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Study information

A Culture of Violence? Violence and Conflict in South African History, 1880-present: Context

Module titleA Culture of Violence? Violence and Conflict in South African History, 1880-present: Context
Module codeHIH3032
Academic year2018/9
Module staff

Dr Emily Bridger (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks



Number students taking module (anticipated)


Module description

Violent conflict has been at the centre of modern South African history. The colonial state and apartheid regime both employed extensive violence against South Africa’s non-white populations. Over time, the toxic combination of structural violence, in the form of material deprivation and poverty, and physical violence, perpetrated by the police and security forces, encouraged counter-violence against the state and within the family, home, and community. This module traces the history of violence in South Africa from the late 19th century to the present, exploring changes and continuities in patterns of political violence, crime, rape and domestic abuse, and gang conflict through the apartheid era and beyond. It focuses not just on physical violence, but also on the structural, symbolic, and everyday violence which has plagued South African society, and encourages you to see how these forms of violence interact to form a wider “culture of violence”.

Module aims - intentions of the module

Given South Africa’s exceptionally high rights of violent crime, gender-based violence, and police brutality, many observers speak of the country in terms of a “culture of violence”, first bred during the colonial and apartheid periods, and furthered under the post-apartheid state. Violence in South Africa has become normative rather than deviant, and used as a regular means of resolving social, political, and domestic conflict. This module aims to:

  • Trace the development of violence, from the foundations of the country’s mining sector in the 19th century, to the repressive conditions of apartheid and the violent methods employed by those who struggled against it, to the country’s recent episodes of xenophobic attacks, escalating rape rates, and use of vigilante justice
  • Stretching from 1880 to the present, introduce you to various forms of violence perpetrated and experienced by a range of actors in South African history
  • Critically engage with multiple understandings of violence, and understand the connections between structural, everyday, and physical violence, and between the country’s turbulent past and violent present
  • Study not only the repressive methods used by the apartheid state and the history of various liberation groups, but also the social histories of mine labourers, sex workers, women, children and youth who were also affected by the wider culture of violence that developed in the country
  • Engage you with various historiographical debates central to South African history, as well as wider theoretical and interdisciplinary discussions surrounding violence, its meanings, and purpose
  • Engage with the complex historiographies, methodologies, and approaches to studying violence in modern African history
  • Develop research, analytical, interpretative, and communication skills that can be applied to further academic studies or in graduate careers

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 1. Evaluate the different complex themes in social, cultural, and political histories of modern South Africa
  • 2. Make close specialist evaluation of the key developments within the period, developed through independent study and seminar work

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 3. Analyse the key developments within the formations of segregation, apartheid, and the post-apartheid state in South African history, from 1880 to the present
  • 4. Focus on and comprehend complex issues
  • 5. Understand and deploy relevant historical terminology in a comprehensible manner
  • 6. Follow the changing causes of and responses to state violence, communal conflict, criminality, and gender-based violence in South African history

ILO: Personal and key skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 7. Conduct independent and autonomous study and group work, including presentation of material for group discussion, developed through the mode of learning
  • 8. Digest, select and organise material to produce, to a deadline, a coherent and cogent argument, developed through the mode of assessment
  • 9. Present complex arguments orally

Syllabus plan

This module focuses on the context to the history of violence and conflict in South Africa, from the 1880s to the present. It first explores:

  • The foundations of violence in both urban and rural communities in the early 20th century
  • The structural violence of the apartheid system
  • The physical violence employed by the state against non-white and dissenting populations
  • The counter-violence used by the country’s various political movements and liberation organisations
  • The simultaneous development of communal conflict, crime, and gender-based violence within South Africa’s townships and rural areas

It engages students with a wide range of approaches to South African history, providing them with a detailed understanding of social, political, and cultural histories of the country. In particular, it tasks students with understanding the connections between these various forms of violence, and explores how prolonged political conflict and the structural injustices of apartheid bred wider cultures of domestic violence, gang conflict, and violent crime which have remained in the post-apartheid period.

