AFRICAN National Congress (ANC) politics has become fused with violence and death. Our very own Game of Thrones. And, at the heart of the bloodshed, are political assassinations.
They have always been a feature of our frontier state but over the past five years they have increased, as the fundamental schism that has fractured every element of public life since the ANC’s 2007 elective conference in Polokwane, manifests as division and discontent.
If that rupture is not closed, if murder continues to become the ultimate political solution, soon enough a senior member of the executive will be killed. And then any pretence the ANC is a proper democratic party will have given way completely to the destructive and demagogic influence permeating through it.
This weekend the Sunday Times reported police were investigating a plot to murder parliamentary ethics committee chairman Ben Turok and the registrar of members’ interests, Fazela Mohamed, both part of the committee investigating former communications minister Dina Pule. That follows Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) general-secretary Zwelinzima Vavi disclosing that he regularly received threats to his life (a claim he has often made, in 2012 he revealed a police official informed him of a plot to kill him). In the North West, the ANC is investigating an alleged plot to kill former premier Thandi Modise. Elsewhere, in KwaZulu-Natal, ANC member Nkululeko Gwala was shot dead at point-blank range in June.
Gwala joins a growing list of local ANC members assassinated.
So much so, in fact, that Wikipedia now has a page dedicated to Political assassinations in post-apartheid South Africa. Using it, and other media reports, it is possible to compile a list of ANC members killed in this way since 2007:
• Thandi Mtsweni, deputy mayor, Secunda, Mpumalanga, 2007 (shot dead by two gunmen when she arrived home with her husband and 14-year-old son);
• Moss Phakoe, ANC councillor, Rustenburg, North West, 2009 (gunned down in his car as he came home after putting up posters for the ANC election campaign);
• Jimmy Mtolo, local ANC leader, Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, 2009 (assailant engaged Mtolo in a conversation before drawing a gun and firing two shots into him at close range);
• S’thembiso Cele, the chairman of the ANC Youth League in KwaZulu-Natal’s Umgababa on the south coast, 2009 (gunned down in his Nelspruit home);
• Bongani Ngcobo, ANC leader, Nongoma, KwaZulu-Natal, 2009 (shot through the window of his home);
• Jabulani Khumalo, ANC leader, Nongoma, KwaZulu-Natal, 2009 (shot outside St Benedictine Hospital where he worked);
• Jimmy Mohlala, ANC leader, Mbombela, Mpumalanga, 2010 (Shot dead at his house after two men attacked him and his son, who was shot in the leg);
• James Nkambule, senior ANC politician, Mpumalanga, 2010 (poisoned)
• Sammy Mpatlanyane, senior ANC politician, Mpumalanga, 2010 (shot dead in his bedroom);
• John Ndlovu, ANC politician, Thulamasha, Mpumalanga, 2011 (shot dead and body dumped 20km away);
• S’bu Sibiya, ANC regional secretary, Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, 2011 (shot dead in the driveway of his home in Inanda);
• Wiseman Mshibe, ANC councillor, Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, 2011 (shot four times in his driveway at Congo informal settlement in Inanda);
• Wandile Mkhize, ANC chief whip, South Coast, KwaZulu-Natal, 2012 (shot dead in a drive-by shooting near his home in Manaba);
• Nhlakanipho Shabane, ANC member, South Coast, KwaZulu-Natal, 2012 (fatally shot with Mkhize);
• Dumisani Malunga, ANC member, South Coast, KwaZulu-Natal, 2012 (ambushed and shot dead while travelling in a car);
• Bheki Chiliza, ANC member, South Coast, KwaZulu-Natal, 2012 (ambushed and shot dead with Malunga).
• Mthembeni Shezi, ANC councillor, Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, 2012 (died in a hail of bullets fired on an ANC meeting, two other ANC members were critically wounded);
• David Mosiane Chika, ANC Leader, North West 2012 (shot in the stomach outside his home);
• S’bu Majola, ANC branch chairperson, Wembezi, Estcourt, 2013 (shot dead); and
• Nkululeko Gwala, ANC member, Cato Crest, Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, 2013 (shot dead in a hail of 12 bullets).
This list is not exhaustive; the full body count runs to a greater length.
It does not include members killed from other parties or indeed the unions, which suffer the same kind of violence.
South African Press Association journalist Genevieve Quinta, who has done much good work compiling these kinds of political killings, has estimated that as many as 46 people across all political structures have been assassinated between 2007 and 2012.
