Follow the money


On the trail of South Africa’s political assassins.

It was a peaceful evening in the township KwaNdengezi, near Pinetown in KwaZulu-Natal in September 2014. Thuli Ndlovu’s year-old son Freedom was in his grandmother’s arms. It was good to be alive. Thuli was glad she had drawn attention to, and taken a stand against, the corruption that was robbing poor people in the area. Also there was neighbour Siphehlise Madlala who was helping Thuli’s 17-year-old daughter, Slindile, with her matric studies.

It was a warm and cosy domestic scene in the tiny RDP house, a cramped dwelling, but an improvement on the shack the Ndlovu family had occupied previously. For the people in the room the evening could have gone on forever. If it was a good time to be alive, it was perhaps not the best time to die.

The hitman came through an unlocked door. It is probable that no one in the room recognised him. He was not one who would be affected by Thuli’s revelations. He was just a hired hand, a technician doing his job. His first eight shots hit Thuli and the next two brought Madlala down. Thuli was dead before the imposter had left the room, but Madlala was rushed to hospital and survived.

South African political assassinations are about money. While they may take different forms and the financial gains may not always be direct, the end result is nearly always in the killer’s financial interest or the interest of those who employed him. For someone trying to solve any of these cases the best starting point is to look at who stood to gain from the victim’s death? Simply put: follow the money.

Political killings can be motivated by competition for state contracts or political position, to warn a whistleblower to be silent, to influence a court action by ridding the killer of a difficult magistrate, to eliminate a competitor, to increase a shrinking territory or some other way of growing the killer’s revenues. They are almost never about ideology. Whether your official position is the free enterprise system or a variant of socialism is not the issue. What is important is who controls the public purse strings.

 Researcher David Bruce

According to violence researcher David Bruce, in KwaZulu-Natal alone they number in the vicinity of 500 since 1994. A 2015 study by Mark Shaw and Kim Thomas found just over 1,000 cases nationally over a 16-year period.

Beyond the statistics and the motives, each case, like that of Thuli Ndlovu, is a personal tragedy.

Zamakuhle Sibisi was waiting for the return of his mother, the secretary of the local branch of the ANC Women’s League, when he heard the sound of gunshots. His mother had been shot eight times in her car from an AK47 assault rifle. He moved her carefully to the back seat and drove to the hospital as fast as he could, sitting in his mother’s blood which filled every crack and crevasse of the driver’s seat. A few days earlier she had told him she no longer felt safe and was going to organise protection for herself.

The feeling that they are not safe is widespread among local government politicians. It came as a surprise to the nation to discover that 20 of the candidates on the ballot of the 2016 local government elections were already dead, having been murdered, presumably by opposing candidates or members of their own party who felt they should have received the nomination.

Before he was killed, Rustenburg councillor Moss Phakoe had a similar premonition to that of Sibisi. In Mpumalanga, ANC councillor Themba Mpila, commenting on the murder of his friend, Michael Phelembe, said, “When you get involved in ANC politics in Mpumalanga, you know you may be killed. I fear for my life.”

Shaw and Thomas speak about the commercialisation of assassination and the “specific objective of… eliminating an obstacle”. When a political party is as dominant over large sections of the country as has been the case of the ANC since 1994, the majority of these killings are bound to be intra-party affairs. There is no point in killing an opposing candidate who has no chance anyway or, in the case of whistleblowers, an outsider who does not have access to behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing and so has nothing to tell. Most of the competition lies within the ANC itself. “But it is not the ANC that is killing people,” says Mpila. “It is corrupt people within the ANC who want to monopolise power using the organisational machinery.”

Even ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe said: “The reality is that selection of candidates for council is always a life and death issue.”

In pre-1994 days the discussion within the liberation movement was between communists and nationalists, with a bit of input from black consciousness.

Former ANC MP Raymond Suttner

“The most important change in the ANC,” says author, academic and former ANC MP Raymond Suttner, “is that it is no longer about political ideas, visions and such, but patronage and corruption… The reasons may go beyond money, but insofar as access to political office is now seen, especially by the ANC, as access to economic security or wealth, everything has a monetary value. But I would not be so blunt because that means that one is removing the complexity, and the fact that there are also other reasons, depending on the context.”

