In a democratic post-apartheid South Africa, research on ex-combatants has been driven primarily by anxieties regarding the notion that they are a menace to society and a threat to peace. Some scholars have challenged that idea, however, suggesting instead that many such assumptions stem from the continuation of ex-combatants’ military identities, the trauma remaining from their experiences of war, and the media’s tendency to sensationalize their involvement in crime after demobilization.1L. Mashike, “You are a time bomb: Ex-combatants in post-conflict South Africa,” Society in Transition, Vol. 35, No. 1 (2004): 87-104; B. Harris, “Between a rock and a hard place: Violence, transition and democratisation. A consolidated review of the violence and transition project,” Violence and Transition Series (Johannesburg: Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, 2005); and S. Gear, “Wishing us away: Challenges facing ex-combatants in the ‘new’ South Africa,” Violence and Transition Series, Vol. 8 (Johannesburg: Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, 2002).

This essay summarizes the conclusions drawn from a study funded by the African Peacebuilding Network of the Social Science Research Council. It seeks to explore the ways in which ex-combatants make the transition from the use of violence to peace. These conclusions challenge the view that ex-combatants have continued to be violent in post-apartheid South Africa, and they establish that, even though ex-combatants have held onto their military skills, they are peaceful citizens.

The interviews for the study were conducted with former members of the Azania People’s Liberation Army (APLA) in the townships of Gugulethu, KTC area Khayelitsha, and Nyanga East just outside the city of Cape Town. A focus group discussion conducted in the townships supplemented the life histories related by the interviewees, and follow-up interviews were done. In both interviews and focus group, similar issues were raised.

Rethinking Demobilization, Disarmament, and Reintegration

Many post-conflict African countries have held a narrow understanding of the process of demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration (DDR) and its application. In South Africa in particular, following the 1994 political negotiations, many liberation fighters in exile who returned to the country were either integrated into the South African Defence Force (SADF) or demobilized and reintegrated into their communities.

While demobilization was apparently the choice more often made, seeing ex-combatants as being integrated into civilian status is still a mirage. The legacy of the DDR manifests as a failure to plan for and economically integrate ex-combatants into their current communities.2G. Dzinesa, “The role of ex-combatants and veterans in violence in transitional societies,” Concept paper, Violence and Transition Project Roundtable, May 7–9, 2008 (Johannesburg: Centre for Study of Violence and Reconciliation). Any immediate reintegration into civilian life was not followed by a long-term reintegration.3L. Mashike,“Standing down or standing out? Demobilising and reintegrating former soldiers,” African Security Review, Vol. 9, No. 5/6 (2000): 64-71. In such situations, ex-combatants and their communities remained militarized, and they continued to carry combatant identities in post-apartheid society.

This state of affairs raises the question, under what circumstances does the threat of violence become real? The failure to implement DDR left many ex-combatants with limited choice but to live under difficult economic and political conditions. In South Africa, despite the reinsertion packages given to them at the end of the liberation war, few benefited from such program.4Ibid. With few employment opportunities, many ex-combatants still live in abject poverty.

In the life histories interviews conducted during fieldwork for this project, many ex-combatants indicated they remained unemployed, and many employers viewed them as an unemployable group because of their experiences of war. Although many expressed guilt and remorse and had been engaged in a peaceful journey (in the course of which some had become “born-again Christians”), they still retained “struggle” mentalities and military identities—a persistence I refer to as “difficulties in demilitarizing the mind.”

In light of these difficulties, we must rethink the different ways in which DDR can be pushed beyond the normal process of taking away arms and reintegrating combatants into civilian life. Instead of having a specified timeline, the process should be a long one, with its lifespan determined by the normalization of ex-combatants’ lives in the community. Although the DDR process is largely determined by the resources available to assist ex-combatants, they can, within these constraints, be continually engaged with and their stories listened to, so they can be assisted with particular needs. This approach will minimize the risk of them returning to guns (and violence) in a peaceful environment. Importantly, we also need to understand the ways in which ex-combatants talk about violence and how it is conceptualized.

Framing Violence from Ex-combatants’ Life Stories

The narrators of these ongoing life stories give accounts of their past combatant lives and their present, and what they think they will become. Their use of the term “violence” has proved both critical to and a source of insight for understanding the nature and forms of violence and the ways in which the tellers understand it.

Pathologizing violence in people’s stories is dangerous, in that the term itself is experienced differently over time. Parkin suggests that “violence” is very much a word of those who witness it rather than those who perform it.5See D. Parkin, “Violence and will,” in The Anthropology of violence, ed. D. Riches (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986), 204–223. In this regard, the term is more prevalent among victims and researchers than perpetrators. Anthropologists and sociologists who conduct research on violence are frequently called upon to cut down on such language. Riches reminds us in general to “use the language of people being studied;”6See David Riches, ed., The Anthropology of violence, Oxford: Blackwell, 1986. thus, in this instance, emphasis should be on deciphering “violence” in the ex-combatants’ narratives. Fiona Ross has similarly emphasized the idea of what she calls “unsettling the dominant language,” and she frequently recommends “listening to people’s language” as a skill that can enrich research.7Fiona Ross, writing workshop on ex-combatants, April 2012. The ways in which ex-combatants tell and portray their life stories are important, as they bring out the particular meanings their pasts have given to the present.


The relationship between ex-combatants and violence is not clear from their narratives, except for their potential to engage in it. This capacity is one that can be substantiated by the military skills and preoccupation with guns ex-combatants continue to carry in transitional periods. What comes from the narratives of ex-combatants, then, is the journey through witnessing and participating in violence and the ultimate shift to peaceful journeys. Is this testimony to a successful transition, or are these journeys that will never end? The conclusion here is not that ex-combatants are peaceful, but that they are on peaceful journeys—journeys that might be broken.

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