It is a chilly late winter afternoon on the hilly uplands of South Africa’s south-eastern province of Kwazulu Natal. At a crowded taxi stand near the village of Ibisi four men wait in a BMW, its engine idling.
Sindiso Magaqa, a 35-year-old rising star in the African National Congress (ANC), the party that rules the district, the province and the country, is driving back to his wife and three children. He is on home turf but is wary nonetheless. When he pulls his Mercedes SUV in among the taxis to drop off a colleague, his armed bodyguard gets out to stretch his legs.
There is a sudden burst of gunfire, and the waiting BMW roars away. Magaqa’s vehicle has more than 20 bullet holes around the driver’s door. The young politician is slumped in his seat. He died of his injuries.
A former leader of the ANC’s youth wing, Magaqa’s murder in September made national headlines. But it was one of more than 80 “political killings” in Kwazulu Natal in the last six years. All have been ANC members.
A dozen political heavyweights attended Maqaqa’s funeral, some arriving by helicopter. They included a candidate who hopes to be elected party leader at the ANC’s conference in December, cabinet ministers and top provincial ANC officials. The dignitaries solemnly praised the dead man, and steadfastly refused to comment on the reasons for his death.
This surprised few observers. The murders were “a phenomenon within the ANC”, Senzo Mchunu, a former top ANC official, has said. They underline the failures of the movement since its then leader, Nelson Mandela, came to power in 1994 in the country’s first free elections, as well as the challenges it faces.
Xolani Dube, a researcher at the Xubera Institute in Durban, the biggest city in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), said the deaths were are result of “feuds, resources and tradition”.
“These are corruption killings, not political killings,” Dube said.
The most serious charges levelled against the ANC is that it has become a machine for self-enrichment. President Jacob Zuma is accused of improper relations with one of South Africa’s wealthiest business families and last week the supreme court reinstated 18 charges of corruption against him dating back a decade. Zuma, who who has faced numerous other corruption allegations since taking office, has consistently denied wrongdoing.
Ministers are embroiled in scandals. Provincial officials face allegations of graft. But there are problems at a grass roots level too. The office of the public protector, a powerful national ombudsman, and the Hawks, an elite police team, are now investigating the fraud allegations.
Magaqa was a councillor of Umzimkhulu municipality. The town is little more than a strip of cash and carry stores, petrol stations, fast food outlets, a mall and a sprawl of poor government housing surrounded by the rolling grassy mountains. A fast-running river drains rain water to the Indian Ocean 100km away.
“Sindiso was very vocal about things that were not right in the municipality and he knew people wanted to attack him. He was very brave and very committed, to his voters and the party,” said Dr Vuma Magaqa, an uncle.
The commission set up by the KZN government to investigate the political killings has heard repeated testimony that political killings are related to local competition over official posts and patronage. These bring status, cash and influence, all rare commodities in an area with deep social problems and few jobs.
Magaqa, a strong and independent figure with growing support in his home community, was widely tipped to get a top local ANC position at a forthcoming district conference.
“Many people felt threatened by him,” said one local politician in the district, who preferred to remain anonymous.
Other factors fuel the violence too. There is a long history of political killing in KZN, going back to the early 1990s and beyond.
“KZN is an environment where a high degree of violence has been normalised,” said Richard Pithouse, associate professor at Johannesburg’s Wits University.
Philani Shange, the deputy mayor of a district adjacent to Umzimkhulu, narrowly escaped an assassination attempt while returning from a meeting there earlier this year. A volley of shots was fired at him as he opened the gate to his home at about 9pm. All missed. He says he does not know the reason for the assassination attempt.
“It could be some kind of power struggle in the municipality. It could be political. It could be a criminal element. It’s a difficult environment,” Shange told the Guardian.
In December, the ANC will choose a new leader, who will almost certainly go on to succeed Zuma as president following general elections in 2019. The leading candidates are Cyril Ramaphosa, a liberation struggle leader turned businessman who has a reputation as a reformer, and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a veteran former cabinet minister, head of the African Union and the president’s ex-wife.
Whoever wins will face huge problems. Economic growth is limited, tens of millions still live in poverty and inequality in South Africa is as deep as ever. The ANC suffered major losses in local elections last year.
Successive corruption scandals, the failure to deliver quality healthcare, education and policing, and the ostentatious lifestyle of some ANC officials and their associates, have undermined the moral capital of the party that led the liberation struggle.
Zweli Mkhize, one of the ANC’s top leaders, said the party could “turn the situation around.”
“The numbers of people standing trial or disciplined is quite large …. I do believe the ANC is capable of correcting a lot of these tendencies we are seeing and rooting out corruption,” Mkhize told the Guardian.
But few of the corrupt – or the killers – have faced justice.
Following Magaqa’s funeral, Fikile Mbalula, South Africa’s police minister, promised last month that those responsible would “shit themselves”. His claims were met with some scepticism in places like Umzimkhulu.
Only a handful of police inquiries into the several hundred political killings in KwaZulu Natal over the last several years have ended with an arrest, let alone a conviction. An armed robber was named by police as one of Magaqa’s killers – after he had been shot dead in a gun battle.
“I can’t say I have 100% confidence in the investigation,” said Nonsikelelo Mafa, an ANC councillor in Umzimkhulu who was travelling in Magaqa’s car when he was shot.
In all, three councillors in the municipality have been shot, two wounded, and one killed in a mysterious hit and run road accident this year.
Mphuthumi Mpabanga, the mayor of Umzimkhulu, has condemned the murders in the municipality. He declined to comment on the fraud allegations, or the recent killings, telling the Guardian that both were “under investigation by the public protector”.
Observers say that the ANC still contains many dedicated, honest and committed people. “There have always been multiple currents within the ANC, including very brave, very principled people,” said Pithouse.
Zuma Maqaqa, the murdered politician’s uncle, was a student activist in the 1980s, and joined the ANC days after it was legalised in 1990.
“Back in the day, before freedom, it was a fight between organisations. Now it is a fight within an organisation … and it makes me very very unhappy,” he said. “We need to focus on building unity within the ANC and among all South Africans for the future of our children and our country.”
‘A phenomenon within the ANC’: murders turn spotlight on South Africa’s ruling party – The Guardian