AGE OF THE ASSASSIN
SA local government hit list: Murder of municipal councillors and officials exposes the dark side of politics
The killing of municipal councillors and officials is on the increase in South Africa. It represents a direct attack on our hard-won democracy, says Bheke Stofile, the president of the South African Local Government Association.
Our democracy is under attack. These are not just glib words. Public representatives in local districts and municipalities across the country are being assaulted, their homes burnt to cinders and, most horrific of all, they are being murdered in a criminal contestation for power and a slice of the public purse.
The president of the South African Local Government Association (Salga), Bheke Stofile, expressed his grave concern at the escalation of incidents of intimidation and killings of councillors and municipal officials in a statement on 19 September.
“It cannot be that week after week we convey condolences for public representatives who have been killed. The killing of municipal councillors and/or senior managers should be viewed within the contestation of power; it presents a direct attack on our hard-won democracy,” Stofile said.
Research commissioned by Salga has highlighted the following increasing trends showing how unsafe councillors’ lives have become:
- Security threats at offices and homes;
- Councillor’s family held up in their homes;
- Extortion of money from councillors;
- Intimidation from gangsters related to building projects;
- Threats for executing official responsibilities;
- Killing of both councillors and officials; and
- Damage to moveable and immovable property.
“These attacks threaten the credibility of our democracy; pose a danger where society, in general, might develop intolerance, which is inimical to our democracy; erode our constitutional imperatives in so far as it neither reflects the character of our society or the will of the people; and it negatively impacts the credibility of local government as a potential area of opportunity for qualified and competent public representatives and prospective employees.
“The killing of councillors and municipal officials is not a local government matter that can simply be resolved single-handedly. There is a need to marshal society in its entirety to go back to the basics – where there will be respect for human life and democracy. The killing of councillors takes place in the backdrop of a violent society where human life is no longer valued,” Stofile said.
According to Salga data as at 12 September 2022, in all provinces, barring Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, there have been 48 incidents relating to attacks on councillors and municipal officials, which have occurred since the local elections in November last year.
Although Salga did not have statistics for the Eastern Cape, our reporters established a worrying pattern of violent attacks and murders of councillors in the province.
Since the local government elections in November last year:
- Councillor Nanziwe Rulashe was assaulted and dragged from her office at the Amathole District Municipality offices in East London by alleged security officers. A few weeks later, shots were fired at her house.
- In September, Fundisile Ranai (49), an Ingquza Hill Ward 15 councillor and OR Tambo District Municipality water and sanitation portfolio committee member, and his 18-year-old son, Siyolise, were shot dead at their Slovo Park home in Lusikisiki at about 9.30pm on Friday.
- In Buffalo City, DA councillor Mawethu Kosani went into hiding after he received death threats in the form of bullets attached to a photo of him and his child.
- The house of councillor Sinethemba Mbendane in KwaBhala near Lusikisiki was sprayed with bullets.
- EFF’s proportional representative councillor for Ward 16 in the Inxuba Yethemba Municipality (Cradock), Sisa Mxotwa (52), was shot dead just before he was to be sworn in as a councillor.
- In May, in Nelson Mandela Bay Ward 43, councillor Andile Andries and his assistant, Lubabalo Keso, were gunned down in broad daylight near Andries’ home in Kiva Street, KwaNobuhle.
- In February, Ward 20 councillor Zwelandile Booi was shot dead in Kwazakhele, Nelson Mandela Bay.
- In March, the former mayoral coordinator and former councillor for Nelson Mandela Bay, Mazwi Mini, was shot while watching TV in his KwaNobuhle home. He was shot in the jaw and survived, but had to go into hiding afterwards.
- In April, a Motherwell councillor claimed he was being stalked by a hitman.
Leander Kruger, spokesperson for the Nelson Mandela Bay mayor, Retief Odendaal, said there are currently no councillors under protection. But in Buffalo City, Samkelo Ngwenya, spokesperson for that metro, said they had one councillor and one City official under protection at present.
A councillor in the small Mhlontlo Local Municipality, which includes the towns of Qumbu and Tsolo, previously claimed that he was receiving death threats.
For the past month, public representatives in Port St Johns Local Municipality have bore the brunt of violence in that town.
The Eastern Cape MEC for Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Zolile Williams, said there was a growing demand for people from Port St Johns and the surrounding villages to be appointed to the municipality and this is probably what had triggered the violence.
On Thursday, protesters demanded the resignation of the mayor, Nomvuzo Mlombile-Cingo, and two other councillors, and created roadblocks that had cut off the town from Mthatha and Lusikisiki.
