South Africa


Murder we Vote? Arresting South Africa’s slide into a Failed State Anarchy

Murder we Vote? Arresting South Africa’s slide into a Failed State Anarchy
In the last three months 3,144 people have been killed in South Africa by firearms. (Photo: iStock)

The scale of South Africa’s murder problem is truly horrific – more than three times more die per 100,000 in this country than in African nations such as Nigeria, Congo and Ethiopia, all of them countries fighting low-intensity wars.

The latest South African crime statistics make for grim reading. The Minister of Police, Bheki Cele, announced that in the last three months of last year no fewer than 7,555 people were murdered, 3,144 of them by firearms. To put this in perspective, some 7,199 civilians are believed to have died during the first year of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a conventional, high-intensity conflict involving indiscriminate missile attacks on blocks of flats and the site of gruesome executions, which has captured global media attention.

Not so much South Africa and its blight of violence, to which the world has apparently become numbed and the population seemingly inured. The costs, however, are very real. 

The scale of South Africa’s murder problem is truly horrific – more than three times more die per 100,000 in this country than in African nations such as Nigeria, Congo and Ethiopia, all of them countries fighting low-intensity wars. Hit squads appear to operate with impunity across South Africa, with the police either helpless, or worse. In 2022, some 30 people a day were shot and killed with firearms – 10,950 for the year.

While interpersonal violence and murder are alarming, they are but the tip of an iceberg riding a tidal wave of crime, to mix a metaphor. The rise of organised crime is truly astonishing. Perhaps South Africa does have a lot in common with Russia, after all.

Companies such as Anglo American, Glencore and Sibanye Stillwater are regularly shaken down for up to 30% of their procurement spending, money which must now go to unskilled operators who essentially take it as loot, providing very few of the “services” they are supposedly offering.

It is not just shakedowns, however. 

Earlier this year, Neal Froneman of Sibanye Stillwater was quoted by Business Maverick as saying:

“Crime has got worse … illegal mining is out of control. I am talking about people arriving with heavy machinery to open pits on our tenements in Rustenburg (chrome). We have confiscated excavators and front-end loaders. The scale has got worse in just the last six months.”

The costs of providing security and making good on criminal losses plus rolling blackouts are estimated on the platinum mines to subtract as much as 6% of revenue, in the process discounting the country’s business. 

A “coal mafia” is stealing from Eskom, contributing to South Africa’s power woes. The Sunday Times revealed how “coal loads are swapped in Mpumalanga coalfields for lower-grade coal or discarded coal by-products, which are inefficient and can damage power stations”.

A former operative was quoted as saying: “One night almost 2,000 tons of RB1 (high-grade) coal was dropped off. You can do the sums. To give you an idea, 2,000 tons fills 65 trucks.”

A “construction mafia” is now almost institutionalised in the building industry. The phenomenon has been well-documented by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime. “These people have organised themselves into groups known as ‘local business forums’ and invaded construction sites across the country, demanding money or a stake in development projects in what can arguably be described as systemic extortion. These activities have been fuelled by the weak response from the state, allowing them to expand their activities. In 2019, at least 183 infrastructure and construction projects worth more than R63-billion had been affected by these disruptions across the country. Since then, invasions have continued at construction sites across South Africa.”

Much has been written about South Africa’s transport mafia, which has two “branches”. The first emanates from the taxi industry where mafia-style killings over routes are so commonplace they hardly make news any more. Taxi bodies also prevent buses from travelling on routes that compete with them. Intercape was last year “ordered” not to run certain routes and even to “put its prices up” so that it did not compete, the subject of a court case. 

A second transport mafia exists in commercial trucking, with highways being blocked. This extends to coal trucking contracts, given the move to smaller producers and myriad hauliers for the power stations. The giant 4,200MW Kendall power station, for example, reportedly now depends on half of its 14-million ton annual coal feed from trucked-in supplies, whereas previously this volume was much more cheaply and efficiently conveyed directly to the mine from the local pit. 

Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations

The demand for contract killers is high. Just last week, the musician Kiernan “AKA” Forbes was shot on a Durban street by a hitman. Whistle-blowers such as Babita Deokaran have been assassinated for calling out corruption in the health department. 

It was reported at the start of February that no fewer than 22 people were gunned down in four mass shootings – 14 of them in one bloody night. 

If demand is high, so is the supply of hitmen who realise they can kill with impunity. As a result, a contract killing now costs as little as R2,600. The journalist and author Nathi Olifant, who wrote Blood, Blades and Bullets: Anatomy of a Glebelands Hitman, explained in an interview: “It’s an easy way of getting rich. If you have money and know where to go, it’s easy … You might have to pass some layers because they are very cautious. Usually, you meet with a stranger, exchange cash, or you deposit the money either in a trash can, or they send a runner that you won’t even see inside a vehicle.”

It is also easy to get away with, as the police appear wholly unable to investigate and prosecute the proliferating killings, never mind preventing them.

Minister Bheki Cele (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

Why is this so? The policing failure has many causes. Chief among these is the failure to develop a modern, capable police service. Such a service requires three elements, which are lacking at present:

  • A professional leadership unencumbered by party politics and capable of managing a large institution. The present leadership – from Bheki Cele (previously fired for dodgy property deals) to National Police Commissioner Lieutenant-General Sehlahle Fannie Masemola – are manifestly out of their depth.
  • A highly skilled, motivated and properly resourced entity capable of quickly and thoroughly investigating complex financial crimes.
  • An independent and professional intelligence service that can predict and interdict the actions of organised criminal networks.

Without these elements, the police are unable to demonstrate that there are consequences for serious, organised crime, and the parallel “mafia state” behind them becomes emboldened, from its wealthy dons to its conscienceless hitmen.

The question that looms large is why, after decades of rampant organised crime, the government has failed to make these interventions, choosing instead to go for leaders who bluster about the need for police to “shoot to kill” instead of dealing with the real core of the rot.

A charitable interpretation would be that this is incompetence and cadre deployment at its worst. In this scenario, the succession of crooked police commissioners and dodgy ministers is – unfortunately for the nation  – the best that the ANC has to offer. There is some evidence for this. Marcus Jooste, the Steinhoff swindler, has not faced prosecution and does not (until someone shows otherwise) enjoy political cover.

Former Steinhoff CEO Markus Jooste. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

A less generous view is that criminal networks are embedded in the structures of political power and have actively controlled the prosecution domain. There is some evidence for this too under the rule of former President Jacob Zuma, where the prosecution service was infiltrated by cadres loyal to him who filibustered legal action against his networks.

As the hope of the police ever rolling back serious crime recedes like the sea before a tsunami, the answer must come from elsewhere. If there is a glimmer of hope, it is to be found in the NPA under Shamila Batohi and the work of the new Independent Investigating Directorate, which has begun to turn the screws on State Capture cronies. She has called for the directorate to be made a permanent structure, which would give it the status of the disbanded Scorpions. “The methodology will certainly be the same, but the one big difference is that this is specifically, the ID will investigate corruption matters and not the broader mandate of organised crime that the Scorpions had,” she said in November 2022. Shivers must have run up a lot of spines.

The decision about essentially recreating the Scorpions – this time focused on organised crime – is for Parliament to decide and so, once again, South Africa’s best hope of turning the tide must get the blessing of the ANC. This is the party that somewhat gleefully disbanded the Scorpions after it began to look too closely to  the activities of its cadres just over a decade ago.

Will the ANC allow the emergence of an entrenched, independent directorate, effectively working outside the police service,  or will the idea drown in a cesspool of political intrigue as threatened ministers refuse to act? Has the critical mass of compromised cadres reached a point where such a structure threatens too many in the party for it be permitted? 

The Justice Minister, Ronald Lamola, said earlier this month: “To ensure that the independence and security of tenure of the incumbents in the ID is strengthened, we have a new bill which is undergoing consultative processes between relevant departments.” And so it’s over to the relevant departments, read Police Minister Bheki Cele.

