SA’s political future: squabbles, struggles and assassinations

SA’s political future: squabbles, struggles and assassinations

South Africa’s Political Future: Squabbles, Struggles and Assassinations

With voters heading to the polls later this year, things in SA are becoming heated. Dissent and bickering are part and parcel to political canvassing, but the extreme violence and infighting which are transpiring are rather unique given that SA is not facing a national election, but a municipal one.

What is happening in SA’s politics and what does the future hold?

South Africa’s killing fields

Political assassinations were, of course, also widespread and pervasive during the apartheid regime. It reached its apex in the period from 1990 to 1993, with 213 political assassinations on home soil for the period, and a further 5 hits on South Africans living in exile abroad. Interestingly, while the previous period (1985 – 1989) had far lower assassinations on home turf, there were a staggering 38 assassinations carried out on exiled South Africans in foreign territories. The elimination of opposition is nothing new, though, and predates apartheid – whether the human rights violations perpetrated by the Crown during Anglo Boer wars, infighting between Xhosa, Zulu and other tribes, or wars between the Boers and local tribes. 

Statisticians remind us that we should not compare pre- and post apartheid data without insights into how crime is recorded. During apartheid, politically motivated assassinations were deliberately recorded as assassinations. This was done mostly for the benefit of perpetrators; if a crime is considered politically motivated, then amnesty could be offered in hindsight should perpetrators be caught. Following 1994, political assassinations are only deemed such if there is a clear political motivation for the crime.

While some violence persisted after the democracy, especially in the two years following the democratic elections (1994 – 1996), the numbers declined somewhat until 1999, where politically-motivated killings rose once more. From 2000 to 2012, the statistics show a steady decline, however, with a swift hiatus until 2014, where a steep increase in political assassinations have been recorded. It should be noted, however, that there seems to be some missing data for the periods between 1999 – 2001 and 2012 – 2014. The dropping numbers for these periods are therefore not a confirmation of lower rates.

The difference in the past few years is that the boundaries between different types of assassination – easily defined up until this point as as purely political, or restricted to taxi violence, organised crime or personal motivations – had become increasingly muddled. The fighting had, after all, been mostly between different factions…

While many South Africans are still fixated on such racial, economic or tribal wars, the new beast which has reared its head has been rather easy to overlook. Amid the turmoil of Covid and the melodrama which pits races and parties against each other on social media platforms, many have not noticed the drastic increase in politically-motivated assassinations, nor that many parties believe these to be acts of internal mutiny.

Contextualising South African politics

SA Crime Quarterly No.45 (September 2013) outlines the difference between both political office and politically motivated assassinations in SA compared to the rest of the world.

An important point noted is that for most democratic nations those who enter political office had usually established their own financial security and status before entering office. In SA, however, political office is one of the primary vehicles for acquiring financial assets and security as well as asserting influence to set up one’s broader network for financial security. Political office is seen as an effective means to establish relationships of patronage and such patronage is bolstered by granting favours for reciprocal obligation. Given the history of racial inequality, political office was also an effective means for the previously disadvantaged to rapidly advance in lieu of the educational and financial securities which had been withheld in the past.

While warring had primarily been restricted to inter-party rivalries, with most seats of power taken by the 2010’s, we saw the emergence of definitive intra-party rivalries.

Warring among ourselves

It’s been clear for a while that parties like the DA and ANC have been haemorrhaging support and votes, and yet most of these fractures are pretty obvious; whether ideological or strategic – conflict had been primarily centred around leadership, governance and irreconcilable differences of ethics and creeds.

That was then…

South Africa has seen a drastic rise and acceleration in politically motivated assassinations with a cross-over into public-sector and peripheral activities and interests and increasing violence within parties themselves.

Why is political violence tolerated?

South Africa has an unusual history – we are used to political unrest and violence, and yet we have also come to understand the merits of social protest. In a time where the majority had no legal rights, they resorted to peaceful protest through other methods – words, song, dance…mere masses walking to deliver a message.

