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Op-Ed: In Search of a Political Murder

South Africa

South Africa

Op-Ed: In Search of a Political Murder

Illegal guns about to be destroyed. South African police officers destroy thousands of weapons to mark the start of a an amnesty for illegal guns

Since June 1, 2015 there have been 32 political murders in South Africa. Actually, there have been 41. No, wait, there have really been nine. And the SAPS has set up a task team to investigate political killings. As have the Hawks. So has the ANC. And so has the KwaZulu-Natal Provincial Government. Except that they haven’t. Or have they? No one seems to know. By NIKI MOORE.

And that’s the problem with political murders. Egregious killings of people for political motives is abhorrent, everyone agrees. But – what exactly is a political murder? And what exactly is anyone doing to stop them?

Not much, by the looks of things. There is a glaring lack of political will to find out, exactly, who is being killed for political purposes, and how to prevent this from happening again. Political murders need, by their nature, political intervention. They are, after all, not so much capital crimes as they are indicators that something is deeply dysfunctional in our politics. But despite the highly-publicised task teams, there is no indication that they are being treated as anything else but ordinary crimes.

Before the 2016 Local Government Elections, there was a spate of murders. So many, in fact, that the KZN provincial ANC called for a special task team to investigate them. The Hawks had already formulated a task team to deal with political murders, and the national ANC had called for an internal investigation into why the victims were, almost exclusively, ANC members. In fact, as far back as 2011, Police Commissioner Bheki Cele had established an SAPS task team. But none of these four so-called task teams have actually come up with any results, other than ordinary policing.

A short investigation into each of these murders, instead of finding answers, just raised more questions. Very few political murders are, in fact, political murders, and before any task team can begin to investigate, they need to establish exactly what a political murder is – and then look at the politics behind it. That is, unfortunately, way outside the jurisdiction of the police.

So, in order to give them a helping hand, I decided to investigate every political murder over the last year, going back to June 2015 (the research started in June 2016).

The sources, initially, were the Press. According to websites like News24, who provided a very nice infographic, there had been 24 political murders by that stage. Another news website, another infographic, revealed that in fact there had been around 19 political murders. It seemed, from these sites and from other news aggregation sites, that the Press defined a political murder as a killing where the victim had been a political office-bearer, or the motive was linked to their political affiliation. Closer analysis, however, showed that this was far too superficial.

Yes, there were murders where the victim had clearly been blocking someone’s political path. But most of the murders appeared to be business deals gone sour, whistle-blowers getting removed, an overspill from taxi wars, family feuds, revenge killings, thieves falling out, personal disputes… and then the saddest of all, where the wrong person was killed by mistake.

Should we be worried that political office-bearers involve themselves in taxi wars, corrupt tenders, business deals, criminal activities, and factional politics? We should be very worried indeed.

So – here is the “political murder” picture over the last 18 months, arranged according to the apparent picture of motive. As one will see, there are overlaps and contradictions, but one thing is clear: the endgame is all about power and money.

Killing the whistle-blower (or eliminating the impediment)?

June 2, 2015. Vusi Ntombela (47), ANC Council Speaker in the Nqutu council, and a deputy principal, was teaching at the primary school in Luvisi when three men walked into his classroom and sprayed the room with bullets. They killed Ntombela instantly. Caught in the crossfire was 14-year-old learner Elizabeth Nhleko, who died later that same day.

Within three hours the men were arrested and the firearm recovered. The hit man, Sibongiseni Mdakane, was convicted of the murder and given life imprisonment. He was also, incidentally, the bodyguard of the town’s mayor, Emily Molefe, and had been paid R15,000 to carry out the killing.

Curiously, no one has ever asked him who had paid the money. Molefe furiously denied any involvement, even though Mdakane, a newcomer to town, had only recently been hired as her bodyguard and had, apparently, not gone through any procurement process. The rumour mill in the town said that Ntombela had been obstructive about the town’s budget, and had openly resisted extended contracts for municipal staff.

As a result of Ntombela’s intransigence, the budget had failed and was tabled to be presented again on June 9 – a week before Ntombela was shot. Ntombela had been outspoken about corruption in the council.

March 22, 2016. Sikhosiphi ‘Bazooka’ Rhadebe was shot dead at his home on the Wild Coast by men posing as policemen. He was an outspoken opponent of the mining at Xolobeni. Was this a political killing? On the surface, no. But, according to researcher John Clarke, the perceived potential for enrichment around the mining had also infected the local ANC, and it is possible it could have been a political rival – eager for mining spoils – who had orchestrated the hit.