The economic and social consequences of SA’s levels of violence can only trend towards lower investment, fewer jobs and thus greater instability.  

Take Zimbabwe. The Rhodesian War, or Second Chimurenga, which was waged from 1964 until 1979, and cost an estimated 20,000 lives, including that of some 10,000 guerrillas and 1,361 Rhodesian security force members. The level of violence, and the radicalisation and dehumanisation produced, is viewed as being responsible for the atrocities and policies perpetrated by Robert Mugabe since, including the Gukurahundi – literally “the early rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains” – against his ethnic rivals in Matabeleland, which lasted from 1982 until 1987 and cost about 20,000 civilian lives. 

Last year South Africa recorded three to four times more murders than the numbers killed by the Rhodesian security forces in 15 years of deliberate, armed conflict, a war roundly condemned and sanctioned by the international community. The political consequences of Zimbabwe’s violence have lingered disastrously for more than 40 years since. 

Is this what we should expect from South Africa’s own current murderous war? DM

Greg Mills and Ray Hartley work for The Brenthurst Foundation


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Errol Price says:

    Of the two views proffered by the authors as to the causes and ramifications of the horrific violence which they document, the second is almost certainly the correct one. Criminal violence is inextricably intertwined with the boundless propensity for lawlessness which is embedded in the DNA of the ANC.
    The conclusion is ineluctable. South Africa as a geographical and political unity does not function according to norms favoured by the despised libertarian ” West ” and will not in the future.
    It cannot to use the lexicon of magic so favoured by the ANC and its acloytes be ” transformed ” into a law-abiding state.
    The Western Cape, , indisputably the jewel of Africa, can indeed be salvaged from the wreckage. But it requires intelligent, and far-sighted leadership to lay the groundwork for the time when many 0ther parts of the country will surely descend into unrestrained violence borne of competing criminal enterprises .
    Perhaps such leadership does exist ?

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Yes. For as long as we pay crooks to sit in Parliament. What else? Watch your back, everybody.

  • Jeremy Stephenson says:

    To sum up: we are where we are either because the ANC is complicit, or because the ANC is incompetent. It matters not which, because either way it’s irrational to expect the ANC to be part of the solution.

  • L Dennis says:

    When the unjust rules crime increases

  • Jon Quirk says:

    Sadly, it is not just South Africa, but pretty much our whole continent, that is a lawless, free-for-all gang-infested badlands. The 64-million dollar question is why should this be, when Africans, again generalising, are conservative, law-abiding peoples?

    But is that last generalisation might also be the germ of the reason (and come to that, for the still prevalence of what can be grouped as “vassalage”- that tribal, hierarchical structures still largely hold too many in thrall.

  • virginia crawford says:

    I believe that the ANC is complicit and morally bankrupt. Russia experienced similar corruption, chaos and violence in the 90s and then Putin was elected. What will our solution be? I would vote for a party that prioritised dealing with crime and corruption: would that turn out to be a dangerous choice later? We are sliding into a mafia cum failed state and radical action is required.

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    A very distressing Op-ed to read!
    We know these things and yet we turn away from the truth…rather like the citizens of Germany and the Death Camps ! How refreshing it would be if a divided South Africa could join and fight the corruption that is perpetrated by these cartels of crime. Sadly, when one’s government is found wanting, there is no example to follow and Anarchy prevails.

  • Hilary Morris says:

    If ever there was a case made to emigrate, this is it. The likelihood of any improvement under the ANC is below negligible. What a depressing wake up call on a Monday morning. The 2024 elections need to see this government literally thrown out.

