The War Nerd: The Art of Turf War

By Gary Brecher , written on April 19, 2015

From The War Desk

There’s a war on now in South African cities, but no one’s calling it what it is. South Africans, mostly Zulu, are attacking shops run by foreigners, driving the aliens (mostly Zimbabwean, Somali, Nigerian, Pakistani, or Bangladeshi) out of their neighborhoods.

You can call these “riots” if it makes them seem smaller and safer, but the truth is, this is war. This is what war looks like, most of the time.

Like most wars, this one is undeclared, chronic, unresolvable, and grounded in ethnic hatred. It’s been going on for a long time. How long? Well, where do you want to start? Most of the rioters are Zulu; the Zulu were well on their way to becoming the dominant military power in all of South Africa when they met another, even grimmer power, the British Empire. That broke their power, but not their sense of being the rightful owners of a substantial chunk of the Southeastern corner of the continent. Now the Zulu have to figure out what they’re doing in a multi-ethnic, impoverished South Africa, and like most ethnic groups, they’ve chosen to focus on the most visible and vulnerable group around, the alien-looking and -sounding small businesspeople in their neighborhoods. Jews in Eastern Europe, South Asians in Uganda, Igbo in Northern Nigeria, or Chinese in just about all of SE Asia (here, here, here).

In fact, during our three months in East Timor, there were trucks going around with loudspeakers blasting “Chinese get out now!” And rumor had it that the police had been told to do a very tight check on the visas on anyone who looked Chinese. When you’ve been in Timor a while, “Chinese” means someone taller and paler, better dressed and not as hard as the Timorese norm. You start to realize how fluid all these racial/ethnic differences are. I never thought of Chinese as tall in California but in East Timor that’s what you look for, tall and pale.

It’s a very typical pattern—standard human behavior, I’m sorry to say—with the bigger but less financially savvy ethnic group asserting its power through pogrom against the smaller, wealthier aliens.

Pogrom, like it or not (and what’s to like, really?) is one of the most common faces of war. War isn’t usually anything like a fair fight. Why should it be? Would you lead your favorite brother into a “fair fight” with people who have cannon and rifles? That’s basically insane, especially when there are much easier, safer ways to make war.

One of the weirdest things about war buffs is that they read every book they can find about Gettysburg, Waterloo, and Stalingrad while ignoring all the real wars happening now. There’s this nostalgia for battles between large groups of men in uniform, under a straightforward chain of command, meeting to blow each other to pieces.

That’s one of the faces of war, but not the most important one. Most wars, over the long span of human history, are turf wars by smaller, informal groups. These are wars without big battles, for the simple reason that big battles get a lot of your people killed. You have to be in a pretty insanely enthusiastic mood to do Pickett’s Charge. It makes a lot more sense to do what South Africans are doing now, if your goal is to drive the enemy (whoever strikes you as being the enemy) out of your district.

You know how many people have died in the attacks on foreigners in South Africa, so far? Six. Six KIA. Compare that to one day at Gettysburg, Waterloo, or Stalingrad, and you see the effectiveness of this kind of low-level war. It may not be pretty, terrorizing small businesses, but then war isn’t a very pretty business in general. The only people who think it is are the ones who spend their lives gaming Gettysburg and Waterloo, and the only reason they think that is that they’ve never experienced post-amputation in a field hospital in the hot American summer, after a Minie ball shattered your ankle. That isn’t pretty at all, from what I’ve read. And there were more than 50,000 men who went through something like that in three days at Gettysburg.

Compare that to what the Zulu are doing in South Africa, and you develop a kind of…well, maybe not “respect,” but let’s say, “appreciation” of low-level urban warfare using exemplary terror instead of mass casualties.

Violence like what’s happening in South African cities now is a good illustration of what the fat guy said in “Apocalypse Now”: “Terror is your friend.” In fact, you could argue, if you were being cynical, that terror is kinder than conventional war in some ways. To drive the Army of Northern Virginia out of one corner of Pennsylvania, more than 50,000 men had to die; to drive thousands of immigrant shopkeepers out of Durban and Johannesburg, so far only six have died.

