It is 22 years since the struggle was won, but South Africans are still dying because of politics. Not in the general sense, such as dying from diseases as a result of not having clean water, but in the specific sense of bullets in bodies. An average of about a dozen people a year – and probably many more – are being ambushed and murdered in the service of the political ambitions of others.
As we report this week, the number is always expressed as a minimum, a best guess, because it is impossible to count political killings accurately. That makes it all the easier to lose sight of the importance of these assassinations in the midst of the on-dragging horror that is our epidemic of violent crime.
We notice when there is a sudden surge in political murders, such as there was in 2012. And, though this year is young, it seems we will notice it again in 2016. In KwaZulu-Natal, the scene is being set for just such a surge, where the ruling alliance is tearing itself into ever smaller factions, fighting for a pool of resources that may shrink if other parties make a good showing at the polls.
Just as rape and assault make for stark indicators of our social fabric, so political murders tell us disturbing things about our body politic. The most obvious is that there are people willing to kill to jump ahead on an election list, or to get their hands on the levers of tender power.
Just as robbery and hijacking shrinks our worlds with the fear they bring, so political murders restrict our political progress. Across the country, we have found people watching their backs rather than watching out for their constituencies, and others who avoid thorny problems, including the blatant theft of public money, because of the consequences that action could bring.
There is no single solution, just as there is no single reason why people are killed. A better control of tenders at a municipal level would reduce the amount of loot available and so the motive to kill for it. Open and honest contests for positions on election lists that all involved respect – something neither of the two biggest political parties has managed to achieve – will reduce the likelihood that violence will come at a profit.
But, first, the governing alliance in particular must recognise that, when its members are murdering one another for advancement, it must act decisively. Dismissing such murders as just more background violence, as the ANC does, is not helpful.