Understanding and addressing political violence in KZN

Mary de Haas

For all the wrong reasons, KwaZulu-Natal is once again making national headlines. The spate of killings in the run-up to the 2016 local government elections has continued and the Moerane Commission, which is hearing evidence about political violence in the province, has been told that armed hit men in a Durban hostel, with alleged police links, kill with impunity. 

Why does KwaZulu-Natal once again lead the country in political violence?  Why has so little been done to address the problem?

In KwaZulu-Natal, with its distinctive colonial legacy, successive provincial governments have, for over a century, resisted being part of a centralised, unitary state - mooting, for example, a “confederal” status for the province in the 1980s - and leading the opposition to the centralised state model, supported by the ANC and the Nationalist Party in the early 1990s.

The fragmented KwaZulu bantustan boasted a sizeable black African movement - Inkatha - whose  support was bolstered by significant business interests and supposedly “liberal” whites.

The formation of the United Democratic Front (UDF), with its anti-apartheid policies (eg. opposing the incorporation of areas into KwaZulu) proved threatening to Inkatha, which was synonymous with KwaZulu and, hence, apartheid.

Apartheid security forces supported Inkatha and trained the homeland police as its political foot soldiers. It also planted agents provocateurs in the UDF/ANC, who were also plagued by criminal com-tsotsis. 

Political intolerance remains rife

Mayhem swept the province, with violence reaching unprecedented levels as the IFP and its conservative allies pushed - with some success - for greater regional powers, and threatened non-participation in the April 1994 elections. A compromise was reached, but the violence continued after the elections, with a recorded 4 000 deaths in the May 1994-December 1998 period.

While some of the conflict, as in Richmond, was intra-party, most involved the IFP and the ANC, with right wing police members continuing their support for warlords. The pot was stirred by Inkatha’s self-protection units (SPUs), the ANC’s self-defence units (SDUs), and purported MK operatives who had fled into exile post-1990.

Between 1985 and 1999, at least 15 000 people had died, countless thousands had been injured, and had their homes destroyed, and were gravely traumatised (especially children) by the violence.  Dozens of guns caches –including truck loads of weapons from the Vlakplaas hit squad base – still remain unaccounted for. 

By the early 2000s, most of the inter-party conflict was election-related, but there were some "no go" political zones, and a number of deaths of local government functionaries linked to competition for positions and corruption. Among other conspicuous killings were those that occurred after the NFP (New Freedom Party) had split from the IFP (Inkatha Freedom Party).

As elsewhere, taxi-related violence remains endemic, and may be politically-linked, and service delivery protests have increased. Political intolerance remains rife.

Deeply divided ANC

The context in which this entrenched political violence is situated is vastly different to that of two decades ago. KwaZulu-Natal has become the biggest ANC supporting region in the country, with its metro, eThekwini, sending the largest number of delegates to national conferences.

However, it is a deeply divided ANC. The divisions, already apparent in the run-up to Polokwane, had increased and there were internal protests about corruption by 2011. In 2016, Premier Senzo Mchunu. who is seen as pro-Cyril Ramaphosa, was replaced by President Jacob Zuma supporter Willies Mchunu, whose close associate, Sihle Zikalala, had replaced Senzo Mchunu as ANC chairperson in 2015 party elections.

A High Court case to have these elections set aside is pending, with the Ramaphosa-supporting applicants claiming that they were irregular. An audit of branch membership is currently underway, and a number of “ghosts” have already been found. 

While there were deaths connected with these tensions prior to January 2016, such as those in Glebelands Hostel, they escalated across the province as local government elections approached, with at least 20 killed in the first eight months of 2016. Six deaths were of IFP and NFP members, and fourteen were linked to ANC functionaries. Sixteen people have been killed since the elections, and a number of people - including the three Umzimkhulu councillors shot on July 13 – have been injured.

Central to the pre-election struggles were efforts to ensure that the "pro-Zuma" faction was victorious in the selection of councillors. These struggles were conspicuous in eThekwini municipality, where the existing mayor, James Nxumalo – an SACP member seen to be in the Ramaphosa camp – was replaced by Zandile Gumede, a prominent Zuma supporter. Nxumalo’s home area in Ntshanga was one of the hardest hit by political assassinations. Special investigation teams have been deployed, but there have been only a handful of arrests.

Evidence of police complicity

The events in Durban’s Glebelands Hostel should be seen in this broader context. With good reason (the hostels are in a shocking state) service delivery protests against the councillor, a staunch Zuma ally, started a few years ago. They were spearheaded by leaders of the different blocks who were then, from 2014, targeted by hit men allegedly linked to the councillor, with guns (including police issue) allegedly supplied by a police member accomplice.

In addition to the estimated 89 deaths in just over three years, countless residents, including women and children, have been illegally evicted by thugs demanding protection money and selling beds. 

There is overwhelming evidence of police complicity, both by acts of omission (standing by while evictions occur) and commission (malicious arrests of opponents of the councillor, and torture - the first victim died while being tortured by the police). Among those who died were men who had indicated a willingness to stand as councillors. There has not yet been a single conviction for any of the killings.

This disgraceful situation continues because of the appalling mismanagement of the SAPS, characterised by political interference and nepotism. This is not a new problem, but has become far worse since 2009.

My own detailed research on policing in the latter 1990s showed that there was no meaningful transformation whatsoever. Former right wing apartheid security policemen, together with bantustan police members, most promoted well beyond their levels of competence, remained in control.

Malicious arrests, brutality and torture

The fatal mistake made by the ANC government was its failure to recognise and promote competent black South African police members, many of whom, with valuable expertise and experience, left the service. To make matters worse, the ANC placed its own operatives, with no understanding of policing culture and procedures, in senior police positions, with disastrous consequences.

In the past eight years, political interference, corruption and nepotism have increased significantly. Crime Intelligence is dysfunctional, too many detectives are badly trained (and/or corrupt), and the management of this component – like the province generally - is atrocious. 

Malicious arrests, brutality and torture are rife, and IPID is, at best, ineffectual. There are tremendous problems with prosecution services, which should be playing a more constructive role in guiding the police.

Politically motivated killings are part of the general problem of violent crime – and as long as crime pays it will continue. There is virtual anarchy in KwaZulu-Natal, and an apparent lack of political will to address it.

We should all be outraged, and using whatever powers we, as ordinary citizens, have to do something about it.

- This column was originally published in Rapport.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24
Lockdown For
Voting Booth
Matric results are out! Are you happy with your child's result?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
No, the pandemic really messed up their ability to focus
34% - 148 votes
Yes, they did well given the circumstances
66% - 282 votes
Rand - Dollar
Rand - Pound
Rand - Euro
Rand - Aus dollar
Rand - Yen
Brent Crude
Top 40
All Share
Resource 10
Industrial 25
Financial 15
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes Iress logo
Editorial feedback and complaints

Contact the public editor with feedback for our journalists, complaints, queries or suggestions about articles on News24.