The Soweto unrest which saw the rulers shoot peaceful student protestors was both tragic and cathartic – we as a society, whatever our political inclinations, could not see these events transpire and remain silent. We could not see children being massacred in their laudable pursuit of education.

Unfortunately, we are not always faced with grand events which wake people up and challenge their views. Sometimes the violence is slow and filters through society like a thief in the night.

In behavioural and forensic profiling, those who commit planned hits and attacks generally formulate their plans according to one of four factors:

 – invisibility – they will not be noticed, are unknown, and the attacks appear random

 – planning – they will perpetrate crimes in a way which mitigates risk of exposure and limits witnesses – such as attacks based on the target’s activities and habits

 – power – they are aware that they are supported and protected irrespective of their crimes and can commit these without fear of retaliation

 – impact – the message sent should be clear (the public should know who did it and why)

Power seems an increasing factor in these crimes of late, pointing towards increasing networking among and between political factions, the public sector, private sector entities and organised crime. But hitmen are no longer operating in the shadows, and they no longer wish to send a message to identify the purpose of the killing.

Assassinations aimed at the justice system peaked in 2000, and while it decreased over years, it has once more increased systematically from 2009 onwards. Such hits which target public servants in an effort to either sway business, silence witnesses or intimidate decision makers in politically-funded or motivated economic decisions are on the rise. Research indicates that a single assassination will silence 60% of victims, possible whistleblowers and/or witnesses.

This is not entirely surprising – during the state capture hearings prominent members of parliament (MPOs), South African Police Service (SAPS) and political entities deliberately ousted individuals whose identities the state had sworn to protect.

A post-democratic history of South African assassinations

A White Paper by the University of Cape Town (2000 – 2017) shows that 22% of assassinations in SA from 2000 were politically motivated, with a further 22% linked to organised crime. The remaining recorded assassinations fall under taxi violence at 47%, and personally-motivated hits at 13%. But as mentioned earlier, statisticians are no longer united in these categorisations.

KZN violence monitor Mary de Haas conducted anthropological research which pointed out that there is no clear distinction between taxi violence and political assassinations. Though the SAPS doesn’t seem to record information the same way, her research indicate that – not only are taxi wars products of political power struggles, but political hits themselves are increasingly undertaken by taxi associations themselves.

Research indicates that the link between political and economic assassinations increase drastically when there is leadership change, infighting and lack of transparency. Transparency is of particular concern, since research indicates that the very reporting of political assassinations is inversely proportional to reporting. The provinces with the highest incidences of political assassinations (GP and KZN) also have the highest incidences of corrupt reports – the reporting on these matters is predominantly stifled and swept under the rug in these areas.

Consider, for instance, that President Cyril Ramaphosa had established a national inter-ministerial investigative team in May 2018 to investigate these killings, and yet the very task team established to conduct the investigations has been slammed by crime experts as incompetent. Despite their purported intricate investigations, nearly all of the accused facing charges for political assassinations had been released without charge due to lack of evidence. It is alarming that conviction for political killings seems to have been more effective before the establishment of the task team.

The numbers for political assassinations may look small compared to our murder rates, but comparing murder and political assassination rates when the data was adjusted for comparative study, it showed that Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal’s average murder rates are dwarfed by their average hit rate in incidence per 100,000 population.

The assassination rates may look small compared to average murder rates, but given that most people in South Africa don’t operate within the political sphere. One may also fixate on the high murder rates in the Western and Eastern Cape, but it should be noted that most murders for the former falls within gang-related crimes and the latter within personally motivated or opportunistic crimes. 

Another anomaly presented in the past year is the location of assassination. In the past, the majority of hits took place near the individual’s home or place of residence (temporary or permanent). The past few hits perpetrated in 2021 alone had all been carried out in public spaces, far from the victims’ homes. Law enforcement believes this points towards a more brazen and ‘secured’ rationale – those who commit the crimes are certain that they will not be caught, even if they commit these crimes in the public arena or in front of witnesses. They don’t require intricate planning as far as the target’s movements go, as they are willing to adapt on the go to get their affairs taken care of, irrespective of locality or circumstance.