On Sunday, council chief whip Mxolisi Moni’s home was burnt, and his nephew shot and wounded. Last week, Mlombile-Cingo’s house was also attacked.
Several councillors received death threats and the homes of three were set alight.
Moni said he was held hostage, along with Mlombile-Cingo, Speaker Cebisa Mazuza and councillor Gcinumzi Tshoto.
Moni said his house in Port St Johns was also set alight on 9 October.
“On Sunday, they shot at my house and injured my nephew, who was in the house at the time, but fortunately on that day I was not around; I was attending a funeral in Mount Frere,” he said.
He said he feared that he might be killed soon.
Mhlontlo municipality mayor Mbulelo Jara was attacked in his home in Qumbu.
According to Jara, on 4 September 2022 a group of gunmen stormed his house in Sigubudweni locality in Qumbu, shooting straight at his house and municipality vehicle, but fortunately no one was injured.
Mayor Jara said after the armed men shot at his house and municipality vehicle, they further stole 52 sheep.
Jara said he now fears for his life as this was allegedly directed at him.
“For now, I don’t know where these threats are coming from, but police are still investigating this. My entire family is in shock and fear because we do not know who is doing this.”
In Nelson Mandela Bay, several councillors, fearing violent reprisal of residents after days of no reaction, stormed the electricity department to demand that the power be restored to their areas.
Previously, council speaker Gary van Niekerk was forced into hiding after a price of R150,000 was put on his head.
DA councillor in the Inxuba Yethemba Municipality Rika Featherstonehaugh said it was difficult to always distinguish if something was just ordinary crime or politically motivated.
She said shots were fired at her home and people were on her roof shortly after she had moved into a new house.
“I was alone at home. It was 1 or 2 July.”
She described how she heard a noise on the roof and then heard shots fired.
“I was panic-stricken. All the security firms arrived here. They were climbing on the roof to look. The police arrived with three vehicles and they came to search the property as well.”
She said afterwards her colleagues and friends were wondering if it was not the result of a businessman trying to intimidate her after she declined to approve a liquor licence he had applied for.
“There is always that fear in your heart,” she said.
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Salga recorded three incidents of intimidation, attempted assassination and harassment against councillors in Mpumalanga since 1 November 2021, which was later confirmed to DM168 by Mpumalanga Cogta spokesperson Lindiwe Msibi.
Msibi said that last month, there was an attempted assassination of a councillor in Govan Mbeki Local Municipality, who DM168 understands from reports to be ANC Ward 4 councillor in eMbalenhle, Simphiwe Sindelo. Sindelo was reportedly arriving home from a meeting on 27 September, when gunmen fired a number of shots at his house.
“[The] councillor is currently under police protection,” she said.
Msibi told DM168 that in the City of Mbombela, “a councillor reported to the council that his life is in danger and a security threat assessment was conducted, and it was established that there was merit for police protection. The councillor is currently under a police protection programme, which will be reviewed after six months.”
Additionally, Msibi said there is “ongoing intimidation and harassment” directed at the mayor of the province’s Steve Tshwete Local Municipality, Mhlonishwa Masilela, “who is currently barred from entering municipal buildings by municipal employees”.
“Security around him has been beefed up after an arson attempt on his house during the recent employee strike,” Msibi told DM168.
The arson attempt on Masilela’s house in August 2022 is a culmination of tensions that began last year when employees demanded salary increases, City Press reported.
According to the Salga data, the Western Cape recorded the highest number of attacks on councillors, with 21 reported in the province since 1 November 2021.
On the evening of 1 September 2022, ANC Ward 9 councillor in Saldanha Bay, Arthur Gqeba, was severely wounded, along with his driver, after a gunman opened fire on the pair while they were leaving a ward committee meeting in Vredenburg. In a statement, police spokesperson Captain Frederick van Wyk said that Vredenburg police are investigating attempted murder cases.
In response to queries from DM168 on Thursday, provincial police spokesperson Colonel Andre Traut said the case is still under investigation and no arrests have been made.
While Gqeba was reportedly in critical condition following the attack, the ANC’s chief whip at the Saldanha Bay Municipality, Zandile Komani-Nkohla, said the party “was hopeful that he is recovering well under the circumstances”.
“We were informed that he was going to be moved to a safe place, due to the fact that his assailants are still at large.”
Speaking to DM168 on Thursday, Komani-Nkohla said that Gqeba had received death threats before, and that she, along with other councillors, had growing concerns for their safety.
