images decrying a “lost generation” of purportedly destructive, deranged, and demonized African youth. The author became personally involved when the ANC Women’s League called for “white” and “coloured” women to join a spontaneous march to “take back the Guguletu township” from the young “criminal elements” that held people hostage to chaotic violence and to make the community safe for people of all colors. Slogans deploring “senseless violence” raised troubling questions: were police attacks and raids on Black townships “sensible”? Was “senseless violence” a racist code for irrational Black violence as opposed to rational, sensible white violence? The author examines the costs of the war of liberation on township youth, who were denied schooling, manipulated by political slogans, arrested and tortured by police, as well as pursued by local death squads. For Scheper-Hughes, they are children who have been violated, whose childhood was not so much “lost” as taken from them. In short, the violent eruptions of township life reflect the routinized and strategic violence of the apartheid state against which the youth were and remain mobilized. The article shows how local justice is argued and contested in one small squatter camp that is desperately trying to establish order, harmony, and dignity among its 650 Black inhabitants. In contrast to politicians’ ideological references to necklacing and uncontrolled “black-on-black” violence, the author argues that the victims of apartheid have shown “undue restraint” rather than “senseless violence.” However, the temptation is great even among ANC officials and leaders to dismiss the alternative systems of policing and popular justice that govern everyday life in South Africa’s townships and squatter camps and to view them as anachronisms and obstacles to the building of a democratic civil society. Nevertheless, civil society in the new South Africa must depend on already existing local democratic structures, including the popular tribunals, civic associations, and security and discipline committees that have been struggling with questions of law and order, justice and fairness, discipline and punishment over the past 20 years.

South Africa; human rights; squatters; violence; youth; justice

Citation: Social Justice Vol. 22, No. 3 (1995): 143-164

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