Killings signal the start of the battle for power

In Tshwane, an ANC member’s bodyguard was shot and a school vandalised during a meeting intended to elect a ward councillor for Hammanskraal. At a nomination meeting in Stutterheim, ANC members attacked each other with chairs and umbrellas over the imposition of a candidate in Cathcart. In Mpumalanga, a ward councillor campaigning for re-election was badly assaulted and almost had his ear cut off by disgruntled residents.

It’s election season.

The finalisation of the candidate lists, which determine who will run local governments, has already seen other cases of violence. 

So far this year, there have been at least five murders believed to be linked to politics and, in the past five years, there have been at least 55. Of those, 47 were in KwaZulu-Natal.

On a rare occasion, it is death by poison, and in a few cases the scene of the killings has been in a meeting hall or in a street. But most of the political killings happen at home — in driveways and in living rooms. Often victims die without having seen their assailants coming.

In May, there was a notable uptick in suspected political killings in KwaZulu-Natal, a province that has consistently seen more political violence than others. In Mpumalanga and the North West, the fear of attacks is growing. 

This week, the ANC recalled Senzo Mchunu as premier of KwaZulu-Natal, which has further hardened attitudes between the ruling party’s alliance partners, with labour federation Cosatu and the South African Communist Party (SACP) describing the decision as factional. 

They have also complained about being sidelined in the nomination process for the local government elections.

There is also a silent intergenerational battle underway. 

“The youngsters are being fast-tracked through the system. Some are dropping out of university in anticipation of getting a mayoral position. It’s an aggressive takeover,” said a senior SACP leader in KwaZulu-Natal. 

“We have agreed to fight this thing head-on, because, if we don’t, KZN governance will deteriorate like what happened in the Eastern Cape. If we are silent, history will judge us harshly, so we’ll even confront them,” he said.

Gwede Mantashe, the ANC’s secretary general, said this week: “Political killings are criminal activities; people must be arrested. Simple.

“If you kill somebody else, it doesn’t matter what the reason is, you must be arrested and be convicted — you’re a criminal, you are not a political activist.”

An open, competitive process in drawing up election lists removed the motive for pre-election political assassinations, Mantashe said, a line maintained by other officials. 

But undisputed cases of violence throughout the country have shown that some people believe that candidates are being imposed on them in flagrant disregard of the party’s guidelines.

Cosatu’s secretary general, Bheki Ntshalintshali, said the ANC is now faced with formal objections to some lists and nominations, and the legitimacy of the nomination process will depend on how the party’s national executive deals with these.

“The onus is on [the members of a committee intended to hear list appeals] to be fair and listen to both sides. That should reduce the number of objections. The unhappiness will stem from imposed candidates. The principles should always be fairness and acceptability to the community. The danger is when people bend rules to accommodate one ward or branch,” he said.

How Cosatu and the SACP perceive the process, and how it communicates what it perceives to its members, could be crucial in KwaZulu-Natal. 

The ANC in that province would not “speculate” about whether some recent murders were political, but the provincial secretary, Super Zuma, said the party was nonetheless worried about the killings, and that it was working hard to bring everyone together to stop the violence.

“Intolerance is what causes this. Society needs to understand that having different views doesn’t mean you are my enemy,” Zuma said.

Killings go on
Political killings were an everyday occurrence in the province in the run-up to the 1994 elections, with the struggle between the ANC and Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) fuelled by apartheid elements. 

With increasing ANC dominance of the province came a sharp decline in the number of suspected political murders, but the deaths never stopped. 

Between 1994 and 2013, there were at least 40 such murders, and possibly as many as 400. One characteristic is common to all those who die in political killings: the victims are politically active and ambitious. 

After the fact, their families never describe them as sitting quietly at the back of ANC branch meetings or holding their tongues while others debate policy. Universally, they are described as fiery and energetic, the movers and shakers at a local level. 

It is at this level that the killings are overwhelmingly concentrated. Anecdotal evidence suggests that local branch chairpersons and municipal party whips are far more likely to die in a hail of bullets than their provincial or national counterparts — even when taking into account that there are far more municipal than provincial officials.

Analysts concur that the control of resources, such as municipal tenders and jobs, are at the heart of the killings. But often those killed have no direct control over them, and are not the officials with signing powers on accounts or human resources officers who fill posts. 

