South Africa’s Politically-Motivated “Assassination Industry”


As South Africa grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, politically motivated violence and murders, especially in the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) province, have continued unabated. In May 2020, at least two serving or former councilors were shot dead – two from the governing African National Congress (ANC) and one from the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) [1]. An ANC Youth League branch secretary was also shot dead under mysterious circumstances, also in May [2]. These are the latest in a long list of political killings in KwaZulu-Natal that number more than 450 since 1994, according to research [3].

Many of these deaths are linked to intra-party contestation within the ANC or inter-party competition between the ANC and the IFP. In almost all the cases, there are financial, business or resource interests involved. For instance, Philip Mkhwanazi, an ANC councilor who was shot on 25 May, is believed to have been the victim of an ongoing disagreement between business groups in favour of mining and those in favour of tourism in the St Lucia area. He was a tour operator in the region [4].

Recent political killings and threats have also been reported in the Eastern Cape. In February, the province’s Premier and ANC chairperson, Oscar Mabuyane, condemned the shooting of a municipal worker in Amathole District Municipality in January. He claimed it that “clearly has to do with corruption” [5].

More recently in June, Ayanda Kota, the leader of the Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM) based in Makhanda, went into hiding after receiving information about a plan to assassinate him, the information coming from “sources in the ANC.” In January, UPM won a landmark high court ruling against the Makana Local Municipality Council, with the court ruling that the Council must be dissolved because it had failed to provide basic services to residents. The municipality and the provincial government’s appeal against the High Court decision failed, and they are now are appealing the ruling at the Supreme Court of Appeal. It has been reported that the threats against Kota’s life emanate from councilors in the municipality who are unhappy about the court’s ruling [6].

In the Western Cape, Siyabulela Siswana, a senior South African Communist Party (SACP) leader in the Brian Bunting District in Cape Town, was gunned down on 1 July. His six-year-old daughter also lost her life in the attack, while his wife was seriously wounded. The SACP in the Western Cape labeled it a “cowardly assassination” [7].


KwaZulu-Natal as a hotspot

Although politically motivated violence and killings have been reported in various provinces, KZN remains the most affected. According to research by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime (GIATOC), KZN ranked well ahead of South Africa’s provinces in terms of political or related killings between 2000 and 2017 (8). A major historical reason for the persistence of these killings is the black-on-black violence that was fostered by colonial and apartheid administrations to serve their own interests of divide and rule. In the 1980s, for instance, the province was home to paramilitary groups that were used to exert territorial control, something that spawned an “assassination industry” [9].

As the end of apartheid became inevitable and transition negotiations gathered momentum in the early 1990s, competition for political influence between the ANC and the IFP also increased. Violence between supporters of the two parties resulted in political killings numbering around 170 between 1994 and 1996 [10]. The lure of political office, along with the perceived access to material advantages it offered, fueled some of these killings. More killings were also orchestrated in the taxi industry, a problem that persists to date.

Inter-party killings nevertheless subsided as the ANC grew stronger in the province and the IFP grew weaker, especially from the 2004 general elections. However, this only intensified intra-party killings within the ANC that were in large part fueled by patronage networks, especially in the municipalities. These networks often involve the practice of using government resources, usually through the tender system, to provide material rewards to supporters or funders of politicians. Inevitably, this results in corruption and rampant governance weaknesses as evidenced in Auditor-General’s reports.

Whistleblowers who expose these corruption networks often become the victims of political killings. This was the case for Sindiso Magaqa, a former ANC Youth League Secretary-General and an ANC councilor at the time he was killed in 2017. He reportedly had evidence of tender fraud involving senior officials in the Harry Gwala District Municipality and uMzimkulu Local Municipality [11].


Lack of progress

In 2016, the Premier of KZN at the time, Willis Mchunu, established a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the causes of political killings in the province and provide recommendations. The Commission was chaired by Advocate Marumo Moerane and it published its report in 2018. Its findings include:

  • Lack of political leadership to stop manipulation of intra-party election processes that often lead to killings;
  • Weaknesses in the entire criminal justice system, including security apparatus and crime intelligence;
  • Manipulation of state institutions, particularly security institutions, by political for political ends;
  • The culture of violence in the province was rooted in the colonial and apartheid eras [12].

The Commission recommended that political parties should take effective control of their internal contestations for political office and that the government should review, where necessary, tender processes to prevent manipulation by politicians. It also urged the state to “depoliticize and professionalize” the public service, enforce the separation of duties between politicians and public officials, and strengthen law enforcement agencies.

Nearly two years after the release of these findings and recommendations, it appears that there has been little progress in implementing them. An inter-ministerial task team established by President Cyril Ramaphosa in May 2018 has similarly failed to yield results. Political killings have persisted, even during a pandemic.

There is also evidence that law enforcement agencies remain weak when it comes to investigations and prosecutions. Charges against suspects are often withdrawn just months after their arrests. For instance, charges were withdrawn against six suspects arrested for the 2018 killing of ANC activist Musawenkosi Mchunu. In 2019, police arrested Dr Ntuthuko Mhlaba, the Mayor of Newcastle, for the 2016 killing of ANC Youth League leader Wandile Ngubeni. However, charges against him were withdrawn five months later [13].

If local government elections are held in 2021 as scheduled, there would likely be an increase in political killings in KZN and other provinces as the ANC, in particular, conducts its internal processes to field candidates for municipal office. The party – and the government – therefore need to move quickly to forestall this possibility. If COVID-19 is no barrier to the killings, elections are most likely to signal a free for all.

There is a serious need for media scrutiny of threats and murders undertaken by political parties through their own structures. These crimes must be reined-in by the structures of the political parties involved. Accountability for these undemocratic crimes must be achieved.


Rebone Tau, Programme Manager for Political Affairs, Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung Southern Africa Office.



References – 
1) News24; Zululand Observer
2) Mail & Guardian
3) Bruce, D “A Provincial Concern, Political killings in South Africa” 
4) Daily Maverick
5) The Citizen
6) New Frame
7) Times Live
9) Institute for Security Studies 
10) Bruce, D “A Provincial Concern, Political killings in South Africa” 
11) IOL
12) Moerane Commission report
13) The Conversation