One well-known political killing that does not seem to have been about money is the 1991 murder of Chief Mhlabunzima Maphumulo, a former head of Contralesa (Congress of Traditional Leaders). He was killed after a long-standing disagreement with Inkatha and continuing unrest in the surrounding areas. He had often been accused of not showing enough respect to the king or to Chief Minister Buthelezi.

David Bruce quotes Maphumulo’s wife as saying, “From the trial it seems as if it was a retaliation murder. The suspects were paid hitmen. The man who was paying them thought my husband had something to do with another murder.”

The money that changes hands immediately after a killing is the payment of hitmen. Very rarely do those who want the obstacle removed do their own dirty work. And the wells from which hitmen can be drawn seem to be deep and labyrinthine.

A Cape Flats gang boss was approached to kill the Public Protector, but seemed to have decided that killing opposing gang members over territory was less hazardous, and withdrew. Taxi wars and organised crime also provide sources from which killers can be recruited. Dina Pule, a cabinet minister at the time, when accused of fraud, was more than usually ambitious in removing obstacles. She allegedly tried to recruit a hitman to eliminate the chairperson of parliament’s ethics committee and the registrar of MPs’ interests. In this case, the hitman was less ambitious and reported the matter to the police.

The going rate for a killing seems to be from R5,000 upwards. Some killers are highly professional, well dressed, and go about their business calmly. Others are amateurs, nervous members of street gangs for whom R5,000 is a vast amount.

Favourite places for assassinations are the homes of victims, often while they are watching television, or in their driveways while leaving or coming home. Others have been killed leaving political meetings, on highways and elsewhere. Moss Phakoe died arriving home, so did Mbuyiselo Dokolwane of Freedom Park, south of Johannesburg. Philip Dlamini from Inchanga was shot leaving an SACP meeting. Michael Phelembe was killed at home, as was Thuli Ndlovu. Where they died are generally places where they are easy to find and identify, which suggests the use of hitmen who may never have met the victims previously.

The killer of North West businessman Wandile Bozwana gave every impression of professionalism. He was calm and seemingly experienced. He found his victim on an off-ramp of the N1 north of Johannesburg. The killer stepped out of his BMW and fired repeatedly, hitting Bozwana nine times. He died in hospital hours later.

Bonakele Majuba, former provincial secretary for the SACP in Mpumalanga, put it this way: “Criminals are doing (the killing), but they are attacking politicians. Most of the time people who have been killed have a political profile… otherwise pure criminals would be killed. It is now impossible to differentiate politics from business.”

A surprising degree of deliberation and organisation exists. Hit lists seem to have been compiled and were part of testimony in the Phakoe case, the Phelembe case, and the Joe Dlamini case.

A typical obstacle to the corrupt accumulation of wealth is the whistleblower. Thuli Ndlovu was an office bearer in Abahlali, an organisation for the poor and homeless that is not aligned to any political party. She found corruption in the eThekwini Housing Department. RDP houses were being sold and the money pocketed by those who should have been allocating them to the poor.

Richard Pithouse of Rhodes University agrees that there was undeniable evidence of corruption in the housing Department at Cato Manor.

“Sometimes RDP houses were a reward for political loyalty, or they were allocated to family members of the politician involved and sometimes people had to pay for a house they should have received for nothing.

Thuli found that vast amounts were being spent irregularly on building shacks. She would not let it go. She was very challenging.”

Thuli Ndlovu’s campaign came to an end on 29 September 2014 when the gunman entered her home. Two ANC councillors and the hitman were charged with her murder.

“Originally the charges were dropped. At that stage it looked like anyone could get away with murder,” says Pithouse. “For years political killers seemed to act with absolute impunity. But since then the charges have been reinstated and the suspects found guilty. They are now in prison. The days of absolute impunity in KwaZulu-Natal seem to be over.”

Thuli Ndlovu was a selfless person, doing what she did because she hated the thought of other poor people like her being abused and cheated. But not all victims of political assassinations are as virtuous. Bozwana, who died in a professional hit that took place on the N1, had the reputation of benefiting from his political connections in the awarding of tenders. During apartheid years, he had been a Bophuthatswana policeman, but changed horses when 1994 offered better rewards. He was a major contributor to the ANC. He was also an obstacle to whoever has gained by his death.

There are curious aspects to all these cases, but none with as many peculiar features as that of the death of Moss Phakoe. (Read about it in the next issue of Noseweek.)

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