The political assassination is not a phenomenon that is restricted to KwaZulu-Natal. But there is no doubt that it is overwhelmingly concentrated in that province. Until the establishment of the Moerane commission in October 2016, the scale of political violence in the province received very little national media attention, and was not generally understood to be a national crisis.
Academics, activists and journalists elsewhere in the country seldom grasped just how routine death threats, armed intimidation and murder had become in KwaZulu-Natal, or how brazenly local power- brokers, such as ward councillors, police officers and business interests — often entwined in mutually enabling forms of gangsterism — participated in the organisation of local forms of violent despotism.
When senior figures in the ANC at municipal and provincial level made statements that offered a clear endorsement for political violence, and a conception of the political that rendered popular forms of democratic organisation and contestation as “enemy” activity, they were notheld to public account.
For some time there was a degree to which this denialism was partly a consequence of the general optimism about the new democratic order. In some cases, including in powerful nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), there was pressure not to discuss uncomfortable realities. When a political murder or an incident of torture in a local police station had to be acknowledged, it was often treated as a footnote to a bigger, happier story, and assumed to be a minor hangover from a steadily receding past.
But when the optimism about the new order crashed into the grim reality of Jacob Zuma’s rule, the escalating concern about corruption and looting seldom extended to much consideration of the evident fact that, in KwaZulu-Natal, impoverished black people were increasingly being subjected to rule by violence. Part of the limited interest in this reality can be explained by the enduring colonial logic in which space, class and race coincide in a way that renders a life in uMhlanga or Hillcrest vastly more valuable than a life in KwaNdengezi or Cato Manor.
Frantz Fanon’s account of the colonial city, “a world cut into two”, has retained its urgency in post-apartheid South Africa. This is true in various respects, including his observation that, in the quarter where the colonised are contained: “They are born there, it matters little where or how; they die there, it matters not where, nor how.”
The denialism with regard to the normalisation of political violence in KwaZulu-Natal was also systemically enabled by a general lack of critique of a central strategy of imperialism to sustain elite control of the demo-cracies that were allowed to emerge after the Cold War — the fundamentally anti-democratic substitution of NGOs presenting themselves as “civil society” for more popular and participatory forms of democracy.
Although this denialism has now begun to recede there is still no definite record of the numbers of people who have been killed. A 2013 report estimated that there had been 447 political killings in KwaZulu-Natal since 1994. A more recent report records 284 political assassinations across the country between 2000 and 2017, the majority in KwaZulu-Natal. There seems to be consensus that the number of assassinations has rapidly increased since 2016.
The licence to kill extends beyond the typical assassination — an armed attack in or near a person’s home under the cover of darkness — to include frighteningly high rates of deaths in police custody, during armed and often gratuitously violent evictions and disconnections, and brutal repression of protest, in which live ammunition is often used.
The licence to kill is not only extended to the professional assassins in the employ of politicians, security guards in the employ of municipalities, Durban’s municipal anti-land invasion unit and the police. It is also granted to the xenophobic mob, often articulated to local politicians. It reached its apogee in Durban with more than 100 deaths in the Glebelands Hostel in uMlazi.
Although there are good reasons to give particular attention to the rate of murder, it is also important to remember that murder is not an isolated expression of violence. It is part of a continuum of violence that includes assault and torture. It is also tied to certain forms of speech, and other ways of making political meaning, that place certain people outside the count of those with rights and authorise certain forms of action.
In a context in which assault and murder are both common, the death threat — a ubiquitous feature of every-day political contestation in some areas — does not only set the stage for violence, it also has real and immediate political consequences.
Although the bulk of the political murders in KwaZulu-Natal are now a result of intraparty contestation within the ANC, they are also a consequence of interparty contestation. At the same time, independent grassroots activists and organisations such as Abahlali baseMjondolo, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa and the South African Communist Party have all been subjected to assassination. In 2009, shortly after the Congress of the People was formed, a number of its members were driven out of their homes, some of which were burnt, in the shacklands of Durban. In the same year Abahlali baseMjondolo members were subjected to the same fate, with the open support of the police, over a period of months. The crisis of entrenched and normalised political violence in KwaZulu-Natal is not just a crisis for the ANC. It is a wider crisis for democracy.
Some of the roots of this crisis stretch back into the civil war that racked the province in the late 1980s. The incorporation of the KwaZulu Bantustan into the post-apartheid state is also a factor, as is the entry of people with Inkatha backgrounds, and Inkatha-linked taxi associations into the ANC. The late John Mchunu, who was described as having been an Inkatha “warlord” before joining the ANC, was also described as a ‘”Chicago-mob kind of character” in this newspaper. Mchunu became the chairperson of the ANC in the eThekwini region and used the city’s budget to build a patronage machine that drove the political project that cohered around Zuma in 2006.
Zuma’s ascent to the leadership of the ANC in Polokwane at the end of the following year was organised from Durban. And the project that cohered around Zuma in Durban took on an explicit ethnic dimension that, intersecting with the ANC’s paranoid Cold-War politics, allowed popular dissent to be painted as simultaneously illegitimate in ethnic terms, and as a proxy for imperialism. At the same time a romance of the armed struggle was pushed in a way that erased the popular democratic politics that, stretching back to the Durban strikes in 1973, had mobilised millions of people against apartheid in workplaces and communities.
From 2006 it became common to encounter local party structures mobilising violent rhetoric, often with an explicitly ethnic aspect, to present access to state patronage as the fruit of liberation. Senior figures in the party in Durban and the province often responded with silence, which is a form of complicity or, as in the aftermath of the attack on Abahlali baseMjondolo in the Kennedy Road settlement in 2009, overt support. When violence could not be denied the most common response was, as with the xenophobic attacks that reached their peak in 2008, to declare it to be a simple matter of “criminality”.
Of course political violence and murder are, in legal terms, criminal acts but the function of labelling political violence as “criminal” is not to note this truism. It is a mechanism to externalise the problem, leaving the ruling party, and the people it claims to represent, innocent. It is a form of deliberate denialism.
ANC secretary general Ace Magashule has recently repeated this discursive manoeuvre. But at the level of discourse President Cyril Ramaphosa has made a clear break with the habits of the Zuma era and has acknowledged the seriousness of the problem of political violence in KwaZulu-Natal.
This is progress but it does not necessarily mean that Ramaphosa is, in practice, willing or able to act. He does not have firm control over the party in the province, and there are senior people on both sides of the factional division in the party who have an undeniable record of offering support for political authoritarianism and violence.
In 2018, to be an activist in a city like Durban, or a small town like Escourt, is to know, in your body, that, as Angela Davis famously said after the murder of George Jackson, “the road to freedom has always been stalked by death”. The fact that political assassinations in KwaZulu-Natal are starting to be taken seriously in the national media, and to be acknowledged as a serious problem in the senior echelons of the ANC, is progress. But the crisis in KwaZulu-Natal, a crisis that has been slowly spreading into other parts of the country, can only be addressed if our society as a whole starts to give the same attention to this aspect of the rot in our politics as has long been given to corruption.
Richard Pithouse is an associate professor at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research