/ 21 May 2024

Surge in political assassinations sparks concern ahead of South Africa’s May elections

(Cornel van Heerden/Gallo)
South Africa’s Jewish and Muslim communities have condemned the killing of Halima Hoosen-Preston and the knife assault on her family at their home in Durban, in what appears to be an Islamophobic attack. (Cornel van Heerden/Gallo)

South Africa recorded 35 assassinations during the first four months of 2024, of which 10 were political killings, an average of one hit every two weeks, raising concerns about a risk of political violence as candidates vie for posts after the 29 May elections.

This is according to a Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime (GI-TOC) report written by Rumbi Matamba and Chwayita Thobela and released on Monday. 

 A total of 488 politically motivated assassinations were reported from 2000 to 2023.

The report uses the term “political assassinations” to refer to the targeted killing of politicians, councillors, public servants and administrators, political activists, whistleblowers and other members of civil society for ideological or strategic reasons.

A total of 131 assassinations in 2023 were related to organised crime, the minibus taxi industry, political assassinations and personal killings, which include romantic and family killings to access insurance pay-outs.

Graphic Violence2
Death by politics – the election years and their assassination rate. John McCann May 2024.

It said although the number of assassinations or contract killings for the various reasons noted above dropped slightly from 141 in 2022, incidents have historically spiked during municipal and national election years and have constantly increased since 2000.

Some 186 cases were recorded in all election years, with national elections accounting for 81 cases (44%) and municipal elections for 105 cases (56%).

“While South Africa has long grappled with high levels of violence, as evidenced by a per capita murder rate of 45 per 100 000 in 2022-23, or approximately 70 murders a day, targeted killings have notably escalated since 2000,” Mathamba and Thobela said.

The researchers gleaned the data from mainstream media database Sabinet, and identified cases as those labelled “hits” by family members, politicians and during court hearings. The report said the latest figures are “certainly an undercount” as a result of overstretched small newsrooms. 

The report also noted that: “Overlaps between categories present a challenge in disaggregating the data, but what these figures nevertheless represent is the entrenched use of contract killers as a solution to electoral, business and romantic disputes, to commit insurance fraud or to silence those working to expose corruption.” 

The report noted that South Africa has a history of political violence and the number of politically linked assassinations has risen steadily since 2010. In 2023 the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime recorded 31 political assassinations.

The breakdown of hits by province follows the pattern of previous years, with the highest number of political assassinations in 2023 being 19 recorded in KwaZulu-Natal, a province particularly affected by violence targeting local councillors. Significantly fewer cases were recorded in Gauteng, the Eastern Cape, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and the Western Cape.

The greatest number of political assassinations was during the 2019 national elections when 42 incidents were recorded. In the national election years of 2004, 2009, 2014 and 2019, violence flared up in the wake of the vote, with a spike in killings, according to the report.

“This is likely to be a result of competition for political positions, with people being strategically targeted to free up the particular roles they have been elected to. Under this form of collaborative criminal governance, other political actors collude with criminals to take out duly elected individuals, undermining democratic processes,” the researchers said.

They said political assassinations could be understood as part of “a system of collaborative criminal governance” involving local politicians and government administrators colluding with criminals to eliminate rivals.

“Under a system of collaborative criminal governance in South Africa, hitmen typically kill because there is a financial incentive for them to do so. This is different from the divided form of criminal governance seen in places such as Mexico, for example, where hitmen kill as part of competition with the state for territorial control,” the report said.

“The motives behind these killings in KwaZulu-Natal and elsewhere vary, but include eliminating political rivals, intimidating voters, removing competitors for local government contracts, targeting municipal workers responsible for awarding these contracts, and silencing those who speak out against corruption, particularly in local government.”

The report warns that: “This violence not only violates political and civil rights, but also undermines democracy by allowing criminal elements to influence or control government functions.”

Mathamba and Thobela highlighted concerns about the heightened risk of political violence as the country heads to the polling stations on 29 May.

“While there are some 64 elections being held globally in 2024, South Africa’s elections stand out for the very real threat of violence that they bring, a cumulation of the influence of criminal networks and state-embedded actors in driving criminality,” they said, adding that “politically motivated assassinations have a particularly detrimental effect on governance and democracy”.

The researchers also warned that KwaZulu-Natal, which was hit by civil unrest in July 2021, could face an eruption of protests after the elections that former president Jacob Zuma’s uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) party is contesting against the ANC in the province.

“Since then [July 2021, when Zuma was incarcerated], more than 3 000 political protest events have been recorded, mostly sparked by grievances over service delivery and governance failures, and many of them violent. History may now be repeating itself, with the 2024 general elections marked by a similar ‘instability and unpredictability’ that surrounded the first democratic elections in 1994, when the IFP and ANC vied for control,” the report warned.

“There are fears that this could lead to unrest erupting after the polls, particularly given

the volatile nature of politics in KZN, where the MK party has already threatened violence. A long history of instability and the ongoing competition for control of KZN puts the

province at the centre of the 2024 elections, with provincial outcomes having significant national implications.”

It highlighted KwaZulu-Natal’s long history of violence and proliferation of illegal firearms in circulation from internal arms flows, as well as from arms trafficking related to the instability in Mozambique.

“The province also has a notoriously violent taxi industry, which provides firearms and hitmen to the rest of the country and sometimes to other parts of Southern Africa. The ready availability of contract killers and illicit firearms in the province poses a threat to political stability, with the potential to fuel an already volatile situation.”

ANC members have been the most targeted victims of political assassinations, the researchers noted.

“The significance of the ANC’s factional politics is that the overwhelming majority of the cases in the GI-TOC database were killings of ANC members, mostly commissioned by other ANC members, making it largely an intra-party problem, while an average of just two cases per year involved other political parties.” 

But, they noted, this has changed since about 2022, with members of other political parties being assassinated, “indicating a mixture of both intra and inter-party political contestation”.