Black townships in cities such as Durban and Johannesburg already suffered from high population densities and a lack of basic services under the Apartheid regime. Thus, rural migrants arrived to an already fragile situation in which overpopulation, poverty and the lack of services and security enabled a warlord economy.
Paramilitary groups in urban areas competing for power and the control of basic residential resources violently targeted rural migrants, often along ethnic lines. Urban violence was further exacerbated by rivalries between different African parties, with paramilitary groups taking sides for different candidates in the years preceding South Africa’s first free elections in 1994. Urban violence remains an important problem in South African cities today.
The last years of the Apartheid regime saw a dramatic surge in crime and violence in marginalised black urban areas, especially in the areas surrounding Durban and Johannesburg. During the run up to the general elections in 1994 gang violence in black neighbourhoods increasingly mixed with political violence between organizations such as the African National Congress (ANC) and the conservative Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). Minnaar (1994) estimates, that yearly death statistics from political unrests in the areas around Durban and Johannesburg rose from 1403 in 1989 to 4010 in 1993, while the number of yearly unrest-related injuries rose from 1425 to 4790 over the same period (Percival & Homer Dixon, 1998). The intensity of armed political violence in South Africa has generally decreased since 1994. Criminality and gang violence remain however an important problem in South African cities (UCDP, 2015; Bénit-Gbaffou et al. 2008).
The discriminatory laws of Apartheid played a major part in shaping the conditions for increased criminality and political violence in black urban areas at the end of the 1980s. For one part, they exposed rural black South Africans to important environmental and demographic pressures, thus pushing them into urban areas. For the other part, they denied black urban areas the necessary services, security and administrative capacities to cope with increasing numbers of rural migrants.
Environmental scarcity and rural-urban migration
Under Apartheid different African groups were assigned rural “homelands” on approximately 14% of the South African land base, leaving the remaining 86% to the white minority (Whyte, 1995). These areas were not only characterized by fragile soils, but also by a distinctive lack of capital, fertilizers and veterinary services, further straining agricultural production. High fertility rates in the homelands, partly due to black South African's restricted access to education, combined with forced displacements of black populations from white rural areas, and a series of pass and influx control laws restricting black South African's access to cities dramatically increased population densities in the homelands. This resulted in deforestation, soil erosion, water pollution and loss of rural livelihoods, forcing many black South Africans to move to peri-urban areas, often into informal settlements. This dynamic was further accelerated when the pass laws were repealed in 1986 (Percival & Homer Dixon, 1998)
Crowded cities, inequalities and urban violence
In urban areas, the system of Apartheid had led to high population densities in black townships, leaving them with insufficient services such as electricity and running water, weak local authorities, as well as high unemployment rates. Hence, rural migrants arrived in an already fragile social context. As argued by Percival and Homer Dixon (1998), overpopulation, poverty and the lack of security and service provisions in black townships enabled a warlord economy, in which paramilitary groups were fighting for power through the control of basic residential resources, such as land, home allocations, services, business rights, etc. With increasing migration from rural areas in the late 1980s, competition between different paramilitary groups and violence against rural migrants escalated, often along ethnic lines. The Apartheid regime did little to stop this violence; it even supported certain armed groups in order to weaken political opposition among black communities (Abrahams, 2010; UCDP, 2015).
In the years preceding South Africa's first free elections in 1994, urban violence was further exacerbated by rivalries between different African parties, with paramilitary groups taking sides for different candidates. Especially the Durban area became the scene of brutal fights between supporters of the ANC and the IFP, leaving thousands dead (Percival & Homer Dixon, 1998).
Urban violence remains an important problem in South African cities, especially in the poorer parts of large cities such as Johannesburg, Cape Town or Durban. State officials, planners and grassroots organisations blame insufficient service and security provision, unemployment and obvious inequalities between privileged and less privileged neighbourhoods for this situation and highlight the importance of coupling the daily fight against urban violence with more pervasive development intervention in the least privileged areas, hosting a predominantly black population (Jensen & Buur, 2007).
Privatized security and community policing
Efforts by regular police forces to prevent urban violence have been complemented by a series of private forms of security: As a remnant of the Apartheid era, private security companies continue operating in affluent or middle-class areas, sometimes in cooperation with the national police, while different forms of community justice and vigilantism still exist in the townships. Since 1995 Community Policing Forums (CPFs) have become additional drivers for different forms of community policing and privatized security. Set up by the national police these regular meetings of the police and residents are intended at rebuilding trust in the police after years of racial discriminations and violence (Bénit-Gbaffou et al., 2008).
Limited access to housing and clean water in informal settlements
On the other hand, access to housing and the right to clean water has been incorporated in the South African Bill of Rights in the post-Apartheid Constitution in 1996, which the government must gradually ensure within its capacities. Yet, municipalities charge for water and are allowed to restrict residents to a minimum amount per month in cases of non-payment, while important shortages of clean water and housing still exist in informal settlements (Bénit-Gbaffou & Oldfield, 2014).
Lacking capacities and the limits of community security initiatives
Despite notable progress, there are still important challenges to city development and security in South Africa. Public, private and community stakeholders still deplore the lack of capacity of regular police forces to deal with insecurity and violence. At the same time, the effectiveness of privatized forms of security is questioned: Vigilante groups have been linked to a number of terrorist-related activities, such as grenade attacks against alleged criminals and police stations (Abraham 2010). Community security initiatives, such as road closures, can be used as a pretext to ban poor populations from more affluent areas, thus recreating Apartheid like conditions, while the privatisation of security has accentuated inequalities in experiencing crime and violence between residents who can afford supplementary measures and those who cannot. Moreover, several regulations since the late 1990s have limited the power of residents within CPFs. Combined with a lack of follow-up on publicly expressed concerns this has contributed to "their relative failure to sustain a satisfying dialogue between public authorities and residents" (Bénit-Gbaffou et al. 2008).
Although residents can in theory use their constitutional rights to oppose restrictions of services and evictions from informal settlements, NGOs and activists can become the victims of intimidations and attacks with presumed links to political officials and the metropolitan police (Bénit-Gbaffou & Oldfield, 2014).