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AGE OF THE ASSASSIN

With contract killings on the rise, demand for bodyguards increases in KwaZulu-Natal

With contract killings on the rise, demand for bodyguards increases in KwaZulu-Natal
(Illustrative image: Mohau Mofokeng/Gallo Images / Sowetan )

The fear of being killed in KwaZulu-Natal has driven many politicians, taxi owners and even ordinary businesspeople to hire bodyguards to trail them wherever they go. And as the 2024 elections – expected to be hotly contested in the province – approach, there are fears that attacks on local councillors could increase.

The deadly harvest reaped by the activities of ruthless hitmen in KwaZulu-Natal has been accompanied by a growing trend among big and small businessmen and women, senior politicians, taxi owners, councillors and even government officials, to go about their business followed by a phalanx of bodyguards who are ready to spill blood and/or die themselves to protect their patron.

The duty of an armed bodyguard, also known as a personal security officer, is to protect their clients from harm, threats of assassination, assault, stalking and kidnapping. It is a job for a select kind of individual – certainly not suitable for everyone – given the innumerable risks and hazards involved.

But it is a job that is increasingly becoming attractive to able-bodied young men, especially as decent less hazardous jobs are hard to come by. The number of bodyguards one has about one varies from one to more than a dozen.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Assassination nation – political contract killings escalate in KZN as hitmen are offered ‘job after job’

Increasingly common

S’thembiso Msomi, editor of the Sunday Times, recently wrote about this new trend in his column in the paper.

“Fewer things drive home the point that we have become an unsafe society more forcefully than coming across a gang of heavily armed men in bulletproof vests — inscribed ‘VIP protection’ — taking up defensive positions in a shop while their client goes about buying groceries.

“The phenomenon has become so common that in some parts of the country one can hardly attend a funeral without encountering R1s and AK-47s in the hands of men who had come to ‘protect’ one or other mourner,” Msomi writes.

Reg Horne, of Justicia Investigations, a Durban-based company that offers a range of protection-related services, said that in the past people who hired armed bodyguards were those frequently in the public eye, such as celebrities and politicians, who might be at a higher risk. However, he said nowadays even average business people, taxi owners and wealthy individuals hired protection for themselves or their family members.

He said bodyguarding was not a South African phenomenon. It was present across the world, but violent crime in South Africa had forced business executives to hire bodyguards as a safety net.

“Our company has not dealt with politicians and government officials. We deal with private business executives from South Africa and people who are visiting the country, fearing attacks and or robbery. We do risk assessment and analysis to determine the security that will be required. So, the price varies from job to job and client to client. Some clients are ordinary people and others are high-profile people.

“The job is so unlike what you see in Hollywood films. The job is very risky and requires one to be discreet and calculating. It is a complicated and complex operation and risks are different,” Horne said.

An official from another personal security company with offices in Johannesburg and Durban, who asked not to be named for fear of losing clients, said their client base included politicians as well as individuals in the private sector.

“We provide our services to a range of people from different fields of life. In KZN, we have had clients who are traditional leaders and other business people who said they did not require threat assessment because they know they have dangerous enemies. Sometimes it is clear that these people enjoy having bodyguards around them at home and wherever they go. If they can afford it, we provide it … It is more business for us,” he said.

Author and former journalist Nathi Olifant, whose novel Blood, Blades and Bullets: Anatomy of a Glebelands Hitman, was released in December 2022, said the availability of hitmen in KZN was a problem. He said it could cost as little as R5,000 to “take out” a victim, but for some higher-profile targets, including politicians, the price was higher.

“In researching for my books, I learnt about many things about hitmen and their modus operandi. I also discovered that it is easy to move from being a legit bodyguard by day to taking moonlighting gigs as a hitman at night,” he said.

Taxi violence

In April 2023, the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime (Gitoc) released a report titled, Murder by Contract: Targeted Killings in Eastern and Southern Africa.

In 2022 alone, Gitoc recorded 141 assassinations in South Africa. It defined “assassination” as a “targeted hit with victim/s taken out for political, commercial or personal gain by a third party or parties contracting in a hitman or hitmen”.

The report stated that about 51% of all contract killings in South Africa were concentrated in the taxi industry, with 21% related to political disputes, 20% attributed to organised crime and 8% related to personal disputes. 

“The taxi industry is notoriously violent, partly owing to the lack of regulation. Taxi-related violence can range from shoot-outs at taxi ranks to more professional and targeted hits on presumably important figures within the industry. Such incidents are understood to typically stem from competition between taxi associations over routes or to relate to conflict arising from leadership competition within the associations,” reads the report.

The South African National Taxi Council (Santaco), the largest taxi association in the country, said it was aware of the high number of contract killings in the industry.

Santaco is calling on the government and the police to establish a special unit on taxi-related killings and has suggested that members of this unit should “come from outside the [KZN] province”.

Sifiso Shangase, from Santaco KZN, told Daily Maverick that they did not have an accurate figure of how many members had been killed owing to their work, because “we do not keep such painful history in our archives”.

“Yes, more associations are hiring security companies to guard the operations,” he said.