We’re talking about exemplary terror, where one death resonates so widely that it has more effect than thousands of battle casualties in conventional war. There’s always been a tradition of this kind of killing (it’s one of the reasons that tribes and armies are so inventive about all the ways you can make prisoners die slowly and agonizingly), but as more and more people get jammed into the cellphone world, it becomes more and more effective, and the set-piece battle where you count casualties by the thousand starts to seem more and more like a cruel waste of time.

Text messages have been very effective in driving out foreign businesspeople in South Africa. Armies talk a lot about “force multipliers,” but it’s hard to imagine anything more effective than a single text message, a few million electrons, forcing thousands of people to flee. And that’s what’s just happened in South Africa:

Late on Thursday a widely disseminated text message claimed that "a train of Zulus" had departed for Johannesburg.

‘These men are armed and they are going to be killing any foreigner they meet tomorrow,’ the text message said.

The source of these messages remains unclear, but their proliferation has sowed panic and confusion among migrant communities.

While these rumours have so far, proven to be false, its effects have already been felt.

Foreign owned stores around Johannesburg have been closed for at least two days already.

‘The unfounded rumours have caused more damage to our members than anything else,’ [a representative of the foreign businesspeople] said. And c’mon here, this isn’t so new to Americans. You, or if not you then your parents, went through “the riots.” Watts, Detroit, DC, Baltimore, Chicago . . . the list goes on. Those riots are usually blamed for accelerating neighborhood segregation and white flight from the cities, but in most ethnic war, getting the enemy tribe out of your turf is the point, not an unwanted side effect. It was definitely, explicitly, the point of the previous generation of race riots in the US. These were white riots (Yeah, the fucking stupid Clash, don’t even get me started on those waterheads…)—real white riots, attacking any dark face they met, killing black and brown people in the nastiest ways they could.

So it’s not a matter of blame, if your goal is to get the foreign shopkeepers out and you succeed in driving them out. That’s, uh, success. It may be a short-sighted or immoral success, but we’re talking war here, and morality doesn’t do well in that habitat.

This kind of low-level urban war usually works. It worked to maintain and increase ethnic segregation in both rounds of white vs. black riots in the US, and worked far more effectively against the Chinese on the West Coast of the US in the late 19th and early 20th century. The anti-Chinese fever that hit West-Coast whites in the late 19th century resulted in the Chinese Exclusion Act, specifically barring Chinese immigrants to the US.

So, with enough momentum, the low-level urban killings happening now in South Africa can lead to permanent, official segregation designed to keep out the people you fear. Most of the time, these people belong to a group with more experience in small business, or willing to work for lower wages. It’s always about money, but that doesn’t mean that the ethnic dimension is an illusion, as hard-core Leftists always insist, because (in case you haven’t noticed), money isn’t distributed evenly, and ethnicity is one of the ways it gets un-evened up. I’m speaking a dominant language here, a conquest language, which makes it more likely I’m rich. Alas, in my case . . . well, long story, but still, most of the time, the generalization holds.

What’s confusing for a lot of Americans is that unlike our seemingly simple notion of “race” as a matter of skin color, the South African riots aren’t about black vs. white. Most of the small shopkeepers being terrorized into fleeing are black Africans, and the rest are brown immigrants from South Asia. The difference isn’t white/black, but then that’s a specifically American way of seeing “race,” and a very rare one in world history. Most of the “race” disputes in history have been about which language you speak, which god you grovel to, and how you make a living rather than what shade you are.

The immigrants are competing at the lower, and lower-middle, end of the economic spectrum. There may be something like three million Zimbabweans in South Africa a very big minority when you consider the total population is about 52 million.

Most of these Zimbabwean immigrants are just trying for day-labor jobs (skilled Zimbabweans tend to go to richer countries like the UK rather than South Africa). But that’s the kind of immigration that often makes people angriest, because it hits at the lowest-paid workers, the ones who are just getting by even before they’re swamped by desperate immigrants.