The murdered tend to be one level above those technocrats, with the power to influence election lists and local policy.

The profile of those killed does nothing to explain why KwaZulu-Natal has a rate of political killings far above the national average. That anomaly may be because of a regional mind-set — and easy access to men willing to kill for cash. 

“Access to networks that include people who are willing to carry out such killings may be one condition that enables such violence to flourish,” wrote an independent analyst, David Bruce, in a September 2013 article in the journal, Crime Quarterly, one of the vanishingly few academic investigations of political killings. 

“Another may be the belief that pursuing political objectives through violence is legitimate, even within the context of post-apartheid South Africa.”

Areas where politics is tightly intertwined with the taxi industry are disproportionately dangerous, as are areas that are organised around drug manufacture and distribution. 

A senior source in police crime intelligence said this type of violence is much harder to control because it is not being orchestrated in a co-ordinated manner. 

“These clashes are centralised at a local level. It’s about local jobs and access to contracts, which make it much more unpredictable.”

Fear and paranoia
Current and former politicians in the North West have spoken about a climate of fear and paranoia that has gripped the province, citing increasing tension among rival ANC factions.

Jeanette Dibetso-Nyathi, a former mayor of Rustenburg, was shot at two years ago. Mojaki Mokgele, a former Ngaka Modiri Molema district municipal manager, was also the victim of an attempted murder — a lone gunman shot him at his home in Mmabatho in April last year.

Neo Moepi, a former ANC member who defected to the Democratic Alliance, said he has to watch his back after being told that some in the province fear that he “knows too much”. 

Moepi, previously the spokesperson for Thandi Modise, the chairperson of the National Council of Provinces, said he has raised his security concerns with senior members of the ANC.

“I have been told that my name gets discussed at some meetings and the message is very clear. I am seen as a threat,” Moepi said. 

“It’s not just me; everyone in this province is scared.”  

Motive for killings can be difficult to prove

There have been at least 14 alleged political killings over the past three years — three in Gauteng, one each in the North West and the Western Cape, and six in KwaZulu-Natal. The actual numbers are believed to be far higher, with dozens having died because of political infighting since 2011. The ANC, in an internal count, noted 38 between 2011 and 2014 in Kwazulu-Natal alone.  

Although many of these murders remain unsolved, even in cases where there are arrests and convictions, it often remains difficult to prove a political motive. “Where cases go right through the entire criminal justice process and are prosecuted … at the end you can still have question marks over the issue of whether there was political backing for the killings,” says independent crime researcher David Bruce, who studies the phenomenon.

“Sometimes they [the police] are able to nail the people who pulled the trigger but it remains unclear if there was political involvement.” Some of these killings can later be found to have been triggered by affairs of the heart — or of feuds over money — rather than by matters of state, Bruce says. — Mail & Guardian reporter

Deaths bear the marks of political hits

Over the past five years, 43 people were killed in circumstances bearing the hallmarks of assassinations: 23 came from the ANC, which says there were 38 such political killings between 2011 and 2014.

Zodwa Sibiya, Wandile Ngubeni, Bhekithemba Nyembe, Bongani Hlatshwayo, Phillip Dlamini, Muziwendoda Ncwane, Sthembiso Ngidi, Thembinkosi Qumbelo, S’bu Majola, Mthandeni Shezi, Bheki Chiliza, Dumisani Malunga, Sakhephi Mthembu, Mandla Shinga, Jimmy Lembede, Wandile Mkhize, Mthunzi Gwala, Bongani Shelembe, Thamsanqa Mnyango, Mpipiza Ncube, Thulebona Nhlebela, Jabulani Ngubane, Nhlakanipho Shabane, Mandla Xaba, Themba Xulu, Bongani Lushaba, Cebisile Shezi, Siyanda Dlamini, Jacky Nhlebela, Bheki Mazibuko, Sphamandla Gwala, Sthembile Mpembe, S’bu Sibiya , Wiseman Mshibe, Elias Dube, Michael Mfaniseni Mtshali, Vukani Zuma, Simon Shange, B Ngcobo, Walter Makhanya, Khende Magubane, Mcebisi Duma, Titus Mthembu, Bongani Ntshalintshali, Nkululeko Gwala, Mthembeni Shezi, John Ndlovu

See “ANC mayors may lose their chains”.

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Phillip De Wet
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