book reviewBy Melvin Kadiri Barrolle
Washington, DC — We Are Fighting the World: A History of the Marashea Gangs in South Africa, 1947-1999
By Gary Kynoch
Reviewed by Melvin Kadiri Barrolle
Gary Kynoch has produced a meticulously written text on the Marashea gangs, a loose network of criminal organizations comprised of Basotho migrants in South Africa. The book dovetails smoothly with the current sociological and anthropological work being conducted in Africa. Many in this new school reject "struggle history" as the exclusive frame for all narratives on African people, particularly South Africa where resistance was performed very publicly. Buoyed by the historic ending of Apartheid, these scholars, Kynoch and others complain, have largely concerned themselves with assessing political organizations or, if analyzing the mundane realities of South Africans, attempting to link those to larger political contexts. To redress this seemingly reductive approach, Kynoch's study seeks to invest the lives of ordinary South Africans with meaning beyond the struggle against Apartheid. "Resistance, he says, needs to be distinguished from the strategies of avoidance, manipulation, circumvention, and adaptation regularly employed by black South Africans." Continuing, he boldly asserts that "Most [South Africans] usually chose to quietly subvert rather than openly challenge those [colonial] conditions."
Unfortunately, this approach contains serious flaws. In his desire to "liberate" studies focusing on crime and urban violence from its dichotomous resistance-collaborative framework, the author papers over the fundamental contradictions of urbanization in South Africa. These urban areas were not the result of African spontaneity and/or ingenuity but rather creatures of capitalist ambitions manufactured by European colonists. As such, the space itself cannot be depoliticized because its very engineering was a political act. This was consistent throughout the African continent during colonization. Colonists devised ways to uproot communities from rural plots, usually executed through taxation and violence, in order to herd them into spaces built specifically for efficient labor production. The migrants, now transformed into a "floating work force," were then lured into congested spaces (cities) where they labored for little to no profit in order to simply subsist. When the city became too dense, the surfeit population would be used to threaten and depress the wages of those in the mines and associated industries; much in the same way corporations employ migrant labor today.
This irony misses the author, who plods on with the assumption that the settled communities were agents of their own making. To his credit, he acknowledges that the initial labor-driven migrations were the result of the discovery of gold, perhaps the most lucrative find in 19th century Africa. For profit to be made however required a plentiful yet cheap work force. African communities were slotted into this role. All subsequent responses of Africans, social, cultural, or otherwise, must be viewed within this context.
The Basotho migrants who journeyed to South Africa were actors in this historical play. Upon arrival-their departure an indicator of the impossibility of sustaining themselves in their home country of Lesotho-the migrants faced hostile reactions from other communities suspicious of "outsiders" overburdening an already fragile workforce. Vying for limited resources, the group decided to form a support network that could also double as a defensive association for vulnerable Basotho migrants. Their principal objectives were to procure capital (done primarily through criminal activities), in a market that often fell short of livable wages and to offer security to enlisted Basotho.
Kynoch's observations on the sensibilities of the Basotho are a useful introduction to students interested in Southern African cultures. At times however, even this is overcome by his emphasis on the criminality of the Marashea, whom, while being the subject of the book, are too frequently collapsed with the cultural practices of the Basotho. This leaves the reader wanting with how these cultural expressions were manifested in spaces not dictated by violence and brutal competition for resources. Such an exposition would have greatly assisted his goal of "discovering" agency.
The book is at its strongest when it relies on oral interviews. Kynoch does an impressive job, compiling seventy-nine oral testimonies that provide the reader with an intimate understanding of the individuals that constitute the group. Outside of the sensational recounts of Basotho exploits, internecine battles, and clashes with the police, these testimonies paint a human face on the situation, showing that they are very aware that the Marashea is a specific _expression of people in the maw of human degradation and colonial domination. This is best captured by one of the veterans of the Marashea. "Basotho was a thing of South Africa, there was no need for such a group in Lesotho."
Kynoch reinforces this position. "The Marashea's original purpose was to protect migrant Basotho, so the gangs filled a need that did not exist in Lesotho."? Perhaps, this observation should have been substituted as Kynoch's guiding theme.
Ultimately, if the author's intention is to tease out possible origins of crime in contemporary South Africa, then he must expand his gaze to consider the architects of South Africa, old and new. The reconciliation of Boer and British hostilities (Anglo-Boer War, 1902) was based on an agreement that White privilege should be preserved at the expense of Africans. This treaty has held profound implications for the evolution of South Africa. It essentially introduced and impressed the concept of White Supremacy onto the whole of the country. To present Apartheid and the corresponding institutions that reproduce inequality as tangential concerns to African communities is at best a myopic analysis and at worst, a political decision. Indeed, every edit is a political act.
Melvin Kadiri Barrolle is a master's student in history at Howard University. He is a staff writer for the Washington Informer, a weekly African American periodical, and the Minneapolis Liberator, a bi-monthly publication.