South Africa is desperate already, with 25% unemployment. If you’ve never had a decent job and you see some infidel foreigner with the wrong kind of face taking the job you need, you look for a rock to throw. That’s one of the reasons the Irish and the Chinese were hated so much in the 19th c. US — they undercut wages for unskilled labor, not because they wanted to hurt the labor movement but because they were even more desperate than the native US labor force. It’s always a matter of desperate vs. even-more desperate in a pogrom.

Then there are the Somalis, who are the focus for a lot of the hatred at the moment. The Somalis look different, have a different religion, and keep to themselves. They’re seen as snooty, grasping infidels—again, the Jews in Eastern Europe are a pretty good model for this sort of hate—and the fact that they’re willing to open up shops in the most dangerous townships makes them easy targets. Easy and very visible, because a shopkeeper in a poor neighborhood is a big, big deal. He decides if you get credit, and if he refuses, for what may be good business reasons, it’s going to get around, it’s going to make people angry, and the next time you hear breaking glass and see people running in the street, you’re going to head for his shop first.

Nobody here has a lot of choice. The Somalis are fleeing the longest, ugliest war on the continent, trying to keep their families and traditions together in a totally alien landscape. In California when I was growing up, it was the Palestinians who usually started little corner stores in the scariest neighborhoods, and you don’t have to be a history major to know what blew them out of their homeland and sent them whirling around the world trying to survive. It’s always people fleeing a bad place who end up running these little township businesses. You don’t start a business in a ghetto because you’re in a mood to make poor people feel bad; even Spike Lee, not one of the brighter bulbs in the marquee, got that much in the famous Korean-shopkeeper scene from Do the Right Thing.

Of course Spike had to do the happy ending, where the mob gets it and leaves the Korean alone. Doesn’t happen that way very often, in South Africa now, or Seattle in 1886, or Tulsa in 1921.

The effect of this low-level pogrom-war will be bad for just about everyone. Zimbabwean, Somali, and Pakistani shopkeepers who’ve borrowed money from the whole family to start a little business in one of the townships will lose it all. The family will be set back for decades, and the memory of “that shop we had in Durban” will be a family horror story, told to kids and grandkids for generations. The people who drove the foreign shopkeepers out of their districts will have to walk further for basic necessities and pay more, just for the pleasure of enriching somebody who looks and talks more like them. Of course, he’s no more likely to extend them the credit they need.

So it seems like nobody wins, but that’s only when you look at this at street level. Go higher, and there are plenty of winners, starting with a man named Goodwill Zwelithini, King of the Zulus.

A few weeks ago, Zwelithini said that foreigners should “go back to their own countries” because they were taking jobs from South Africans. That’s when the latest round of ethnic riots started, and of course they started in a Zulu-majority city, Durban.

Now why would he say a thing like that? Well, consider his position. What does it mean to be “King of the Zulus” in a multi-ethnic nation like South Africa? The dominant party, the ANC, has always been dominated by the Zulus’ rivals, the Xhosa. That’s why the ANC is desperate to keep Jacob Zuma, a Zulu, as its official leader despite all his embarrassing gropes and gaffes. It helps to keep the Zulu from open rebellion.

So being the Zulu King means . . . as much as you can make it mean. It’s a tricky position, hereditary ethnic ruler in a multi-ethnic nation-state. It always comes down to Stalin’s question, “How many divisions does the Pope have?” Except that we’re not talking in Gettysburg or Stalingrad terms here, so we’re not talking about formally organized army divisions. The question here is more like, “How much chaos can Goodwill Zwelithini cause?” Zwelithini’s actual power, in the current South African polity, is pretty much determined by the answer to that question.

So in Zwelithini’s terms, the riots have gone very well. He’s reminded the whole country that the Zulu are a power, and more importantly that he decides when that power is unleashed. That’s very handy for an ambitious man. It’s not as easy to see how his followers, the ones running the streets and trashing the foreigners’ shops, can benefit. They’re more like the human norm, which isn’t so much “turtles all the way down” as suckers. Mean, dumb suckers, all the way down.

[Image credit: Al Jazeera]