The rise of the gangster state in South Africa

President Jacob Zuma oversaw a rise in political violence across all sectors of South African society.

President Jacob Zuma with Premier of Mpumalanga David Mabuza in Bushbuckridge, Mpumalanga (GovermentZA, via Flickr CC).

It’s a small world and it smells bad
I’d buy another if I had
What I paid
For another motherfucker in a motorcade

From the Mbombela assassinations in Mpumalanga, one of South Africa’s northern provinces, to the killing fields of KwaZulu-Natal, the devaluation of human life has kept pace with our wounded economy. Life is cheap and taking it has become a trade — a way out of poverty — for many. Not since the Apartheid-era hit squads threatened South Africa’s nascent democracy immediately before and after 1994, has death stalked our nation with such impunity.

Take these excerpts from the 2009 statement of a self-professed hitman detailing Mpumalanga killings allegedly carried out for a prominent local politician — recently elected to national government — and a former provincial police chief:

I was hired to be a cleaner. Being a “cleaner” means eliminating political and or business opponents of both Mr W and Mr S.

I reported that my team was ready and Mr W said we would be paid R40,000 (US$3,340) per hit. We followed Mr Z into his house and I shot him twice or thrice. He was with a child who was shot by ___, while I had to make sure Mr Z was dead. This was in January 2009. I called Mr W and told him the job was done. Mr W sounded very happy upon hearing this news.

The cost of death is dropping too. According to those in the know, as little as R10,000 (about $845) is all that is needed to drop an opponent, while the high calibre rifles so favored by hitmen — state-issue or otherwise can be procured for much less.

“A pre-owned song or a second-hand Uzi, everybody’s got a job to lose”

Former president Jacob Zuma governed from 2009 to 2018. He rose to power on the back of a victory at the ANC’s Polokwane National Elective Conference in 2007. His supporters — including now EFF leader, Julius Malema — vowed to take up arms in his defense. Since then, the rule of the gun has rapidly replaced the rule of law and political ideology is written in tender documents.

While so-called political killings have become hallmark of the toxic legacy of our former singing-dancing-laughing-raping-thieving-gangster-hugging president, it was really all about the money all along. And JZ, as Zuma is popularly known, did not act alone. The ANC increasingly came to resemble a criminal syndicate eating itself, our country and anyone who threatened to disturb the feeding frenzy — be it a lowly shisa nyama vendor, a taxi operator or a mayor — they could be taken out. It has become far cheaper, quicker and the outcome more certain, to order someone dead; moreso than to contest a business deal in court or a local election.

“You can sell one another for fifteen cents, well bye-bye Mother, it’s common sense”

Zuma’s tenure also saw an escalation in economic violence visited on the poor in the form of rising poverty, unemployment and inequality. Increasingly, service delivery protests were met with state brutality, political arrogance and utter contempt for human rights and dignity. The patronage networks flowing from systemic, institutionalized corruption — now finally widely recognized as “state capture” — increasingly enslaved poor communities in an endless cycle of despair. They were forced to carry their captors on the backs of their political acquiescence. As a religious leader at Glebelands Hostel, a vast social housing complex located in the Umlazi township, south of Durban, from where hostel-based hitmen operating throughout KwaZulu-Natal have murdered over 100 people in just over four years, told violence monitors:

A child that is forced to grow up in these conditions feels that no one respects him or sees value in his life. Later he cannot get a job and loses hope of improving his life. He loses all self-respect. How then will he respect or see the value in the lives of others? He could be offered a little money that could make a big difference to his life even though it might end someone else’s. Now you see why it is so easy to hire a young hostel boy to become a killer.

A Glebelands widow whose husband — a popular community leader — was assassinated in 2015 said:

My husband was killed because he was a leader, he asked too many questions. When there was development, the new units were not given to residents who had been living in overcrowded rooms for years, but people from other areas. He asked the councilor about this. This is not a good environment for children — there is leaking sewerage, rotten pipes. That was what my husband was fighting for.

On hearing of his father’s death, the woman’s 13-year-old son flung himself from the third floor of one of Glebelands hostel blocks. He survived but vowed his only interest in life was to avenge his father’s killers.

Mary De Haas, a violence monitor and veteran human rights defender, who previously completed extensive research on the role of Apartheid-era single-sex hostels in the destruction of family life, says of the violence at Glebelands, it is “… extremely serious for children and is almost sure to lead to a variety of problems in later life, especially a tendency towards using violence in their own personal relationships.”

To date, only two of Glebelands hitmen have been convicted of murder.

“No cops, no signs, no left, no right, no stops, no turning round”

The fingerprints of the criminal justice system are, of course, all over the carnage. Below is an excerpt from the charge sheet of seven alleged hitmen, one of whom a police detective, arrested in December 2017 and charged with seventeen Glebelands-related murders and attempted murders that took place between August 2014 and March 2016:

Some time prior to the incidents in question, the accused and certain other persons (collectively referred to as the “assailants”) decided and conspired to form a syndicate with the common purpose to kill persons residing at Glebelands Hostel… in order to take control of the aforesaid hostel… To this end, they armed themselves with an assortment of firearms. The victims were mostly persons who threatened to frustrate or interfere with their aim of assuming control of Glebelands Hostel.”

The impacts of patronage and political manipulation have compromised every aspect of law and order, and despite the judiciary having been hailed as the last bastion of democracy against the march of a gangster state, in reality this only applies to a few high-profile cases involving the larger, more well-heeled civil society organizations versus high profile politicians.

A 2014 statement provided by a Glebelands former block chairperson after he was tortured by police, exposes these connections. According to the victim, he was asked whether he was aligned with supporters of eThekwini ward 76 councillor, Robert Mzobe. He was not. Seven months later the victim was assassinated. The Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) and provincial prosecutors failed to conclude his torture case before he was killed:

The officer was armed with a big rifle which he held in one hand, in the other he held a sheet of paper. On the paper was a handwritten list of names. I could see my name near the top. The officer asked me: ‘Which camp are you?’

