On a Thursday evening in late October 2018, ANC councillor Sibusiso Maphumulo was killed in an assassination as he returned home. A car pulled up next to his and shots were fired at his vehicle. He sustained a gunshot wound to the head and died. Earlier that day he had received threats. Maphumulo is just one of the many victims of political assassination1 in South Africa. This targeted killing of people, particularly those involved in politics, has a highly detrimental impact on South Africa’s ongoing democratic project and often fragile governance systems.
In a mammoth data collection project titled Assassination Witness by the Global Initiative against Transnational Crime and the Centre of Criminology at the University of Cape Town, over 17 000 media articles were reviewed to build a database on assassinations in South Africa from 2000-2017. All the incidents identified as hits were then divided into four separate categories: political, organised crime, taxi related, and personal.2 Cases that fall within the political category generally targeted individuals designated as holding a political or administrative office, mostly in local government.
According to the data, there were 291 reported political assassinations in South Africa between 2000 – 2017. These make up 22% of the total number of assassinations, over this period. Throughout the period, the average count of political assassinations is dominated by incidents in KwaZulu-Natal. The number of assassinations in Gauteng, the Western Cape, Eastern Cape and Mpumalanga remained consistently low and similar in magnitude throughout the period.
Two key observations from the data are that political assassinations are by far most prominent in KwaZulu-Natal and that although political assassinations have been present throughout the data period, they have drastically increased in recent years. Preliminary data collection for 2018 (up to August) has shown that political assassinations are still increasing. It is likely they will continue to do so leading up to the 2019 elections.
The cost of political hits can be felt in many ways. But, generally, the goals of an open, prosperous and democratic society are severely hindered. It is perhaps not surprising that political conflict, poor governance and political uncertainty, for example, which defined the South African administration between 2014 and 2017, contributed to an increase in the numbers of assassinations that fall into the political category.
In an attempt to respond to these assassinations, the Premier of KwaZulu-Natal called for a Commission of Inquiry to look into political killings in the province. The report, released in September 2018 has been criticised as not adequately addressing the problem. In August 2018 the Minister of Police called for a task team to investigate these killings. It is unlikely this will be enough to address this complex and deadly phenomenon. But it is a good start.
If assassinations are not addressed as a matter of urgency, those who commission them will continue to exert illicit power and influence over South Africa’s society, economy and democracy. If those who engage in instrumental violence face few consequences in terms of paying for their crimes, then using this type of violence is likely to become the norm.
1 A contract hit, or assassination, can be defined as ‘a continuous sequence of interactions by one or more persons in which one person solicits another person to have a third person killed for gain, monetary or otherwise. An event begins with the initial exploration of the possibility of having someone killed, and terminates with a murder, attempted murder, or police intervention.
2 For more information on these categories and the data collection methodology see: Kim Thomas, The Rule of the Gun: Hits and Assassinations in South Africa, 2018. Available here.