Sometimes I will ask someone in the house to take my dirty washing and put it in umshin’wami. It is not hugely funny to apply to a mundane domestic appliance the term others give to a machine gun, but it illustrates a serious point about how violence captures language.

At a public discussion on October 27 on the Impact of Apartheid Wars, a young artist, Lerato, spoke about what it was like to be among older people talking of their experiences of the armed conflicts of the apartheid era.

She said that young people feel the violence from those conflicts, but these are not their conflicts. They have an unwanted legacy, a wrath that should not be theirs.

Violence takes many forms beyond physical conflict. Exploitation and economic exclusion I see as forms of violence, and so is the “cultural violence” of stereotypes of people. However, there are particular questions over a decision to use organised physical violence, whether on the “right” side or the “wrong” side.

Such questions often surface in a debate on justification for the ANC’s decision to use armed struggle. Under apartheid the state constantly increased the levels of armed force to maintain the system, and from the 1960s the ANC and other liberation movements chose to use (far more limited) force within their resistance. When people say “it was forced on us”, their language conceals the fact that a decision was made.

Gandhi had proposed that Jews in Nazi Germany present themselves en masse to the authorities, rather than to await the inevitable rounding up. Instead, Jews in the Warsaw ghetto did neither, and chose to use force to defend themselves, choosing noble death over passive surrender.

Few now would argue that they were wrong. However, Gandhi was right in his understanding that any decision to use violence, even by Jews in Nazi Germany, and even when you believe it to be a moral imperative, brings consequences that may distort your intentions.

As was immediately clear at our discussion, one consequence is that the violence you will use will be traumatic for the targets of the violence, and that the terror, the disability or loss of life are traumas also for those connected with them. That trauma is experienced also by the people who carry out the violence, and those connected with them.


This was evident from the accounts we heard of suicide and depression amongst young men returning from the border, and the intensified gender violence brought by war.

So decisions to use armed force must carry responsibilities. The first is to recognise the reality of what you are putting in place and to mitigate the damage it will bring.

The second applies at the ending of violence, to ensure there are rituals and processes for ending the trauma, disconnecting from the violence and freeing people to face a new present.

Otherwise the violence lives on in the expectations, the emotions and sensory responses. It shapes our language, it shapes the way we see ourselves as men and women, and it feeds into new patterns of violence that afflict those who had no part in the original conflict.

At moments of conflict that could be resolved through dialogue, instead the “truth” emerges that we are compelled to use violence.

Thus conflicts such as the truck driver strike become occasions for the ritual enactment of violence. Inevitably, the burden of such violence is borne most by the vulnerable in society, thus intensifying inequalities.

The temptation of course for leaders is to condemn the violence, and simultaneously to use it. We can use umshin’wami to rally the foot soldiers in our cause, and then proclaim our shock when the patterns of violence thus celebrated emerge in a Marikana.

So when people question why we should revisit the wars of apartheid, the answer is that we must, to take up the responsibility of bringing the damaging connections to that past into the open, not to celebrate them, but to sever them. Otherwise the young recreate history instead of understanding it.

As I listened at the discussion, it struck me that those of us who lived through the apartheid years have a dual responsibility to the young. The first is to find ways of explaining to them what happened, and how it happened. The second is not to pass on to them the pain that inevitably came with those experiences. There is no way in which their lives should be blighted by our trauma.

Lerato called for processes of healing, including using art to create “new visions” of society. Our challenge as South Africans is to reshape our world of the senses, of language and feeling, in ways that make real our commitment to a society founded on democracy and nonviolence.

l Hemson is the director of the International Centre of Nonviolence, based at the Durban University of Technology.