As Killings Of South African Politicians Surge, ANC Ignores Pleas For Help

White South African farmers aren’t the only ones who are fearing for their lives in the face of persecution by the African National Congress. Increasingly, members of the party have been struggling to survive amid a surge in violent retribution. As the New York Times reports, South African politicians are being assassinated with alarming frequency as party members hire mercenary assassins to eliminate rivals (or, more often, anti-corruption whistleblowers). Even as murders proliferate and public outrage intensifies, prosecutions are rare. Killings soared under former President Jacob Zuma, but Cyril Ramaphosa, the “reform” candidate who ousted Zuma, has ignored calls to try and stop them, fostering suspicions that these lethal intraparty feuds extend all the way to the party’s leadership.

With political will to stamp out the killings within the ANC virtually nonexistent, they have become a potent reminder that the rule of law in one of Africa’s largest economies is virtually nonexistent. They’re also a sign of just how far the party has strayed from its roots. One politician who took a stand against corruption in a rural South African province told the NYT that he felt like he was being “hunted like an animal.” In its story, the NYT shares how one local politician, a man named Sindiso Magaqa, was ambushed in his red BMW by a hit squad who riddled him with bullets. He survived the attack, but died a few weeks later from his wounds.

Magaqa’s crime? He tried to expose ANC politicians involved in the construction of a public project to build a new Memorial Hall in Umzimkhulu after obtaining documents showing that the municipality had paid contractors more than $2 million with little to show for it. 

The documents, which were reviewed by The New York Times, showed that after the contractor won the renovation contract in 2013, worth $1.2 million, the municipality paid the company and its subcontractor nearly two-thirds of the money, even though the project was far behind schedule.

Two years later, after the company and its subcontractor failed to finish, the municipality hired a different contractor for another $1 million.

In all, the documents do not unequivocally prove corruption on their own, but they show the municipality spent nearly all of the money it had budgeted for the hall – and ended up with little to show for it.

Mr. Zulu said he had grabbed the files and promised to pursue the case with his contacts in the police. But over the following months, Mr. Magaqa brandished the documents in the council and challenged leaders of the dominant A.N.C. faction, leading Mr. Zulu to wonder whether his old friend was also trying to use the issue to his personal political advantage.

The attack that eventually killed Magaqa occurred several months later.

Meanwhile, a friend of Magaqa’s who is presently in hiding for fear he might be next on the ANC’s hit list compared the party to the Italian mafia.

All of the assassination targets had one thing in common: They were members of the African National Congress who had spoken out against corruption in the party that defined their lives.

“If you understand the Cosa Nostra, you don’t only kill the person, but you also send a strong message,” said Thabiso Zulu, another A.N.C. whistle-blower who, fearing for his life, is now in hiding.

“We broke the rule of omertà,” he added, saying that the party of Nelson Mandela had become like the Mafia.

One notable aspect of the recent spate of killings that differentiates them from the political violence of the past is that, today, ANC members are killing other ANC members as they struggle for turf and power. In the past, violence was confined mostly to members of rival political parties.

Political assassinations are rising sharply in South Africa, threatening the stability of hard-hit parts of the country and imperiling Mr. Mandela’s dream of a unified, democratic nation.

But unlike much of the political violence that upended the country in the 1990s, the recent killings are not being driven by vicious battles between rival political parties.

Quite the opposite: In most cases, A.N.C. officials are killing one another, hiring professional hit men to eliminate fellow party members in an all-or-nothing fight over money, turf and power, A.N.C. officials say.

Of all the trappings of corruption now borne by the ANC, the killings are perhaps the most serious, and the most difficult to ignore.

The party once inspired generations of South Africans and captured the imagination of millions around the world — from impoverished corners of Africa to wealthy American campuses.

But corruption and divisions have flourished within the A.N.C. in recent years, stripping much of the party of its ideals. After nearly 25 years in power, party members have increasingly turned to fighting, not over competing visions for the nation, but over influential positions and the spoils that go with them.

Since the beginning of 2016, the rate of killings has almost doubled, prompting police to release data about political killings for the first time earlier this year.

The death toll is climbing quickly. About 90 politicians have been killed since the start of 2016, more than twice the annual rate in the 16 years before that, according to researchers at the University of Cape Town and the Global Initiative Against Transnational Crime.

The murders have swelled into such a national crisis that the police began releasing data on political killings for the first time this year, while the new president, Cyril Ramaphosa, has lamented that the assassinations are tarnishing Mr. Mandela’s dream.

The wave of killings has done so much damage to the national psyche, that some believe the country was better off before it achieved democracy.

“It was better before we attained democracy, because we knew the enemy – that the enemy was the regime, the unjust regime,” said Mluleki Ndobe, the mayor of the district where Mr. Magaqa and five other A.N.C. politicians have been assassinated in the past year.

“Now, you don’t know who is the enemy,” he said.

In a sign that the people could soon act to unseat the corrupt ANC, dissatisfaction has festered even as Ramaphosa has pushed the expropriation of land from white farmers (while also tacitly endorsing violence against white farmers). Markets have lost confidence, too, sending the South African rand spiraling lower earlier this year, though it has begun to claw back some of its losses in recent days. But exactly one year from now, South Africans will have an opportunity to vote out the ANC during a general election in October 2019. But given this propensity for violence, we imagine it wouldn’t go peacefully.

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