When Muthusamy “Dicky” Govender and his wife, Velliama, stepped into their car on a warm Saturday night and drove past sugarcane fields lining a coastal highway, they could not have known that someone with an AK-47 was waiting to kill them.
In mid-January, the couple was gunned down on the R102 running along KwaZulu-Natal’s North Coast. They were travelling in an SUV when a car sped past and bullets were fired from an assault rifle.
Dicky Govender’s death is believed to be one of the 1 317 contract killings committed between 2000 and 2017, most of them as a result of rivalries in the taxi industry.
But now, for the first time in almost two decades, there’s hope that the killings will decline.
A report released this week, called The Rule of the Gun: Hits and Assassinations in South Africa, discusses the growing crisis of contract killings in the country, and in the taxi industry in particular. It was compiled by the Assassination Witness project, a collaboration between the Centre for Criminology at the University of Cape Town and the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, a Swiss nonprofit organisation.
Govender was the fourth person from the Dolphin Coast Taxi Association to be killed since 2016. He was credited with being a founder of the association and one of the first taxi operators in the area. The suspected motive behind his death is a power tussle in his own association.
The report found that the minibus taxi industry “has generated a cadre of hitmen available for hire” and, when conflicts over routes are sparked, these spill over to affect the safety of commuters and bystanders, as well as local government officials.
KwaZulu-Natal has long been viewed as a province where political turmoil and power struggles often end tragically. The Assassination Witness project has now shown the severity of contract killings in the province: for the period 2000 to 2017, KwaZulu-Natal accounted for 40% of hits that were reported to law enforcement authorities. It amounts to 522 cases over seven years.
Gauteng accounted for 24% of the contract killings reported in the country over the same period, and the Western Cape 14%. The Free State and Mpumalanga had the lowest number of reported cases at 1%.
The steep rise in assassinations came after 2012, although in KwaZulu-Natal there had been an increase in killings since 2010 because of the high number of taxi employees and bosses who were gunned down.
But there is a close link between Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal. The report reads: “While trying to ascertain the causes of taxi disputes and killings, it emerged that taxi bosses in Gauteng often hire hitmen from KwaZulu-Natal (known as izinkabi) to carry out assassinations in taxi conflicts. These assassins, hired from across the provincial border, have a particular utility for the taxi bosses: discretion. They carry out the hit and immediately disappear back to the rural obscurity of their province to help avoid being detected by law enforcement agencies.”
It continues: “These izinkabi are believed to originate from remote rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal, particularly Msinga, making it more difficult for them to be identified or traced than would be the case for a local hitman. Their role in Gauteng is twofold: killing and then vanishing.”
The izinkabi are also hired by taxi bosses in KwaZulu-Natal where their role, the report says, is more “conspicuous and powerful”: they are the “enforcers” in the taxi industry.
“They tend to remain in the urban centres, particularly in hostels, and when they need money they enforce their demands, such as extorting a taxi from a boss for whom they carried out a hit. This is said to be why hitmen emerged as taxi owners in their own right or as security heavies in the province’s taxi industry,” the report reads.
Aside from the suspected hit on the Govenders, there may be a new trend emerging because of the recent change in the country’s political leadership, the report notes.
“It is a political environment that promises greater independence for law enforcement and is tackling corruption and violence. Preliminary observations of hits in the first two months of 2018 interestingly show indicators of decline.”