  • Sam van Coller says:

    This is a very superficial article. South Africa is reaping the whirlwind of its past. Advanced social disintegration is being fed by generations of migrant labour destroying the family system, human development and investment bypassing an ever-growing marginalised and excluded population. It is not possible to build a viable society when 400 000 children leave school each year without skills or education and enter an economy where others have wealth, fine houses and cars. Their only options are sex, substance abuse and crime. Inevitably crime levels reach the point where the police force cannot cope anymore and syndicates can take over with impunity. Obviously the state has to fight back but unless steps are taken immediately to start rebuilding our national society, a war against the syndicates will fail. No reference is made in the article about the role of business in a failed, anarchic state. Business is suffering considerable damage as a result of the anarchy but seems to think that it does not have a r0le to play. There is much business can do – their record in the collapse of apartheid demonstrates this. Unfortunately they prefer to sit on their hands and imagine that somehow things will get better. Space does not permit listing some key actions they could take to start South Africa travelling a different human development road. Business leaders first need to look beyond ANC corruption and incompetence to understand what is driving anarchy

  • Hermann Funk says:

    Can you imagine working for a company that has a little more than 500 employees and has the following statistics:

    29 have been accused of spousal abuse
    7 have been arrested for fraud
    19 have been accused of writing bad cheques
    117 have directly or indirectly bankrupted at least 2 businesses
    3 have done time for assault
    71 cannot get a credit card due to bad credit
    14 have been arrested on drug-related charges
    8 have been arrested for shoplifting
    21 are currently defendants in lawsuits
    84 have been arrested for drunk driving in the last year

    373 in total or approximately 70%
    This is our parliament. As long as we vote for crooks, the situation will deteriorate even further.
    This answer is mass action by all those that want to see positive change.

  • Lorinda Winter says:

    Wouldn,t it be wonderful if our spineless leader stood up and just once appoint someone who has integrity, is qualified and not a corrupt ANC cadre? But then I wake up and realise it’s never going to happen. The one time he did it with Andre de Ruyter he backed him only so far and then threw him to the wolves. I’m afraid Adv Batohi has also turned out to be a disappointment but good luck to the new ‘Scorpions’. The new State of Disaster will just be an excuse for NDZ to postpone the 2024 elections. We are well and truly right, royally ….

  • andrea96 says:

    SA is lost. The only hope we have is to save the Western Cape by forcing the DA to move for independence. I find it unbelievable that the DA thinks it will ever win a national election. They have tried for 30 years. When is enough, enough?

  • John Smythe says:

    Good article. Thank you.

  • Lisbeth Scalabrini says:

    Unfortunately also the police are useless. If at least the SAPS could be counted on, maybe some of those numbers would decline.

  • Confucious Says says:

    Yet the votes roll in…. despicable.

  • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

    When you have a senior police detective killed in very suspicious circumstance in 2013, and you have complete silence from the top brass of the police, the Minister and the media you have a very serious problem that needs to be looked at. IN January 2013, General Maswanganyi was killed outside Hammanskraal whilst investigating corruption linked to the DRC by SANDF members driving
    SANDF vehicles. These two members of the SANDF, had their bail paid for by the state in their criminal case and it never raised questions in the media. What was circulating was that he was investigating a very high level corruption in the Defence Force that included abuse of state money, equipment and personnel. The investigation was initiated by the late General Willie Nkonyeni who was also on the hit list of the people behind his murder. The trial of those who murdered him we do not know where it has ended and interestingly, the pick and pay general called Bheki Cele never mentions the case. The case of General Maswanganyi raise very serious concerns about the corruption in the SAPS and the SANDF. If a police general killed in the line of duty is not a matter of concern to Cele who will be a matter of concern? This goes for the murder of the station commander of Meadowlands that we do not hear the lavatory mouth of Bheki Cele saying anything. We therefore do not expect a pick and pay general and a riot police officer to be able to do anything about crime except that they must be shown the door.

  • Graeme de Villiers says:

    Lest we forget the Cash in Transit heist mafia, the ATM bombing mafia, the smash and grab mafia…

  • Kevin Broomberg says:

    The comments below are more depressing than the article. South Africa is lekker. Not kak. Lekker. South Africa is worth fighting for. I am staying, and I will try and make a small difference each day.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

Become a Maverick Insider

This could have been a paywall

On another site this would have been a paywall. Maverick Insider keeps our content free for all.

Become an Insider
Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Download the Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox.

+ Your election day questions answered
+ What's different this election
+ Test yourself! Take the quiz