A Culture of Political Assassination

By Jane Duncan · 3 Nov 2010

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Picture: Stephen Poff
Picture: Stephen Poff

In an editorial in March this year, the Sunday Times newspaper warned against “a culture of political assassination,” becoming entrenched in the Mpumalanga province of South Africa, after the paper published allegations of the existence of a hit list of officials blocking access to tenders linked to the 2010 World Cup.

By that time, seven officials had died in mysterious circumstances, including the Mbombela Municipality's Speaker, Jimmy Mohlala.

The World Cup tender opportunities have come and gone, but the killings continue. In June 2010, South African Communist Party (SACP) member Dumisani ‘Bomber’ Ntshangase was killed after speaking out about an unpopular decision that would have enriched certain government officials. In October, controversial Mpumalanga politician James Nkambule, who had alleged that senior ANC politicians are behind a series of politically motivated murders, turned up dead. His autopsy report suggested that he might have been poisoned.

In September, Mpumalanga arrived in the Eastern Cape. A businessman and Umkhonto we Sizwe veteran, Mthunzi Nkonki, was gunned down in Duncan village after he exposed alleged corruption in the Great Kei municipality.

Mpumalanga has also arrived in the North West too, it seems. According to the City Press newspaper, ANC Councillor and trade unionist Moss Phakoe, who was shot dead outside his home in Rustenburg last year, had found evidence of fraud in the province’s drought relief projects.

Are these murders politically or economically motivated?

Well, both.

Bonakele Majuba, who is provincial secretary for the SACP in Mpumalanga, observed, “Criminals are doing that [the killing], but they are attacking politicians. Most of the time, people who have been killed have a political profile; it tells us also that it is politically motivated. Otherwise pure criminals would be killed…[in any event] it is now impossible to differentiate politics from business.”

It may seem incredible to outside observers that sixteen years into South Africa’s world-celebrated transition to democracy, politicians and political activists are being murdered for their whistle blowing.

Assassination is the ultimate form of censorship. Political assassinations create a climate of fear, where whistleblowers may choose to stay silent instead of speaking out about wrongdoing in government. As a result, the already alarmingly high levels of corruption in some of the most impoverished provinces may grow unchecked.

How have things come to this? A combination of factors is allowing this culture of political assassination to spread: factors that are well within the government and the ANC's power to change, if it had the political will to do so.

One key factor is the lack of a culture of disclosure in the public and private sectors. Whistle blowing appears to be declining at a time when it is most needed. According to research on whistle blowing undertaken for the Open Democracy Advice Centre (ODAC) by Ipsos Markinor, the number of whistleblowers has decreased every year from 2007, and is now at its lowest level since the start of the tracking in 2006. 

Yet at the same time, according to the Public Service Commission’s 2010 report, there has been a twelvefold increase in fruitless and wasteful expenditure from 2007, coupled with a sharp decline in the government’s response to corruption cases. The picture that emerges is of a public service alive with possibility for corrupt employees. 

According to another ODAC report, the existing legislation to protect whistleblowers, the Protected Disclosures Act, is inadequate to the task of fostering a culture of disclosure. For instance, the protective scope of the Act is too narrow as it limits the scope of protection to whistleblowers in a formal working relationship and excludes citizen whistleblowers.

Furthermore, there is no obligation on public or private organisations to take proactive steps to encourage or facilitate whistle blowing. South Africa also lacks a comprehensive whistleblower framework, and no public body is tasked with championing whistle blowing.

The net effect of these weaknesses, according to ODAC, is that “we are not seeing a robust culture of disclosure in South Africa. Despite the fact that the [Act] is now ten years old, we are seeing what appears to be a reversal of gains made in this regard.”

A culture of censorship still pervades the public service, which has at times demonstrated extreme hostility to their employees criticising the public service on public platforms and in the media. In some cases, employees have even been dismissed. These actions do nothing to foster a culture of critical scrutiny of the public service.

Another key factor is the legacy of the neo-liberal shift to the small state in South Africa in the late 1990’s. Many aspects of the state's activities were outsourced, while the state’s role was confined to regulating the resulting contracts.

But the 'regulatory state', as it came to be called, introduced new inefficiencies into the operations of the state, including greater scope for corruption. To the extent that the culture of political assassination is a perverse outgrowth of the culture of outsourcing, the ANC has created a monster that is now devouring its own.

As part of its alternative growth path proposals, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) has called for a “clinical break with the vestiges of neoliberalism in our public service in the form of the continuation with outsourcing and public-private partnerships.”  Given that this proposal will commit the ANC to rejecting a key tenet of neoliberalism – namely the minimalist state  - it is unlikely that this proposal will be taken seriously.

Furthermore, the ANC has promoted the fusing of politics and business through its Black Economic Empowerment policies. As journalist Sam Sole pointed out recently, this has led to an intimate relationship developing between political power and material accumulation, where election to public office is seen as the fastest way to achieving wealth. As Sole noted, “until the alliance recognizes and confronts the reality – confronts its own addiction to short-term gratification – the prospect for a cure will remain remote.”

Information emerging from official investigations into the murders points to just how toxic this mix of business and politics has become.