“We thought that things had settled down, until recently, when councillor Gqeba was shot,” she said. “Before he was shot, he informed us, as the ANC caucus, that he was receiving death threats and that the municipality had placed him in a safe place.”
Komani-Nkohla said that ahead of the local elections last year, during the campaign when she was still a community leader, she became a victim of an attack where criminals torched her car. She also recalled several attacks on other councillors in the municipality in the past 18 months, who were previously community leaders.
The councillors who have been attacked were “all actively involved in community issues” and many were community leaders, she said.
“The [lack of] safety of us as public representatives is very concerning,” said the EFF’s chief whip at the Saldanha Bay Municipality, councillor Thulani Khulu. “You never know who’s next.”
Khulu told DM168 that his car windows were smashed in April this year and, the following month, the nuts on his car tyres were removed. In both instances, Khulu said he opened cases with the police and reported the incidents to the Speaker’s office.
“Those investigations are still ongoing,” he said.
“As politicians, we’ve come to expect these kinds of things … Then you’ll get some parties that are being established now and make inroads where some parties would think would be their strongholds, ” said Khulu.
When DM168 asked Khulu whether the attacks on councillors and municipal officials were more frequent around local elections and by-elections, he responded with a resounding: “Yes.” Khulu has been in council since 2016, and was re-elected for a second term last year.
“It does. And it could be that it’s an element of immaturity from political leaders in terms of how we view one another as leaders in the same communities … Each and every political party wants to contest a space – and win a space.”
While Salga had no information about the attacks on councillors and municipal officials in KwaZulu-Natal, Daily Maverick elections analyst Wayne Sussman said politically linked killings are heavily concentrated in this province.
From media reports, DM168 understands that at least 10 councillors and municipal officials have been killed in the province since 1 November last year. However, there are many incidents that go unreported, said Mary de Haas, a KZN violence monitor and sociologist based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
Speaking to DM168 about the politically linked killings in the province, De Haas explained that councillors have a considerable amount of power, or “patronage”, to influence access to municipal resources through inputs on tenders, housing contracts, building roads, and the distribution of goods and services. This, coupled with competition and rivalry among political parties and politicians, fosters an environment where violence and assassinations are increasingly common.
Except for a few incidents in the province involving members of other parties such as the DA, IFP, National Freedom Party and EFF, the violence predominantly targets ANC members.
“Historically, KZN was plagued by interparty violence and political murders. This is thankfully much rarer now. The ANC does, at present, have the majority of councillors in the province. Often the competition for the candidate is far greater than the actual ward contest. This has sadly seen more and more elected ANC councillors pay the ultimate price,” said Sussman.
While De Haas was hesitant to say whether the trend of politically linked killings in the province was on the increase, she said it was likely to continue as long as there was a culture of impunity hanging over the province.
KwaZulu-Natal has seen a number of unsolved political murders over the past few years, and the failure by police to arrest the perpetrators has created “a culture of impunity in the province”, said De Haas.
“If you are killing people and getting away with it – which most of the killers are – you’re going to continue,” said De Haas. “We are such a violent society that people simply resort to killing to achieve what they want.”
DM168 sent queries to the KZN SAPS requesting figures on the reported number of councillors or municipal officials killed in the province since 1 November 2022, and the number of arrests and convictions.
“All political-related matters are investigated by the Political Task Team,” responded spokesperson Constable Thenjiswa Ngcobo, who referred us to the SAPS Head Office.
Police Ministry spokesperson Lirandzu Themba did not provide a response by the time of publication.
Daily Maverick elections analyst Sussman says that while being a ward councillor is a “tough, thankless job”, which has become harder with ageing infrastructure, “it is still a well-paid job”.
“In many communities where opportunities are few and far between, a ward councillor position can give a person job security and a middle-class income for five years. In extreme cases, an activist or candidate losing out on such a position will see them or their partners in crime do anything to get that person standing in your way, removed.”
Among the proposed remedies to the crisis, Salga’s Stofile said the association believed there was a need for platforms to engage on issues relating to councillors’ welfare. The SAPS and National Prosecuting Authority should ensure that reported cases are investigated and the criminals prosecuted, and that a model of conducting risk assessments for councillors and municipal officials “be developed as a matter of priority”.
The Eastern Cape MEC of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Zolile Williams, said he had written to the Provincial Commissioner of Police, Nomthetheleli Mene, requesting a meeting to discuss a responsive security plan to deal with this growing trend of violence against elected public officials at local government level in especially the OR Tambo District.
This meeting will take place on Thursday, 20 October.
“Violence is no substitute for constructive engagement,” he said. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.