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In South Africa, it's bullets over ballots as political attacks spread

Relatives, party activists and representatives of the ANC Women's League gather around the coffin late ANC ward candidate Khanyisile Ngobese-Sibisi in Ladysmith, South Africa in July, 2016. Ms. Sibisi was gunned down on July 18, 2016 during a Nelson Mandela Day event.

RAJESH JANTILAL/AFP/Getty Images

Ask him to count the assassination attempts that he has survived, and Mthembeni Majola gives up. "I think I need a calculator, because I've been shot more than 10 times," he says.

Mr. Majola, an elected councillor in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa, was so badly injured in one shooting that he is now confined to a wheelchair. But the attacks kept coming. His car was ambushed by assailants firing an assault rifle and a shotgun, leaving him with scars on his face and arm.

Mr. Majola was lucky to escape with his life. Scores of other politicians have not. In a growing wave of lethal violence, more than 40 people have died in politically motivated attacks in KwaZulu-Natal since the beginning of last year, and more than 80 have been killed since 2011.

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Politicians are gunned down in their driveways, or their cars are sprayed with bullets, or they are shot in crowds with dozens of witnesses. In only four cases since 2011 have the perpetrators been convicted.

So far, most of the attacks have been confined to KZN, a heavily populated province on the Indian Ocean coast, the main stronghold of President Jacob Zuma.

But there are signs that the violence is spreading to other regions. The killings in KwaZulu-Natal could be an early omen of an increasingly unstable country, where democracy is eroding and power is often controlled by men with guns.

A provincial commission of inquiry, which is continuing this month, has found evidence that the killings are primarily connected to factional disputes and internal battles for control of resources. Witnesses have testified that the killers escape any punishment because they are politically protected.

Those conflicts are deadlier in KwaZulu-Natal because the province has a history of violence and large caches of weapons, but political killings have erupted in other regions, too. Victor Mashabane, the former speaker of a local council in Mpumalanga province, was kidnapped and killed by unknown attackers last week.

"Many of the murders can be linked to factionalism and corruption, which is part of the crisis within the African National Congress and our country," said a statement by a group of veteran members of the ANC, the ruling party, after the Mashabane murder.

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In a country with high unemployment and a stagnant economy, where government contracts are among the few available sources of money, political posts can be a highly lucrative conduit for jobs and wealth. They are often the focus of fierce competition that can turn violent. Many councillors in KwaZulu-Natal have hired bodyguards to protect themselves.

"Politicians are the ones with the big bucks," said Mr. Majola, 37, who has been an elected councillor for the past six years. "People have a political stomach: If you're hungry, you want to become a councillor, and you think of killing the people ahead of you so you can get a position on council."

The killers seem to have impunity from the law. The police rarely solve the murders – even when they are committed in public, with many witnesses – because the police themselves are dysfunctional and corrupt, or linked to the rival factions. Often the police are benefiting from the system, winning profitable tenders from local politicians, Mr. Majola told The Globe and Mail.

"People in power seem like God, they seem untouchable, they are never taken to court," he said.

Some of the victims, such as Mr. Majola, are members of opposition parties, or whistle-blowers who expose corruption. But most belong to the ruling party, the ANC, where violence has become rife.

"The ANC are killing each other because of tenders," Mr. Majola says. "They want to be in power, so they can get control of the tenders of the municipalities."

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A recent survey of almost 100 local councillors and municipal managers, conducted by South Africa's local government association, found that the majority had suffered threats and intimidation.

Last December, in the Pongola district of KwaZulu-Natal, local councillor Mbhekiseni Khumalo was killed in front of his house while his wife and two young children were inside. He had been called to the door by men who complained about the nomination process for ANC councillors. His widow, Thandazile, said she heard his last words to the men: "There is a way we do things in this municipality." Then gunshots rang out and he was dead.

His friend and fellow councillor, Nqaba Mkwananzi, told the provincial inquiry that Mr. Khumalo was killed because of feuding between two local ANC factions. There were no ideological differences between the factions; they were simply fighting for power, Mr. Mkwananzi said in his testimony.

Battles for government tenders are often the cause of killings in impoverished villages with 80-per-cent unemployment, he said. As long as the ANC remains in power, he said, the killings will continue.

Vasu Gounden, one of three commissioners who head the provincial inquiry, says the killings are a result of a "cocktail" of factors: "power, patronage, poverty, profit and plunder."

Poverty has led to a ferocious rivalry for political jobs, Mr. Gounden told the inquiry. "Our population is growing exponentially, our economy is declining and people are urbanizing very rapidly," he said as he questioned a witness.

"They lack skills, they don't have access to capital, so one of the only avenues for them to get access to resources is by being a member of a political party and getting elected, or getting access to tenders and patronage. That is largely what is driving the competition and the killings. If you lose, you lose completely."

Some witnesses have testified that an assassin can be hired in KwaZulu-Natal's migrant hostels for as little as 7,000 rand (about $650 Canadian). "It's very easy to hire a hit man when they've got no hope of a job or a future, they're living in hell and the only role models are gangster-type politicians," said Vanessa Burger, a community activist and expert on political violence who has testified to the inquiry.

She says the province is sliding into a "feeding frenzy" as the ANC approaches a December conference where a new national leader will be chosen. Some councillors are almost like "warlords," she told The Globe.

"The ANC, especially in KZN, has become like a criminal syndicate. There's no rule of law. Everything is hollowed out to serve the political elite. Instead of going through democratic processes, it's now, 'Bang, you're dead.'"

The history of KwaZulu-Natal is certainly more violent than other regions of the country. Thousands of people died in this region in the 1980s and '90s when it was often called the "killing fields." Most of the bloodshed resulted from clashes between the ANC and the rival Inkatha Freedom Party, fuelled by covert supplies of weapons from apartheid security agencies. The region is still awash with weapons, making it easy for assassins to buy assault rifles and handguns.

But there was a resurgence of violence after the provincial ANC split into rival factions after 2014. The factional conflict is intensified by government corruption, which increases the stakes and the potential rewards for violence.

"The ANC must accept that we are responsible for this," said Senzo Mchunu, the ANC premier of KwaZulu-Natal until he was pushed out by a rival faction last year.

Mr. Mchunu appeared before the provincial inquiry last month and gave a detailed and revealing explanation of how ANC corruption leads to tensions and violence.

When a local council seat becomes available, there are battles for the posts, since the positions don't require any technical qualifications and they allow lucrative rewards, he told the inquiry.

Councillors have "proximity to tenders and power-broking positions in the political ladder," the former premier said. "You know what tenders are going to be issued, when, and for how much, and so you can go to the interested parties and say, 'I thought you should know. What's in it for me?'"

Much of the conflict within the ANC is attributable to the manipulation of decisions and appointments, he said. He gave a few examples of how this "brazen power" is exercised. Officials can count hands during a vote, for example, and turn a minority into a majority. Or they can hire "bouncers" or police officers to remove their opponents from a meeting.

"Or you change the time of the meeting," he said. "You tell people that the meeting is at 3 p.m., but you hold it at 10 a.m."

The losers often seek revenge, he said, and some turn to violence. "Corruption breeds anger and hatred and divisions."

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More

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