While some students may have prior knowledge of modern African history, this is not a prerequisite for this module. The course thus begins with two introductory seminars: one introducing students to the wider historical context of the module, and the second to key methodological approaches to studying South African history. These introductory sessions will be important in offering a broad overview within which students can frame their subsequent work. The co-requisite module will focus more closely on the historical sources available for the study of modern South African history, thus complementing this module. The content of the various seminars will vary week to week: some topics will be explored over a series of seminars; some seminars will be used as source workshops; and others will be used to examine in-depth examples and case studies.

Students are expected to prepare for each seminar by reading and evaluating the listed secondary and primary sources in advance, and should come to class prepared to discuss these in detail.

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled learning and teaching4422 x 2 hour seminars
Guided independent study256Reading and preparation for seminars, coursework and presentations

Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Seminar discussionOngoing through course1-7, 9Oral and written

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Essay253000 words1-8Oral and written
Essay253000 words1-8Oral and written
Unseen exam502 questions in 2 hours1-8Oral and written

Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
EssayEssay1-8Referral/Deferral period
EssayEssay1-8Referral/Deferral period
Unseen examinationUnseen examination1-8Referral/Deferral period

Re-assessment notes

Deferral – if you miss an assessment for certificated reasons judged acceptable by the Mitigation Committee, you will normally be either deferred in the assessment or an extension may be granted. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of deferral will not be capped and will be treated as it would be if it were your first attempt at the assessment.

Referral – if you have failed the module overall (i.e. a final overall module mark of less than 40%) you will be required to submit a further assessment as necessary. If you are successful on referral, your overall module mark will be capped at 40%.

Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

  • Alan H. Jeeves and Jonathan Crush (eds), White Farms, Black Labour: The State and Agrarian Change in Southern Africa, 1910-1950 (Durban: 1998)
  • Belinda Bozzoli, Theatres of Struggle and the End of Apartheid (Athens, Ohio: 2004).
  • Belinda Bozzoli (ed), Class, Community and Conflict: South African Perspectives (Johannesburg: 1987).
  • Clive Glaser, Bo-Tsotsi: The Youth Gangs of Soweto, 1935-1976 (Oxford: 2000).
  • Gary Kynoch, “Urban Violence in Colonial Africa: A Case for South African Exceptionalism.” Journal of Southern African Studies 34:3 (2008): 629–645.
  • Helena Pohlandt-McCormick, “I Saw a Nightmare--”: Doing Violence to Memory: The Soweto Uprising, June 16 1976 (New York: 2007).
  • Jacklyn Cock, Colonels and Cadres: War and Gender in South Africa (Cape Town: 1991).
  • Jacob Dlamini, Askari: A Story of Collaboration and Betrayal in the Anti-Apartheid Struggle (Oxford: 2015).
  • Jeremy Seekings, Heroes or Villains? Youth Politics in the 1980s (Johannesburg: 1993).
  • Monique Marks, Young Warriors: Youth Politics, Identity and Violence in South Africa (Johannesburg: 2001).
  • N. Chabani Mangayi and Andre du Toit (eds) Political Violence and the Struggle in South Africa (New York: 1990).
  • Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Philippe Bourgois (eds) Violence in War and Peace (Malden, MA: 2004).
  • Philip Bonner, Peter Delius, and Deborah Posel (eds), Apartheid’s Genesis: 1935-1962 (Johannesburg, 1993).
  • Raymond Suttner, The ANC Underground in South Africa (Johannesburg: 2008).
  • William Beinart, “Introduction: Political and Collective Violence in Southern African Historiography,” Journal of Southern African Studies 18:3 (1992): 455-486.
  • William Beinart, Twentieth-Century South Africa (Oxford, 1994).

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

Key words search

South Africa; apartheid; violence; crime; gender; youth

Credit value30
Module ECTS


Module pre-requisites

At least 90 credits of History at Level 1 and/or Level 2

Module co-requisites

HIH3031 A Culture of Violence? Violence and Conflict in South African History, 1880-Present: Sources

NQF level (module)


Available as distance learning?


Origin date


Last revision date