May 27, 2016. Michael ‘Zane’ Phelembe had long talked of a hit list which bore his name, as he was perceived as a threat to people wanting to control government tenders. Phelembe, an ANC deputy chair in ward 23 in Pienaar, Mbombela, had uncovered someone “high up in council” who made sure that only 10 companies received all council tenders. Phelembe was shot dead, even as communities in Pienaar protested about the fact that council tenders were rigged. And he was not the only one. A few months earlier, an official in the Dr JS Moroka local council’s finance department, Moreka Mahlobogoana, had been lured to an isolated spot and shot dead. This was not logged as a political murder. Neither killing has been solved.

May 28, 2016. Simo Mncwabe, the chief financial officer at the Mooi Mpofana municipality, was shot dead at his home in Edendale, Pietermaritzburg. The previous week, businessman Bongani Makhatini had been shot dead in the neighbouring township of Esigodini. A colleague of his, S’boniso Duma, had been shot and wounded on the same day. The following day, ANC Branch chair Nathi Hlongwa had been shot dead in his new house in Edendale, Pietermaritzburg. Two weeks, four hits. Confusingly though, these murders and attempted murders could be – according to local gossip – either taxi feuds, or whistle-blower-elimination, or business-deals-gone-wrong, or political factionalism, or all four. It was alleged that Mncwabe (who had been receiving death threats) had uncovered an extortion racket being run by a very senior ANC politician. However, Esigodini is also a notorious taxi-war hotspot. And the ANC succession race in KZN is deadly. So, which one was it? There have been no arrests in any of these cases, so no one knows.

Killings over jobs?

Even before June 2015, there had been a rash of killings of councillors and council officials on the KZN South Coast. When perpetrators were arrested they freely admitted that they had killed the political incumbents because they wanted their jobs.

August 30, 2016. Ronny Nzimande, human resources manager for RBM, was shot outside his home in Richard’s Bay. The attackers fired more than 20 shots into his BMW X5, then drove away. His death was linked to jobs at RBM, which is the main employer in the Ngwelezana township, outside Richard’s Bay. Now this is not a political killing at all, but what is to differentiate this from any other killing over jobs? Being a councillor is a lucrative job, made even more so by the potential for plunder through tenders. So removing a council rival might not be so much of a political murder as a smart career move.

September 14, 2016. Sakhekile Ndudula, Social Development chief of staff in the Eastern Cape government, was gunned down outside his house in East London. This was initially logged as a political crime, or a tussle over jobs, until Ndudula’s wife was arrested for the shooting. The investigation continues.

Killing over business interests: these were the most prevalent of the murders.

Nov 19th, 2015. Fundisile Nqinelo, ANC PR councillor and Ward 33 chairman, was shot seven times in his driveway by a group of armed men. Investigation showed, however, that the motive appeared to be a business transaction that had gone wrong. Mention was made of a package that had perhaps contained drugs, or gold from illegal miners. This ward is, apparently, rife with smuggling. Whatever it was, it was enough to get Nqinelo killed. There have been no arrests.

April 16, 2016. Zodwa Sibiya, an ANC PR councillor living and working in Glebelands Hostel in Umlazi, Durban, was shot in her hostel room. She had received many death threats. Was this a political killing? The DA says she was anti-corruption, but violence monitor Mary de Haas says she was an impediment to the Mafia-type activities, extortion and drug-dealing that took place at the hostel. There have been no arrests.

June 18, 2016. Thabo Moroa, ANC councillor, Sanco leader and member of Cosatu, was gunned down in his house in Moboloka, Brits, by four men who had come to visit. Before he was killed, his family had overheard the men demanding tenders from him. The day before, Moss Molekwa, an ANC councillor in Madibeng Municipality, survived an attempt on his life while returning from a funeral. Molekwa was an outspoken critic of imposed councillors. There was a spate of attacks on ANC members around this time, resulting in several injuries from assault. The general consensus was that these were battles over candidate’s lists. The waters are also muddied by tensions between warring unions. There have been no arrests.

