Political violence on the increase

Violence and politics have become inseparable in South Africa

Cosatu leader, Zwelinzima Vavi
Zwelinzima Vavi

It is often difficult to define incidents of violence as purely 'politically' motivated. There are  frequently a number of interwoven factors involved: rivalry between and within political parties and organisations; factional power struggles; socio-economic conditions; business interests and corruption; turf wars; labour interests; and more.

However, even if one or more other factors are involved, the one common thread most often found in many incidents of violence is some or other political context – enough so that alarm bells should be ringing loudly.  

In a recent article independent researcher David Bruce, who specialises in crime and policing research, claimed that between 1985 and 1989 there were 96 political assassinations in South Africa, or just under 20 per year. 

The last two years saw approximately 25 political assassinations per year in KwaZulu-Natal alone, which is a rate 25% above the rate country-wide during the 1980s. The source is an internal ANC report claiming that 38 ANC members have been killed in KwaZulu-Natal since the beginning of 2011. During the same period at least 13 Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and National Freedom Party (NFP) members were killed in KZN.  

 A general trend that seems to be emerging in KwaZulu-Natal is that murders of IFP and NFP members/supporters can usually be attributed to inter-party rivalry. However, in the case of ANC deaths it appears, despite some exceptions, that it is usually the result of internal rivalries. Arrests and convictions for these KwaZulu-Natal political murders seem to be few and far between. 

During the 1980s security forces were often accused of 'third force' involvement on the side of the IFP. Interestingly enough, as Bruce points out, once again a “... feature of cases involving the deaths of ANC-aligned people is a very high incidence of suspects being killed by police. 

“For all the ANC-aligned people killed since the beginning of 2009, there appears to have been only one conviction – but four suspects have been killed,” he writes.

Lucrative jobs, corruption, patronage and business interests linked to political control or political figures often plays a big role in the killings.

In October last year Niren Tolsi wrote in the Mail & Guardian that “since the breakaway of the NFP from Inkatha last year, there has been a dramatic increase in politically motivated deaths involving the two parties …Undoubtedly, competition at local government level for councillor positions, with the salaries and access to economic patronage they allow, has contributed to the bloodletting between Inkatha, the NFP and the ANC”.

The report further refers to the “… murky web of police brutality and political interests that converge in the taxi industry over its routes. 

Outside KZN the former ANC mayor of Rustenburg, Matthew Wolmarans, and his bodyguard were jailed last year for the 2009 murder of ANC councillor Moss Phakoe after blowing the whistle on corruption in the Bojanala Platinum District Municipality in North West. 

This caused Vavi to remark that “Moss Phakoe’s tragic story provides a shocking insight into the crisis of crime and corruption in our country”. 

In other provinces politicians and/or their business associates or relatives have been murdered or threatened in recent years, often involving corruption or murky business interests.

In the most recent incident 14 councillors, expelled from the ANC in Tlokwe after the ANC mayor Maphetle Maphetle was ousted against a background of allegations of corruption, claimed they had received death threats from within the ANC and feared for their lives.

Cosatu’s Vavi – who says he has received several death threats since 2010 – is an outspoken critic of corruption in government and is backed by unions in the faction who opposed Zuma’s re-election as ANC leader last year, while his opponents within Cosatu launched a campaign to oust him.

There has also been speculation over some kind of imminent uprising, involving unemployed people, informal settlements and strike committees. 

In the past two decades what appeared to be politically motivated violence tended to increase ahead of important elections such as the one coming up next year. Against this background it is interesting that the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) will this week join elements of the US armed forces in a joint military exercise in the Eastern Cape aimed at honing its ability to deal with warring factions and rebel groups destabilising a country.

An SANDF spokesman was quoted in the media as saying the exercise would recreate “a human support intervention in an unstable country” and would be a simulation of what is “currently happening in a lot of countries in the world, especially in the African continent”.

Stef Terblanche



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