Five people, including two government officials, have been arrested for Ntshangase’s murder. Several people have been arrested in connection with Mohlala’s murder, including two policemen. A recent forensic report obtained by the City Press has named ten businesspeople and Rustenburg politicians as “key figures” in Phakoe’s murder. If the murders do not result in speedy convictions, then collusion between local politicians, businesspeople and the police to secure opportunities for wealth accumulation could grow.

Limited economic opportunities outside the major metropolitan centres are an aggravating factor as well. All too often, in the more marginalised provinces, the main possibilities for capital accumulation are offered by the state.

The upshot of these factors is that for as long as the ANC remains committed to a BEE-powered neoliberal growth path, political assassinations are likely to continue. These incidents should not be dismissed as intra-ANC or alliance conflicts. Once a culture of political assassination sets in, it can become the repressive tool of choice for individuals wishing to gain control of state resources, and to dispense with those who stand in their way. All activists should be concerned, especially those from anti-systemic movements.

Activists from mine-affected communities in Mpumalanga, struggling against the environmental and economic impacts of mining corporations, are very clear about this. They observed in the wake of Mohlala's assassination that if such a prominent person can be “taken out,” then the chances of them being squashed like flies was indeed high.

In her recent book on the history of Columbia’s death squads, Jasmin Hristov has argued that neoliberalism needs the squads, and the resulting inequality would have been impossible to maintain without them. Hristov notes that death squad violence “is purposefully directed towards sectors of society that stand in the way of the ruling class’s efforts to maintain economic dominance and acquire more resources to make even more profit. The upper classes so fear political organising among the poor, who could mount a formidable opposition to the status quo if allowed to organise unrestrained by state repression.”

The death squad’s targets have included unarmed social movements and other community groups and activists. Their development was prompted by an increase in the capabilities and activities of the military, the police and paramilitary groups, coupled with the state’s fusion with the economic elite, as well as the demonization of oppositional social movements.

Dubbed the trade unionist assassination capital of the world, Columbia is on the extreme end of the scale of informal repression. But, worryingly, some of the factors that led to the emergence of a culture of assassination in Columbia are observable in South Africa as well. So it is unsurprising that unionists are among those killed, and Cosatu General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi has received death threats for his anti-corruption stance.

The extent of the problem, though, is difficult to verify as South African civil society lacks a culture of documentation of post-apartheid censorship, both at the instance of the state and non-state actors. The lack of documentary information makes analysis of emerging trends impossible.

Recently, Richard Calland praised the remarkable changes in civil society mobilisation on freedom of information issues, citing the Right2Know campaign against the Protection of Information Bill as an example. Campaigns are needed to protest against this much more brutal form of censorship, as a key factor in the spread of the culture of assassinations is the lack of public outrage.

In his medium-term budget framework, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan denounced corruption, stating that the government was investigating procurement and corruption fraud totalling R25 billion, and announced initiatives to fight against corruption.

Unless the structural factors that have allowed the twin cultures of corruption and political assassination to take hold are addressed, the Minister’s attempts to stamp out corruption will come to nothing. At its root, the system of issuing tenders for every scrap of public service is wrong. It breeds an ineffective, expensive, fragmented, uncaring and ultimately corrupt public service culture.

Until this systemic problem is addressed, activists may continue to be killed, including the ANC’s best and brightest.  But Columbia’s history warns us that those who are most at risk are those who may, at some future date, seek system change.

Duncan is a Professor of Journalism at the University of Johannesburg.

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5 Nov

Brave & Brilliant Jane

Qina comrade.

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Willemus Verified user
5 Nov

A Suggestion to Counter Corruption and Assasination

A thought:

Why not create a Wikileaks-type website where South African whistleblowers can do their whistleblowing anonymously? Julian Assange has proven it can be done. People seem not to have woken up to the realization that this procedure can be used not only to expose the wrongdoings of the state, but also of big criminal syndicates and Big Business too. And one can use this as a means to monitor whether the law enforcers are acting on the leads provided by the whistleblowers as well.

Sousveillance is the way to go:


If I am right in my assertions then we as common citizens have the means to do something about it and therefor have only ourselves to blame for having allowed things to go this far.

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6 Nov

Brilliant one Willemus

This is really sad that our country is coming to this. The Mpumalanga story broke out ages ago and nothing has been said and it seems like my ruling party and my government is not willing to do anything about it. We can't afford to have our country go down the drain like this. We need to find a way of dealing with this.

Willemus idea is brilliant and I am certain just as we have initiatives like LeadSA we need to have this kind of a wiki side that can help us expose this. Where people can annonymously be traced and investigations can be carried out by the Hawks and the Government. Unflippin fortunately even our Police Commisioners carry R20000 rands bribe money in their bags and no one cares to quesiton that.

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10 Nov

This is Incredible

We really are quite far down a very, very bad road.

Prof Duncan, perhaps you should also add in the assassination of the former SACP members that tried to run an independent candidate against the ANC in Durban (Umlazi) in 2006. If I remember correctly four of them were killed. Only Abahlali baseMjondolo mobilised against the murders. The SACP was silent.

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25 Nov

This is Really a Very Important Article

Perhaps the most important Op-Ed piece written this year.

Well done to SACSIS for creating a space for this sort of truth telling.


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