What appears to be taxi-related:

October 6, 2015. ANC councillor and Chief Whip in Vulamehlo local municipality, KZN, Mziwendoda Ncwane, was relaxing at home on October 6, 2015, when a gunman fired shots through his lounge window, killing him. A local rumour has it that Ncwane had some links with the taxi industry, and that it was this that caused his death. No arrests.

February 24, 2016. Mbuyiselo Dokolwane, ANC branch chair for Ward 119 in Freedom Park, Johannesburg, was shot dead by four men while returning from a branch meeting, in full view of his 13-year-old daughter. The deceased was a central mediator involved in a bitter dispute between two rival taxi associations. No arrests.

What appears to be a robbery?

Dec 31, 2015. Siphiwe Zulu, ANC ward councillor, was shot dead in the driveway of his house by a group of armed men. Even though nothing was taken and the men fled after the shooting, the police are adamant it was a robbery gone wrong. No one has asked any further questions.

Then there are the attempted murders. These are not called political murders, because no one has died. But no one has asked the intended victim why they think they were targeted.

October 9, 2015. Albert ‘Spar’ Nxumalo, ANC ward 7 branch chair from Gcilima on the South Coast, was shot in the legs while in his bedroom at home. He was taken to hospital and survived. There were no arrests.

June 12, 2016. An attempt is made on the life of eMalahleni ANC Youth League secretary Mafika Mndebele. No arrests are made.

Was the wrong person killed?

July 18, 2015. Xolani Nkosi was driving home through Dumisane Makhaya Village outside Empangeni when a Volkswagen Golf drew up next to him and the man in the passenger seat called his name. When Nkosi turned, he was shot dead. The killers fled.

This sordid little crime only hit the headlines because Xolani Nkosi was a bodyguard of then-KZN Premier Senzo Mchunu. Mchunu had been in the town that day to visit the family of ANC regional boss, Thulani Mashaba, who had died in a car crash near Ballito earlier in the month. Mashaba was a well-known Zuma supporter, and the local godfather. After his death the rumours began (unsupported by any evidence) that Mchunu had arranged the car accident – and the hit on his bodyguard was widely regarded as payback. There was an allegation (also unsupported by evidence) that Mashaba had been carrying money for bribes. Was this a political murder? A highway robbery? An innocent man who died because of a power struggle in a political party riddled with Mafia-style factions, fighting over access to power and money?

Interestingly, the RTMA was tasked with an investigation into Mashaba’s crash and this report was supposed to be handed over to Transport Minister Dipuo Peters on June 25, 2015. Either the report was never handed over, or it was suppressed, because no information from that report was ever made public. The local newspaper the Zululand Observer tried for months to get answers, but eventually gave up. Ironically, during a memorial lecture in July this year, held in memory of Mashaba, ANC Minister of Water Affairs Nomvula Mokonyane declared that the ANC would never rest until they discovered what had happened to Mashaba. It never seems to have occurred to them to ask the RTMA or the Transport Minister for the crash report.

October 25th 2015. Mzwakhe Magwaza was asleep in his rondavel near Eshowe when his house was set alight. He escaped the flames, but while talking to neighbours about his narrow escape, shots rang out. He tried to dive under his car to escape the gunmen, but he was shot dead and his killers melted into the night. Magwaza’s death is politically noteworthy because he was part of Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla security detail. Was his death in revenge for the killing of the Premier’s bodyguard, months before? Police have no motive, no arrests.

December 17, 2015. Zukile Nyontso, bodyguard to Nhlontlo council speaker and ANC regional chair Xolile Nkompela, was killed in a failed hit on his boss. Police arrested ANC ward councillor Xolisa Mswelanto. No-one asked Nkompela why would Mswelanto want to kill him

January 23, 2016. Philip Dlamini and Bongani Hlatshwayo were shot dead in Inchanga, outside Durban, following an SACP meeting. Thousands of mourners at their funerals were told they had taken a bullet intended either for eThekwini then-mayor and eThekwini then-chairman James Nxumalo, or for the SACP’s preferred councillor candidate Malabo Nxumalo (his son). Six months later, on May 31, 2016, Siyabonga Ngubo was shot dead in Inchanga while having a drink at a shebeen. He was, apparently, a witness to the previous killings and knew who the killers were. On August 21, 2016, SACP member Nontsikelelo Blose was shot because she was also a witness in the case. The following day ANC member Xolani Ngobo was shot and stoned to death by an angry mob, ostensibly in revenge for Blose’s killing. Five people dead – because of the rivalry between the SACP and ANC in Inchanga.