“The [taxi] operators in certain areas have gone to the extent of hiring bodyguards as well. Some of the reasons to hire bodyguards emanate from conflict related to routes, power dynamics, and in other instances our members are also active in society. Some are councillors, izinduna, and others are prominent politicians. On the above basis, because of intolerance from the mentioned structures, it would be assumed that most of the killings are associated with the taxi business, whereas a person had another active life which would have brought his death.”

Shangase said there were a number of reasons for the killings in the industry.

“It is because of the nature of the business. People are not screened when they join associations. The level of cash that flows within associations on [a] daily basis, which sometimes is not accounted for, is the source of killings. 

“Once the industry migrates to a cashless system, the levels of killings would drop drastically. The law enforcement agencies should come [down] hard on the people who plot these murders because most of the time the hitmen are just hired killers, whereas there are mastermind plotters behind the person who pulls a trigger,” Shangase said.

The National Taxi Alliance had not responded to questions sent by Daily Maverick at the time of writing.

Authorities ‘working with purpose’

On Friday, 17 November, Police Minister Bheki Cele released the second quarter 2023/24 crime statistics, which recorded 6,945 murders from July to September this year, a 0.8% reduction from the same period last year.

Cele said “arguments, vigilantism and robbery remain the top three causative factors for murder in the majority of the provinces” and that “firearms, knives and sharp instruments are likely to be used as murder weapons. Firearms alone claimed the lives of 3,106 victims.”

“Police have, between July to September 2023, removed 2,175 firearms off the streets through police operations,” Cele added.

It’s unclear how many murders were recorded as assassinations. On Sunday, 19 November, South African Police Service (SAPS) spokesperson Brigadier Athlenda Mathe said political murders and other contract killings were Crime Intelligence issues that “are usually not discussed in public”.

While the lack of sub-categories in the murder statistics makes it difficult to measure the effectiveness of policing strategies, in September 2023 Cele gave an update on the work of the Inter-Ministerial Committee (IMC) on political killings in KwaZulu-Natal.

He said the IMC was on course to fulfil the mandate President Cyril Ramaphosa gave it in 2018 when he said KZN could not be allowed to become a killing field.

The IMC includes the SAPS, the National Prosecuting Authority, State Security Agency, Correctional Services and the province’s premier and MEC for community safety. 

“Since 4 July 2018, the task team has so far investigated 321 dockets. This is 63 more dockets compared to the last update that was provided in February last year. This figure includes 134 cases reported from 2011 to June 2018, before the commencement of the work of the task team,” Cele said in September.

“The cases under scrutiny by the team include 155 cases of murder, 51 of attempted murder, 77 of intimidation, 12 cases of conspiracy to commit murder with 26 other ad hoc cases.

“So far the work of the task team has resulted in the arrest of 348 suspects, who have already been charged on 233 cases. Sixty-two suspects have been convicted while 155 are going through the court processes; 17 arrested suspects have since died during the court processes.”

Cele said the IMC was “working with purpose, agility and is focused on producing results”.

What political parties say

Cele said that 52 councillors had been murdered in the province since 2011 and the ANC, Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and the National Freedom Party were most affected, with 31, 14 and four councillors killed respectively. Two EFF councillors and one African Christian Democratic Party councillor were also killed.

Political parties ought to be concerned about contract and political killings, especially ahead of the 2024 general elections, which will be hotly contested and likely to lead to a coalition government in KwaZulu-Natal. In September, Cele said it was necessary to provide an update on the IMC’s work “as the country edges closer to the elections”.

Early last week, Daily Maverick sent questions to the three main political parties in KZN, the ANC, IFP and DA. The ANC and IFP – parties whose members have both been killed and implicated in the killings – did not comment.

DA KZN leader Francois Rodgers said his party was deeply concerned about these killings.

“We have, on two occasions, written to all political parties in KwaZulu-Natal and requested that a dialogue take place, with an independent chairperson, to try and discuss the scourge of political killings. Obviously, we are sitting on a report of the Moerane Commission, which has substantial input and recommendations, and to date, this report has not seen the light of day.

“Some of the interventions that we believe could be of assistance is the review of the legislation to ensure that, for instance, where councillors are murdered in suspicious circumstances, those posts be frozen for a number of years. That would certainly stop some of the killings,” Rodgers said. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Kenneth FAKUDE says:

    We need prayers of the highest order, the moral degeneration of the fibre of our society is scary what sort of human views the killing of people as a contract or a job, these people who order these killings are elevated to high structures of governance, some can become ministers entrusted with law enforcement (no particular reference) then we wonder when crime spirals out of control.

  • Gazeley Walker says:

    Is KZN not the centre of where hitmen reside? The place to go to find your killing machine? How many assassinations /murders currently in the legal system have hitmen from KZN on trial? Why are the police not able to break this unholy batch of killers for hire , given the majority seem to reside in KZN?

  • Middle aged Mike says:

    We are screaming towards peak banana republic at an ever increasing rate.

  • nima egumbo says:

    SA in general and KZN in particular is a place where human life is not valued.

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