Gun Violence in Africa

The development impact of war on individuals, communities and states is unambiguous and well documented. By its nature — and sometimes by design — modern warfare destroys economic and social infrastructure, uproots populations, paralyses economic activity, disrupts vital health and education services and diverts financial resources from development to defence. Less well understood is the impact of small arms on development in post-conflict situations. Unlike heavy weapons systems, which can be costly to acquire and operate and comparatively easy to decommission or monitor, the end of a war does not necessarily bring an end to the use of light weapons. As Robert Muggah and Peter Bachelor, analysts for the Small Arms Survey, a European research institute, report in a recent study, Development Held Hostage: Assessing the Effects of Small Arms on Human Development, “the durability of small arms ensures that once they are present in a country they present a continuous risk — especially in societies where there are large accumulations of weapons…. They frequently outlast peace agreements and are taken up again in the post-conflict period” by criminal gangs, vigilantes, dissidents, and individuals concerned about personal security. In areas where state security is weak or absent, possession of a gun can be a matter of survival, either to seize food and other vital resources or as protection from attack. In other places the low cost and ready availability of firearms can promote what experts call a “culture of violence,” where gun ownership becomes a symbol of power and status, and gun violence a first resort for the settlement of personal and political disputes. South Africa has suffered considerably from the misuse of small arms since the end of apartheid in 1994, and has moved aggressively to reduce their availability. Unlike most other African countries, South Africa has a large number of small arms in legal circulation, with over 4 mn guns registered to private, primarily white, owners at the end of 1999. In common with countries bordering conflict areas in West and East Africa, however, South Africa has also suffered from the illegal influx from neighbouring states of weapons that have outlasted the wars they were intended to fight. In the 1970s, the apartheid government began supplying thousands of tons of arms and ammunition to its domestic and regional allies for the defence of white minority rule. An estimated 30 tonnes of guns and explosives were smuggled into the country by the anti-apartheid movements, which also left arms stockpiles at their base camps in surrounding countries. As many as 4 mn weapons from various sources have illegally found their way into the hands of South African civilians. The presence of so many weapons outside government control has overwhelmed law enforcement efforts, contributed to crime and public insecurity, hampered economic growth and caused tragic and avoidable deaths and injuries.