June, 2015. In May there were three random deaths on the KZN South Coast. In all three cases, someone knocked on the door of an ANC office-bearers house. A relative answered the door and was shot dead. The cases were not recorded as political crimes, because the wrong person was killed. According to a journalist at the South Coast Herald, it was so bad on the South Coast that the overwhelming feeling in the area was: “Who is going to be next?” So… why has no one asked the intended targets why they thought they were going to be killed?

July 18, 2016. ANC ward councillor and regional secretary of the ANC Women’s League in the Alfred Duma region Khanyisile Ngobese-Sibisi was travelling back from a Mandela Day event in Ladysmith with a group of colleagues when a car drove past and sprayed their vehicle with bullets. Ngobese-Sibisi was the only person killed. There were no arrests, and it is not known who the actual target of the assassination was. On the previous Wednesday, the Ward 15 candidate Muzi Masibuko had been attacked by gunmen at his home, but he survived the attack. Again, no one has asked him why would he be the target.

Okay, so these just have to be political murders:

October 2, 2015. North West policeman-turned-businessman Wandile Bozwana was shot dead in a drive-by shooting on the Garsfontein off-ramp in Pretoria. Bozwana had made his multimillions through government tenders (two mansions, more than 50 luxury cars) but had seemingly had a fall-out with his backers and was now using his money to fund the wrong faction in North West. He was outspoken critic of the Premier Supra Mahumapelo. Mahumapelo, of course, furiously denied any involvement in the murder, even through it emerged that R1.4-million had been paid to several hitmen; that several business people and politicians were involved; and that 10 individuals had already been approached to give statements to the police. The investigation is ongoing, apparently, but information is scarce. The family believe strongly that there is a political cover-up to protect the real perpetrators.

April 22, 2016. Themba Thobo was shot dead in his home in Richard’s Bay. The saddest thing of all is that no one seems to know, or really care, much about his death. He was a candidate for the local government elections and it is possible he was killed to get him out the way. There have been no arrests and very little information is available about him.

May 16, 2016. The shooting of Wandile Ngubeni at a restaurant in Newcastle, while he was in the company of about nine of his comrades from the ANC Youth League. It was a planned political assassination, according to the Young Communist League chair Thokozani Nene, who witnessed the shooting. He alleges that the region is beset with political squabbles over leadership, and tensions are high enough for people to kill.

July 26, 2016. Ward 4 candidate in Zwide, Port Elizabeth, Nceba Dywili, was shot dead by two men while dropping off a volunteer at her home after a day of canvassing. No arrests have been made.

May 16, 2016. Bhekithemba ‘Thambi’ Goodwill Nyembe was shot dead from a passing car while travelling with his wife in Emasundwini, Nongoma. His wife was critically injured. He was an ANC councillor, but there were rumours he was about to defect to another political party.

June 16, 2016. ANC members Badadile Tshapa and Phetheni Ngubane were shot dead while returning home after an ANC branch meeting in Imbali, Pietermaritzburg. A suspect was arrested a short while later and has appeared in court four times. According to conversations with community members, the suspect is well known to them. He was allegedly about to join the EFF and was trying to persuade the two murder victims to join him.

July 2, 2016. ANC candidate for Ward 6 in Newcastle Thembi Mbongo was killed outside her house in Osizweni by two men who came to her door asking for her. When she emerged, they shot her four times in front of her husband and children. Ward 6 used to be a strong NFP ward, and it is alleged that she was shot dead in order to force a by-election so the NFP could regain the ward (they were excluded from the Local Government Elections because of non-payment of fees). This is not the first such allegation, and it is alleged that there is an NFP warlord, operating from Glebelands Hostel in Umlazi, who masterminds these particular political murders.

July 18, 2016. ANC councillor candidate Bongani Skhosana was shot through the window of his bakkie, in front of his children, as he left home to take them to school in Harding, KZN. It is possible he was an imposed candidate, and someone in the community was unhappy about this. However, according to a DA councillor in that area, political intimidation in southern KZN is so prevalent “that it has almost become a habit”. The DA representative talks of a mayor who spends R100,000 a month on bodyguards; regular shots being fired at councillors in their cars; efforts to push drivers off the road… all faceless intimidators, all connected to the extreme internal factionalism in that area.

