Politics Can Be Murderous in South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal

Updated on
  • Dial-a-murder schemes rife in fierce battle for council posts
  • Cops crippled in fight against brazen hits, says ANC leader

Politics around South Africa’s third-biggest city, Durban, can be a murderous affair.

A bloody battle for positions gripping the African National Congress has left dozens dead in KwaZulu-Natal province in the past year. The region, which accounts for more than a fifth of the party’s total membership, has been a battleground between two factions vying for control of positions with access to government budgets worth billions of rand.

The city skyline of Durban beyond the port.

Photographer: Kevin Sutherland/Bloomberg

A local councilor who’s represented constituents in the Umlazi community outside Durban for the past decade learned in December that party colleagues were plotting her assassination.

“The political contest is no longer healthy,” said the councilor, who asked not to be identified because she fears for her life. “If I challenge you, it means I will be your enemy till you die.”

KwaZulu-Natal was one of the hotly contested regions in the race to elect a successor to Jacob Zuma as leader of the ANC in December. Cyril Ramaphosa defeated Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Zuma’s former wife and ex-chairwoman of the African Union Commission, and was elected South Africa’s president last month.

Death Toll

Violence has claimed the lives of 22 politicians since January 2016 and about 100 others in the past four years in the province, according to Mary De Haas, a researcher who’s monitored the region for several decades. Drive-by shootings are a favored method of killing in Durban, a port city of 3.7 million people.

It’s so bad that a commission headed by Marumo Moerane, a lawyer, is holding public hearings on the violence that are regularly attended by sobbing relatives recounting how their family members were slain.

The ANC’s youth wing said it expects about 500 people to march Friday in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal’s second biggest city and capital, to raise awareness about political murders.

Recent political turmoil in the government has filtered down to cripple some of South Africa’s crime-fighting units, said Senzo Mchunu, the former premier of KwaZulu-Natal. The province is no stranger to political violence, reaching its height in the run-up to South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994 that brought Nelson Mandela to power after white-minority rule.

“There are people out there who are carrying plans to kill other people in their pockets, and we can’t do anything about it,” Mchunu said in an interview. “It seems to be sending a message that says the security apparatus of the state is experiencing a certain level of paralysis, which means society, ANC members, potential victims, are actually on their own.”

Taxi Violence

The murders are probably piggy-backing on a “well-oiled machinery” linked to the nation’s minibus taxi industry, which is notorious for murders and bloody protests against government regulation and control, said Mchunu, who lost a tight battle for secretary-general of the ruling party in December. Assassins can be hired for as little as 5,000 rand ($425).

“I think it operates in the particular fashion where you want to kill so and so, you dial the ‘inkabi,’ that is an assasin, you give them the identity of the potential victim -- the murderer hunts down the victim,” he said. “I don’t think we are actually following through concretely to unravel that kind of connection, between those politicians with this kind of agenda and the scale and the use of assassins in the taxi industry.”

In the councilor’s case, she learned that five people including party colleagues met to discuss ways to kill her over disagreements about her community work and so that an associate could replace her.

Hit Man

She met with the hit man after one of her relatives tracked him down. The assassin confirmed the plot and promised not to carry it out.

“It was a difficult meeting. I could not even look him in the eye,” she said. “How do I sit across from someone who planned such a thing against me?”

Even though that particular plot was stopped, the councilor said she knows she could still be a target.

“I know people belong to God,” said the councilor. “If he lets them, they will kill me.”

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