The Daily Maverick estimates there have been 59 in the last five years. And an internal ANC report claims 38 of its members have been killed in KwaZulu-Natal alone since the beginning of 2011 — excluding 13 Inkatha Freedom Party and National Freedom Party members killed during the same period.
Anyway you cut it, on average, at least one politician has been assassinated every month in South Africa for the last five years.
And, if murder is the ultimate expression of this kind of political thuggery, general violence is far more rampant. I have documented elsewhere how the run-up to the ANC’s 2012 elective conference in Mangaung was marred by countrywide factional violence across its branches; with too many to count wounded or injured as the ANC turned in on itself.
It is now a common occurrence for political leaders to warn against murder and assassination. President Jacob Zuma, speaking at the funeral of assassinated ANC chief whip Wandile Mkhize, would say euphemistically: "I want to appeal to all ANC members to be vigilant, as it seems that there still exists some forces of darkness who are bent on dividing our movement and creating mistrust."
Vavi has been much more explicit. The darkness grows stronger. Sooner or later, the problem will be elevated from the local politics sections of newspapers to the front pages.
In a properly functioning democratic order, any political assassination is an attempt to cut to the heart of power — a generally isolated intervention to upturn the status quo by targeting the apex of political authority. But in South Africa, we have inverted the pyramid. Assassinations are typically carried out at local level and far more common. Slowly but steadily, as they become more prevalent and consistently met without consequences (only one or two convictions have been secured for these kinds of murders), so the phenomenon will make its way up our power hierarchy. In time it will inevitably reach the top.
Political assassination is now a well-established part of South Africa’s political repertoire. We kill people with whom we disagree; if not we burn their houses, blackmail or physically intimidate them. It is remarkable that these sorts of killings generate less sustained outrage, outside of the occasional media fit or outburst. They are not consistently tracked, rarely is a composite analysis generated and they do not occupy newspaper columns and opinion pieces anything like corruption or petty ANC infighting does. Yet it is a profound and very real problem. What does it say about a country that routinely murders its own politicians? And a governing party so fraught with violence and bloodshed that its own internal election procedures constitute little more than a deadly fight club?
For one, it is another example of how our extreme problems have exhausted our ability to be properly outraged about extreme developments. We simply cannot process this kind of thing. It’s too much. In excess of 50 people are murdered everyday in South Africa, why pay any particular attention to this particular form of violence?
That, however, would be a mistake. A democracy plagued by assassination is one in serious trouble. The killings have been described as a "culture of assassination", but that description is problematic. There is dangerous truth in the idea that, unchecked, killing people for political gain can become a viable solution to discontent — a learnt behaviour — but that kind of analysis suggests an isolated development, detached from general violence, intimidation, corruption, a breakdown in the rule of law, a lack of tolerance, patronage and intense division and hate. It is that more general environment that has given rise to assassinations. It is not an isolated phenomenon in contrast to general best practice; it is the natural consequence of a political institution that is dissolving into chaos as those safeguards against criminal behaviour are eroded away.
In truth, ANC assassinations are inevitable — it represents the final stage of the organisation’s deterioration. If one wants to understand why and how it has happened that so many ANC politicians are being killed, one needs to look at the nature of the structure that sits at the heart of that pattern. And it is a sick one indeed. It does not necessarily follow that the ANC will fall apart any time soon, but those destructive forces inside it are finding more and more room to manifest in extreme ways, as it implodes.
Corruption now happens on a grand scale. Billions, not millions are stolen. Patronage has stopped trying to cloak itself in the veil of credibility. Inept cadres are blatantly appointed to key positions entirely unsuited to their limited skills. Institutions are no longer badly managed but fundamentally compromised, unable to deliver the most basic outcomes required of them. And infighting no longer constitutes bad words shouted across the floor, but a knife in the back or a bullet in the heart.
A general attitude of positivity and optimism often acts to counter such ugliness. South Africa is a lot like Dorian Gray. We keep protected from full and proper interrogation our most fundamental crises, commenting rather on the day-to-day persona we pretend best reflects our real self. But in the attic our true nature eats away at our soul. More than any other force in South Africa, the ANC is responsible for that delusion. Hope and a historical romanticism allow it to maintain the illusion it still embodies its former glory. But in truth it is a far uglier beast today than ever it was before.
One would do well to take careful note of the extent of this kind of violence, and the position and influence of those who receive death threats. For the time being, it remains a phenomenon particular to the backwaters of South African politics — our councils and, occasionally, the provinces. It has only one place it can go from there — national politics. And, when that happens, we will no longer be dealing with something far away, out there and detached from our day-to-day experience, but a far more fundamental problem, with far more profound consequences.