August 18, 2016. Johannes Baatjies, newly-elected DA councillor in Kgatelopele, Northern Cape, was lured to a secluded place by the promise of a huge payout. He was suspicious of the offer, and took along a friend, Jeffrey Shuping Nose, as a witness in case there were dirty dealings. But indeed there were dirty dealings – he was shot dead allegedly by ANC branch secretary and election candidate Zonisele Magawu, hours before being sworn in as a councillor. Magawu was already out on bail for a charge of housebreaking and theft of firearms, but despite his pending trial, he was still selected as the ANC candidate for the elections. In fact, he missed a court appearance in order to attend the final candidate selection meeting in Upington, and a warrant was out for his arrest. According to a secret witness tape recording, Magawu had been given orders by an ANC ‘top dog’ to kill Baatjies.

Just thugs:

May 16, 2016. Two EFF members were killed in an ambush while on a march near Sethokga Hostel in Tembisa. Party leader Julius Malema says that attackers were not from any political party, they were “just thugs”.

June 17, 2016. IFP member Alson Nkosi was shot dead in AbaQulusi, near Vryheid. A month later on July 23, IFP members Siyanda Mnguni and Thokozani Majola were shot dead in Umtshezi, Estcourt, after an argument with a group of people wearing ANC T-shirts. According to IFP party spokesman Blessed Gwala, however, none of these deaths was political. Even Mcupheni Mboni, allegedly shot dead on August 2, 2016 by an ANC member, is not regarded by the party as a political victim.

June 19, 2016. Simon Modihe was shot dead at the Tshwane Events Centre by a gunman who simply walked up to him and opened fire. Modihe was part of a crowd who had gathered to hear the announcement of Thoko Didiza as the Tshwane mayoral candidate. ANC member Justice Mashola was arrested and convicted of the murder, but no one ever asked him why he did it. Later reports implicated George Matjila – a political opponent of Didiza’s – as the instigator of violence. Four more people were killed during the free-for-all of subsequent looting.

The task teams:

After doing a preliminary investigation into each of these murders, I tried to contact the Hawks, the police, and national ANC and the provincial ANC to find out what progress their task teams had made. I wanted to interview the investigating officer in each case. It was impossible to get any official information.

Bheki Cele launched the very first “task team” into political murders in 2010, before the 2011 Local Government Elections. This seems to have petered out while Cele dealt with his own problems.

On June 5, 2016, Police Minister Nathi Nhleko announced a special task team to investigate the rise in political murders. In July 2016 he gave a report-back to Parliament, in which he outlined that 17 people had been killed in political violence, a number at odds with all other statistics. He gave only arrest records for the murders, with no feedback at all about how the issue of political murders should be dealt with. There was no attempt to find motives, or make recommendations about how to deal with this vexing issue. This information, therefore, was gleaned from newspaper reports, local journalists, community members, family members, and local politicians.

Despite many calls to KZN Safety and Security MEC Xolani Kaunda, to find out the status of the KZN provincial task team, he did not respond to requests for an interview.

Police minister Nhleko made the very valid point – which is substantiated by my own research – that most political (anti-corruption/vying-for-positions/dispute-over-business) hits are carried out by professional hitmen, of which the taxi industry seems to have an inexhaustible supply. It is therefore difficult to separate political killings from taxi wars.

The hallmarks of a political murder are that the hit is planned, not random, using professional hitmen. It usually takes place in the victim’s space (so there is no bolt hole), such as the home, driveway, car, office. It is usually carried out by more than one person. Nothing is ever taken. The victim is usually sprayed with bullets, and usually from some kind of automatic weapon.

The leader of the DA legislature in KZN, Sizwe Mchunu, said that the root cause of all politically motivated murders was money. “The ruling party must look at the way it selects its political office-bearers,” he said. “It must close every gap on corruption. At the moment, political power is conflated with prosperity, and this is what this is all about. Just look at how lucrative a councillor’s position is. And that is just the salary – there is also the potential for patronage through tenders and jobs. Until that is dealt with, the political murders will continue. For many people, murder is a career path.”

“The worst problem is a lack of political will to investigate these murders,” says violence monitor Mary de Haas. “There is no lack of people willing to testify, but no one is joining the dots. And no one is asking the hard questions about where the ultimate culpability lies.” DM

Photo: South African police officers destroy thousands of weapons to mark the start of a an amnesty for illegal guns, Johannesburg, South Africa, 15 January 2010.  EPA/STR


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