As with most other basic functions of government, the less you have, the less likely you are to see justice and the more vulnerable you become to predatory police. Again, it has become quicker, cheaper and more effective to pay a cop a bribe to kill a docket, than it is to ruin your life seeking relief through hostile and interminable legal proceedings — irrespective of whether you have been falsely charged or not. It is easier still for even a low-ranking politician to buy impunity across the crooked blue line.

The policeman who was first on the scene was an off-duty detective who has since passed away. He allegedly concealed evidence that could have led to the killers being successfully prosecuted for the murders. [The officer] collected spent cartridges before the police arrived on the scene… phones, spent cartridges and other evidentiary material were found in his safe.

Excerpt from Exhibit DD: allegations against the police presented to SAPS management in February this year by the Moerane Commission of Inquiry into the underlying causes of the murder of politicians in KwaZulu-Natal.

Commissioner Vasu Gounden, having heard evidence describing the KwaZulu-Natal provincial ANC’s deadly factional war from former Premier Senzo Mchunu, who alleged that the police had tried to frame him for the murder of his bodyguard, declared it “the most chilling piece of evidence this Commission has heard. If the Premier is that vulnerable, who am I as a private citizen?”

Gounden, however, did not seem quite so chilled when he was told of Glebelands false arrests, many of which included torture, sometimes to death. There should be no illusion — when a culture of killing becomes an all-encompassing solution, one body is pretty much like the next, the only variant being the price on its head.

Mr X confirmed, that the policeman living in Glebelands is the mastermind behind the killings… as he would bring in R4 and R5 rifles which would be used in the killing of residents. The same policeman would intimidate people to contribute to the procurement of guns… bullets and to bail out individuals who had been arrested for the crimes committed… hitmen find refuge in Glebelands and are used in political killings not only in Glebelands, but throughout the province.

Excerpt from “Exhibit DD”

“The sun shines on the aluminum, I guess this must be the home of the hitmen”

In apparent attempt to deflect some heat, last year former ANC KwaZulu-Natal provincial secretary Super Zuma suggested some kind of “sponsored third force” was at work in KZN.

But EFF MP, Hlengiwe Mkhaliphi told the Moerane Commission earlier this year: “The only third force is the ANC who are fighting among themselves for resources. There are no ideological differences. It’s a marathon between the ANC factions of who must eat.”

Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, the EFF’s national spokesperson warned the Commission:

Don’t allow yourselves to be used to support a false narrative. Criminal murders must be resolved the way criminal murders are resolved — people ending up in prison, not ending up in the national executive.

But it is unlikely those calling the shots will do time. Not with a police force so mired in corruption that it was recently described by the head of the IPID, Robert McBride, as the “biggest threat to South Africa’s national security.” And increasingly desperate times — made even more desperate by a pro-plunder 2018 budget and a cabinet still rattling with “small nyana” skeletons — are likely to lead to more frequently desperate measures. Many more young men will be recruited into the assassins’ ranks. And just like their “material” (their guns), hitmen are merely expendable “tools” in the hands of their employers, to be done away with by their comrades or the police once they have served their purpose.

The tenure of David Mabuza, former Premier of Mpumalanga and member of Zuma’s Premier League has been tainted by numerous allegations of involvement in a string of assassinations, the most notable being the 18 or so murders apparently linked to corruption during the construction of the Mbombela Stadium for the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup. This nasty debacle not only exposed corrosive factionalism within the ANC and groups loyal to Zuma’s control over state institutions and public resources, but also saw the intimidation, detention and unlawful surveillance of reporters and persecution of whistleblowers. The ANC’s response at the time was to cynically suggest the recall of politicians brave enough to speak out, while former ANCYL leader, James Nkambule, who was believed to have been negotiating the safe testimony of an alleged hitman used in many of the killings, was conveniently poisoned right before matters were about to go to trial.

Mabuza has consistently denied all allegations relating to his involvement in the Mbombela hits and challenged his detractors to provide their evidence to the police. But until now, those implicated in Mpumalanga’s contract killings have remained shrouded by political impunity, or have ended up in shallow graves themselves — throw-away lives in a throw-away society.

I was afraid and tired of the killings. I am not proud of what I did. I am sorry for everything. I did what I did for money to support my children.

Excerpt from the 2009 statement of a self-professed hitman detailing Mpumalanga killings allegedly carried out for a prominent local politician — recently elected to national government — and a provincial police chief.

So this is where the Zuma legacy has led us. To the feet of our freshly anointed deputy president, David Mabuza, ambitious and ruthless, a man who calls himself “the Cat” due to his multiple political lives. Party insiders have suggested newly installed President Cyril Ramaphosa should watch what he eats and keep one eye behind him for ANC tradition dictates, as deputy president, Mabuza could inherit the throne.

If we are not to descend into a full-blown gangster state, (perhaps it’s already too late) South Africa deserves better and needs more than new President Cyril Ramaphosa’s paper-thin “unity” project of inclusivity over justice, perception over reality, profit over the people and the ANC über alles.

What do we need to make our world come alive?
What do we need to make us sing?
While we’re waiting for the next one to arrive?
One million points of light
One billion dollar Vision Thing.

We put them there; now we must take them out.

All quotes from Sisters of Mercy albums Vision Thing (1990) and A Slight Case of Overbombing (1993).

About the Author

Vanessa Burger is an independent community activist for human rights and social justice who has worked extensively with Durban’s hostel communities, most recently at Glebelands Hostel the epicentre of KwaZulu-Natal’s political killings.

Further Reading