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Violence Mars Lead-Up to South Africa’s Municipal Elections

  • Local government vote scheduled to take place on Aug. 3
  • Community protests, party infighting intensify ahead of vote

The lead-up to South Africa’s local elections in August has turned increasingly violent as poor communities use the campaign as leverage to demand better living standards and politicians vie for control of the 278 municipalities.

Communities staged 70 protests against a lack of decent housing, education and other services in the first four months of the year, up from 44 in the same period last year, according to Municipal IQ, which monitors the municipalities. Perceptions that the authorities only respond to grievances when demonstrations turn violent is fueling the unrest, according to Kevin Allan, the research company’s managing director.

“Violent protest action has mushroomed over the past few years and, unlike previous local elections, they are continuing unabated,” he said by phone from Johannesburg. “The protests, most of which are for legitimate causes, are also easily hijacked by criminal elements, or by people with personal political agendas, and so can easily spin out of control.”

The Aug. 3 vote is set to be one of the most closely contested since the end of white-minority rule in 1994. The ruling African National Congress is at risk of losing control of major urban areas, including Pretoria, the capital, and Johannesburg, the commercial hub. Its main challengers are the Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters. The ANC won 62 percent of the vote in the last national elections in 2014.

Party Infighting

Party infighting over the appointment of candidate councilors has also become more brutal, according to Mary de Haas of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, who’s been monitoring political violence in South Africa for more than three decades, and Johan Burger, an analyst at the Institute for Security Studies.

The perks that come with being a municipal councilor, “including bodyguards and the ability to access lucrative municipal tenders, make these positions highly attractive for people who would otherwise be unemployable,” De Haas said by phone from the eastern port city of Durban.

Two ANC members were gunned down in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal province on June 2, bringing to eight the number of its supporters and officials killed in the past four months, Mdumiseni Ntuli, a party spokesman, said by phone. The police, who haven’t made any arrests, say politics is a possible motive for the killings. Of the 55 people who have died in politically related attacks over the past five years, 47 were in KwaZulu-Natal, Johannesburg’s Mail & Guardian newspaper reported May 27.

Prized Appointments

The province has a long history of political violence, with fighting between the Inkatha Freedom Party and the ANC claiming thousands of lives before a truce was declared in the 1990s.

With 27 percent of South Africa’s workforce unemployed, and an economy expanding at its slowest pace since the 2009 recession, councilor posts are prized appointments. Candidates are selected by political parties, which had until June 2 to submit their lists, according to a timetable published by the Independent Electoral Commission.

The municipalities oversee parks, libraries, sanitation, some roads and distribution of electricity and water, and get most of their funding from real-estate taxes and transfers from the national government. South Africa avoided a credit downgrade to junk on June 3 when S&P Global Ratings held its assessment of the country and warned it could cut if the economy doesn’t improve or if institutions become weaker because of political interference.

Party Clashes

The ANC acknowledged that incidences of violence occurred in some areas during the candidate-selection process and denounced them “in the strongest possible terms,” Gwede Mantashe, the party’s secretary-general, told reporters in Johannesburg on May 31.

ANC members who objected to the candidate choices staged a sit-in at the party’s Cape Town offices on June 2, before being evicted by police. A protest was also staged at the the ANC’s headquarters in Johannesburg.

Fighting has also occurred outside party ranks. Stones were thrown at EFF leader Julius Malema when he tried to address a rally at Richards Bay, north of Durban, last month and police used rubber bullets and teargas to disperse ANC and EFF supporters who clashed at the venue. The EFF accused the ANC of trying to prevent it from campaigning in KwaZulu-Natal -- an allegation the ruling party denied. 

The DA also accuses its rivals of trying to disrupt its campaign.

“Where we are most anxious are the hot-spot provinces, such as Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal, where our activists have experienced intimidation,” DA leader Mmusi Maimane said by phone.

QuickTake South Africa

A specialized police task team will investigate the killings and help prevent further attacks from happening, the police ministry said in a June 5 statement.

“We have noted with serious concern the incidents of killings, particularly where political figures are victims or where the killings are being linked to the upcoming local-government elections,” Police Minister Nkosinathi Nhleko said. “A situation like this cannot be allowed to continue. We are appealing to all to refrain from instigating violence.”

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