Are we seeing the return of violence and assassination in South African politics? It certainly looks as though the dynamic of a top-heavy political system loaded with patronage and corruption is moving towards murder as the normal intercourse of politics.
A chilling remark by a senior ANC political figure earlier this month brings the issue into focus. It was made at the funeral of ANC "fixer" Wandile Mkhize, who was shot dead in a hail of bullets outside his house near Margate in KwaZulu-Natal only days after attending the party's rambunctious policy conference in Midrand.
KwaZulu-Natal Premier Zweli Mkhize was reported by the Mercury as having said at the funeral that, although "the ANC had 'no specific knowledge' of why he was killed, the party had to 'look at the confluence of politics, criminality and business' as it was going to cause huge problems in the party".
President Jacob Zuma's address at the same funeral – words that were cheered as if at an election rally, despite the dead man lying in his coffin – gave no such acknowledgement of the degraded state of the governing party.
It has come to this: a century after the founding achievement of Reverend John Langalibalele Dube, Pixley ka Izaka Seme, Sol Plaatje, Reverend WB Rubusana and their compatriots, and with less than six months before the ANC's centenary elective conference in Mangaung, "huge problems in the party" are described simply by the KwaZulu-Natal premier as "the confluence of politics, criminality and business".
This is a bad, bad place for the ANC to be. The most venerable political party in Africa is increasingly considered not the moral engine of emancipation, but an immoral successor to a hated past.
Within days of the funeral, but at the other end of the country, another ANC member died, this time after an address by Zuma and yet another violent clash internal to the ANC. It took place after several hours of conflict before, during and after the president's talk – on the political example of Nelson Mandela – in a church at Thohoyandou in Limpopo.
Alpheus Moseri (68) was reported by the Mail & Guardian to have collapsed in a bus returning home, after what local people said was an asthma attack "allegedly … sparked by the fumes of the pepper spray" that uniformed members of the Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans' Association used against the crowd outside the church.
Under the command of association chairperson Kebby Maphatsoe, the organisation was "accused of having acted unlawfully" through a "show of force" on behalf of Zuma as election candidate ahead of the ANC's elective conference in December. Members of the crowd were "assaulted and sprayed with pepper spray by the veterans and dozens of other accredited members of the local ANC branches were removed or prevented from attending the lecture", reported the M&G.
Some of the men in association uniforms and some of those using pepper spray appeared to be "too young to be veterans", which sparked claims that "younger people politically aligned to Zuma were infiltrating it for political ends". Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) was disbanded by mid-1994 when members began to be integrated into state forces, so anyone younger than the mid-30s today would be ineligible for membership.
Another M&G article reported the event at Thohoyandou as a "political storm" with "children as young as seven being chased down the road by gun-wielding police officers". Members of the police riot unit, the National Intelligence Agency and the association, as well as private security guards, placed a cordon around the church. Stacks of barbed-wire fencing formed a steel wall around the area. ANC members and inquisitive locals hoping to glimpse the president were chased off with water cannons and tear gas.
Is this the kind of culture now saturating the ANC – not just intolerance of dissent and harsh attempts to control internal splits, but violence?
In Thohoyandou the association, under the command of Maphatsoe, appears to have acted as Zuma's private paramilitary force. A few weeks earlier, the M&G reported that Maphatsoe was cited in a forensic report, which alleged that he and three fellow association leaders had used the organisation as their "personal piggy bank", abusing its investment funds "to pay for jewellery, spa treatments and school drama lessons and to withdraw large sums of cash before Christmas".
This report, by auditing firm SizweNtsalubaGobodo, reportedly implicates former treasurer Dumisani Khoza, former chairperson Deacon Mathe and current treasurer Johannes "Sparks" Motseki, as well as Maphatsoe.
The M&G did not report that the four had been named in court on June 1 as respondents in a case by an association group called "the commissariat". Its secretary, Omry Mathabatha Makgoale, had lain a charge of theft of MK veterans' funds against them.
Makgoale, formerly a bodyguard of the late ANC president in exile, Oliver Tambo, MK district commander in Luanda and resident for nearly five years of the ANC's Quatro prison camp for dissidents, was described by an MK colleague, the late Mwezi Twala, as "a stubborn but good person" who "would not tolerate injustice". Makgoale has since reported "aggressive surveillance" of his house and warnings of assassination made both to him and a fellow commissariat member, Eddie Mogoanatse.
A third member of the commissariat, Obbey Mabena, who led the first group of MK members to arrive in Angola for military training after the June 16 1976 uprising, told the Sunday Independent that the association, "under Maphatsoe, has become a 'hit squad' for people wanting to remain in power" – obviously a reference to Zuma.
According to Mabena, what happened during Zuma's lecture at Thohoyandou is symbolic of what the future holds for the ANC. Criticising the association's use of violence under Maphatsoe's command, he warned: "This is just a tip of the iceberg compared to what is going to happen."
This sharp division in the association, with its strong moral dimension, gains further significance considering that Maphatsoe was accused in May of improper canvassing for Zuma ahead of the ANC's elective conference in December, in breach of internal ANC rules.
The Times Live website reported that he and alleged Zuma supporters such as Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa had angered ANC leaders in Gauteng by holding "secret" meetings with branch leaders in Soweto, the West Rand and Kempton Park. Maphatsoe was quoted as saying: "The Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans' Association was at the forefront of Zuma's campaign in 2007. That stance still stands. We have done an assessment of the performance of the leadership. We think Jacob Zuma has performed very well. We don't see why he should not be retained."
On July 13, the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) expressed concern about possible threats to the safety of its secretary general, Irvin Jim, after the South African Communist Party congress in Durban. The matter was clarified (or muddied) by later explanations about a premier's bodyguards mistakenly following the wrong car, but Numsa's statement also referred specifically to "the increasing political assassinations, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal, of ANC cadres". And not just in KwaZulu-Natal, the union might have added, but also in Rustenburg in North West, where ANC councillor and whistle-blower Moss Phakoe was murdered by ex-mayor Matthew Wolmarans in 2009, and Mpumalanga, which first gained the reputation for being a hotbed of politically motivated killings.
It all brings to mind Bertolt Brecht's marvellously grim play, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, written in exile in 1941, the year of Hitler's invasion of Russia. In the play the Führer's rise to power is given manic comic inversion as the drama of a seedy Mafia boss, Ui, in Chicago in the 1930s, with his henchmen Giri (Göring), Giuseppe Givola (Joseph Goebbels) and Ernesto Roma (Stormtrooper leader Ernst Röhm) strutting their stuff.
Perhaps someone should think about staging Brecht's timely play in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal Mpumalanga … and Mangaung.
Former political prisoner Paul Trewhela worked with Ruth First, Hilda Bernstein and other members of the South African Communist Party in the 1960s and edited the underground Umkhonto weSizwe journal Freedom Fighter. He is the author of Inside Quatro: Uncovering the Exile History of the ANC and Swapo, published by Jacana