A return to the ‘killing fields’?

2012-10-17 00:00

A recorded increase in the number of political party officials and supporters murdered since the beginning of 2010 — at least 40 to date — has given rise to concerns that the province may regain its “killing fields” reputation.

This scenario is unlikely in the near future because, unlike in the past, there is currently no evidence of these killings being orchestrated, nor of collusion between perpetrators and security force members. However, there is no room for complacency given the tendency to use violence as a means of solving political (and other) problems, the presence of well-trained hit men and huge quantities of arms, and the need for drastic action to improve policing. The lessons of the past could help us to prevent a return to those blood-soaked days.

Fluctuating levels of violence are not new. While the worst of the conflict dissipated in the late nineties, threats, intimidation and killings continued into the new millennium, especially around elections. For example, in 2006 (a local government election year) at least 14 councillors and their associates were murdered, seemingly in interparty attacks. Of course, the motive is not necessarily political if a party supporter is killed, and the context is crucial in assessing probability.

Intraparty killings have also been a feature of the violence since the eighties, and seem conspicuous in recent murders. Destructive competition over positions within a party, or nomination for elected office, appears common to all parties. Recent court cases following the murders of certain ANC and NFP representatives point to this type of conflict.

Party members working to expose corruption within their ranks may also face threat and possibly death. There is widespread speculation that ANC eThekwini regional secretary Sbu Sibiya may have been assassinated in November 2011, because he stood up against corruption. Long-standing comrades in the greater Pietermaritzburg area who reported threats from IFP supporters a few years ago, now say they fear for their lives because they are fighting corruption within their own ranks. A number of apparent intraparty killings of ANC leaders have occurred in other provinces, including Mpumalanga and the North West.

Nor are tensions linked to a possible contest to President Jacob Zuma’s leadership of the ANC in Mangaung absent in KZN, despite assurances from provincial leaders that the province stands united behind Zuma. Following the Polokwane upheavals, some Thabo Mbeki-supporting members claimed to fear for their lives, and great damage was done to the cause of robust intraparty debate. More recently, reports of meetings to lobby support for other candidates (the so-called anyone-but-Zuma faction), and purported divisions among senior ANC cadres, have left many party supporters fearful about speaking out (even on their telephones), not knowing who they can trust.

While there are interparty tensions between the ANC, on the one hand, and the IFP and NFP on the other, in Umtshezi (Estcourt), it is conflict between the IFP and the NFP which is linked to deaths in several areas. Based on figures given by the NFP, almost 60% of politically linked deaths during 2011/2012 (23) have been of NFP supporters. Many of these deaths have occurred in the large, sprawling hostel complexes of Umlazi and KwaMashu in Durban. Historically, these hostels have been IFP strongholds, their residents linked to ongoing clashes with nearby UDF-ANC-supporting areas in the eighties and nineties, as well as continuing intraparty conflict around leadership and recruitment struggles.

There are good reasons for this.

For many decades, single-sex hostel accommodation all over South Africa has been associated with high levels of violence of different kinds. They are particularly traumatic places for children who live in their environs. Hostels are symbols of the exclusion of black people from “white” urban areas during colonialism and apartheid, when men and women were legally permitted into “white” towns only when employed. Men left their wives in rural areas and often took up with other women in town, who might move into the shared rooms with boyfriends. Other residents had little control over who visited their roommates, even if they were criminals, or over the illegal sale of liquor in their rooms. Intimidation and coercion flourished in the crowded, barracks-like (and badly maintained) accommodation, where men might reluctantly be press-ganged into militant political activities. As elsewhere, there seems no shortage of guns and, with the proliferation of shack dwellings in hostel blocks, proactive policing becomes increasingly difficult. The current conflict between the NFP and the IFP appears linked to the need to control territory with a view to influencing voting patterns, including during by­-elections.

Bearing in mind that national elections are looming in 2014, what can be done to defuse existing tensions, and to prevent any further escalation of politically linked violence? The past has some lessons here. The violence, which led to this province being dubbed the “killing fields”, was permitted to rage on because too many people neither knew about it nor cared about it, so they did not demand action. Since good media coverage is essential, any potential for stifling information flow — including through the proposed Protection of State Information bill — must be fought tooth and nail.* Similarly, vigilance is called for to ensure that there is never again complicity on the part of the police.

There is no evidence that this is the case with the present violence — indeed the police are to be commended for making arrests in a number of the cases. However, there have been disturbing allegations about politicians using police offices, in their own interests, against their opponents (including in the intra-ANC tensions in the Pietermaritzburg area).

It is important that political leaders impress on their followers that violence is completely unacceptable, but more than words are needed. Sanctions must be implemented against anyone who even uses the threat of violence against opponents (itself a crime). The provision of decent accommodation for migrants, which recognises their human dignity, is urgent and long overdue. Like all crimes, those which are politically motivated must be dealt with through the criminal justice system, including professional, non-partisan policing — especially crime intelligence and detective work — and competent prosecution.

Only when those responsible for the killings are brought to book, will we know whether they are driven purely by individual greed, or whether there is any orchestrated movement within a party or parties to use violence against opponents.

Hopefully, no such orchestration exists for, if it did, it would seriously undermine our fragile democracy.

* In my submission to the parliamentary committee, I gave examples of how the bill could be used to stifle information about violence (on my website at www.violencemonitor.com). The death figure I used is based on the one given in the Legislature a few weeks ago, plus reported killings since then. The one I quoted for 2006 is one I put together myself at the time.


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