While the rate had decreased steadily from the first incidences in 2000 until 2004 and remained pretty stable until 2014, there has been a drastic increase in assassinations since.

Political assassinations 2000 – 2017

 – 2000: 15

 – 2001: 14

 – 2002: 9

 – 2003: 8

 – 2004: 8

 – 2005: 11

 – 2006: 12

 – 2007: 14

 – 2008: 14

 – 2009: 16

 – 2010: 16

 – 2011: 17

 – 2012: 18

 – 2013: 17

 – 2014: 19

 – 2015: 20

 – 2016: 29

 – 2017: 34

Unfortunately the full tally since 2018 is not yet available, but there have been at least 3 politically motivated assassinations this month alone.

Data-capturing quandaries

Problematically, while the SAPS and Minister Bheki Cele cite crime statistics frequently, the Centre for Criminology and Assassination Witness have both been struggling to accurately capture politically motivated killings since 2018.

This, of course, is due to the intricate investigations required to establish political killings as such, given that these crimes are recorded by the SAPS as murders and nothing more.

Low conviction rates

With politically motivated assassinations and organised crime fusing over time, it’s understandable that the conviction rates for assassinations are minimal. Many of these crimes are, after all, aimed at silencing witnesses and whistleblowers.

From 2007 to 2012, there were only 9 cases that led to convictions. Some argue that the criminal justice system doesn’t prioritise these cases and the question, of course, is why? If the criminal justice system doesn’t view the execution of prominent leaders as a priority, then…well, one has to wonder whether the corruption hasn’t reached the justice system. Such assertions are, of course, completely unwarranted without any proof.

Losing power

To add to the problem, the leading parties in SA, the DA and ANC, have both been losing voters by the minute.

In October alone, Julius Malema of the EFF had visited more locations for political canvassing than any of the opposing party leaders combined. The DA’s ideology seems also to have shifted, making many weary of their strategy. While they had historically catered to the predominantly white and coloured liberal groups, they have slowly ventured into territory seen as alt-right by many. This may have been a strategic move to win back voters they’d ceded to the VF+, ACDP and other factions, but it’s rather puzzling that they’ve managed this at the expense of their primary votership – those who aren’t aligned to conservative Afrikaner stances.

The move has pretty much ostracised their voters, ceding conservative-oriented voters to the VF+ and liberal-oriented voters to the EFF, UDM, ANC, COPE and other parties. It’s a similar dilemma which had played out in the United States in the past few years.

To compound matters, South Africa’s largest cultural group, the Zulu nation, has been undergoing massive power struggles in the past few months as the rights to succession to the throne are repeatedly challenged among different individuals in the Zulu royal family. Across the border in eSwatini, the country is burning as youth protest what they believe to be corrupt power wielded by the royal family.

We would be remiss to ignore conflict in our neighbours’ back yards – not only does the Swazi royal family hold many alliances with South Africa and South African power houses, but many South Africans operate in Swazi borders and vice versa. A bit further north, the threat by extremist Islam offshoots of Boko Haram and the Islamic State in Mozambique seems to have been held at bay for the time being, but this does not necessarily indicate a permanent ceasefire, which means our armed forces must not only be on the alert, but unquestionably aligned to government sentiments. Given military veterans had held South African ministers hostage earlier in October in a dispute over veteran benefits, there are indications of unrest between state and security, with whispers of uMkhonto we Sizwe (the military branch of the ANC, mostly operational during apartheid), is making a comeback and furtively recruiting comrades.

With the riots in July already have been linked to splinter factions in the ANC who had wanted to deal a blow to President Ramaphosa in protest against Zuma’s incarceration, the leadership and military stability in SA is looking pretty shaky.

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