Political Killings Rock South Africa as It Heads into Elections

Katherine Houreld/The Washington Post
People walk past a sign marking the town of Nongoma in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, where four councilors from the National Freedom Party or their family members were attacked last year.

NONGOMA, South Africa – The hit man struck just after midnight. His bullet shattered a window, punched through a 4-year-old boy and slammed into the body of his grandmother as she slept beside him, a family member recounted in an interview. The victim, Ntombenhle Mchunu, was a soft-spoken 75-year-old town councilor. That position had made her a target.

Mchunu’s killing in August was the beginning of months of terror, including three other attacks on her council colleagues and their relatives, for this small town in the north of the country.

As South Africans head into national elections Wednesday, the country’s politics have been rocked by an epidemic of assassinations, including 40 recorded since the start of last year. While they have largely targeted local officials, politicians and activists, the killings appear set to impact the outcome of the national vote.

The killings have fostered a climate of lawlessness and government paralysis that has fueled voter anger, and the failure of the ruling African National Congress to stem the violence has been eroding the party’s popularity. National polls now show that the ANC, led by President Cyril Ramaphosa, is unlikely to gain a majority in the parliamentary elections for the first time since it came to power in 1994 after the end of apartheid, raising the prospect that the party will have to form a coalition government.

The ANC has grown so concerned about the hijacking of local administrations by violent criminals that it warned in a document at its last party conference that “entrenched gangs and extortion networks have sought to establish criminalized forms of governance.”

Rumbidzai Matamba, who conducts research at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime into assassinations in South Africa, said municipal killings in part affect the outcome of national elections by disrupting local services, vital to many voters. Many of the political killings are linked to disputes over corrupt government contracts for basic services such as sewage, security, water, trash collection, electricity and road repairs.

She said the assassinations are also a part of an effort by criminals to seize control over local party branches, which exert a huge influence over the selection of candidates on the national stage and on voter turnout.

Matamba’s organization has recorded 166 political killings – which it defines as the murder of individuals holding political or administrative positions, candidates for local municipal positions, activists and whistleblowers – since 2019. The killings have reached across the country’s political spectrum.

Police established a special unit in 2018 to investigate political killings, focusing especially on KwaZulu-Natal province, a hotbed of political killings in South Africa, but they rarely issue updates. In September, Police Minister Bheki Cele said 348 suspects had been charged in 233 cases of political violence, but it’s unclear how high the arrests reach.

“It’s the paid assassins who are arrested, not those who plan, those who pay,” said Thami Ntuli, chairman of the South African Local Government Association.

The main road in the town where Mchunu lived is a stretch of tarmac crowded with cheap liquor stores, gasoline stations and grocery stores, nestled amid the undulating green hills of KwaZulu-Natal. Nongoma is not particularly prosperous, but the town council has control over lucrative contracts.

Katherine Houreld/The Washington Post
Nongoma Councilor Nonhlanhla Zungu went into hiding after attacks on her colleagues.

Trouble began in January 2023 after the political coalition governing the council collapsed and a new coalition, including the elderly councilor Mchunu, took control. Immediately, tensions spiked. Council members from the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), which had lost power, came to a council meeting chanting Zulu war songs, witnesses said, and summoned their followers to help blockade the council offices. Police were called, and ultimately a court ordered the council to reconvene.

The town council under the new coalition led by the National Freedom Party (NFP) began examining contracts that had been awarded by the previous council, dominated by the IFP. One in particular caught their attention: a contract for street cleaning worth an estimated $24,000 a month. It was canceled.

Weeks later, Mchunu was shot dead. No one has been arrested in the case.

Then the husband of a colleague in the new coalition, Senzeni Zulu, was killed in front of their grandchildren, she said in an interview. The killers had come looking for her, she said, but she had left her home very early for a morning prayer meeting. They forced her husband to open every door in the house, insisting she must be home, then shot him when they couldn’t find her.

“When they shot my husband, the kids tried to scoop up the blood and put it back in his chest,” she recounted sadly, drawing her fringed black shawl closer around her black shirt.

When police arrested four men in connection with the killing, Zulu said they discovered that their phones contained pictures of her sent by a fifth suspect: the man who held the canceled street-cleaning contract. He was later arrested, she said.

An IFP party spokesman, Mkhuleko Hlengwa, and multiple IFP councilors in Nongoma did not respond to requests for comment about the contract and the killings.

Town councilors hired bodyguards – men in sunglasses to escort the officials’ shiny pickups – but the violence didn’t stop. Another member of the governing coalition, Mphathiseni Manqele, was shot in his car beside his wife and son, he later recounted. The bullet shattered Manqele’s jaw. He now wears a surgical mask when he appears in public.

Two of the assailants were apprehended after one was wounded by a bodyguard, Manqele said, but the mastermind of the attack remains at large.

Yet another councilor, Nonhlanhla Zungu, went into hiding. Armed men ambushed her brother and niece and beat them, unsuccessfully trying to make them reveal her whereabouts, Zungu said.

“We couldn’t go into the streets and meet our constituents. We couldn’t hear their complaints,” she said. “Council business mostly stopped.”

As public disaffection with political violence and corruption has surged, voter turnout in South Africa has tumbled, falling from a high of 87 percent three decades ago to only 66 percent in the last national election, held in 2019. Many South Africans hold the ruling ANC responsible, including for some of the assassinations.

“There is an attitude here that if you are poor, you can be killed. That is how apartheid treated us, and it is how the ANC government treats the poor,” said Thapelo Mohapi, a leader of a squatters movement known as Abahlali baseMjondolo. The walls of his office were decorated with portraits of some of the 25 slain members of the movement.

Katherine Houreld/The Washington Post
Thapelo Mohapi, a leader of a squatters movement known as Abahlali baseMjondolo, stands in front of a mural commemorating their struggle for land at the group’s headquarters in eThekwini.

Three of its activists were killed in the space of a few months in 2022.

From the patch of ground in front of his home in KwaZulu-Natal’s eThekwini municipality, Sibusiso Mhlongo can see the fig tree where his friend Ayanda Ngila was shot. Behind Mhlongo is a hillside shack with a broken window where Lindokuhle Mnguni was killed.

His own wife, Nokuthula Mabaso, was gunned down beside the corrugated iron wall of their home. “I found her kneeling down, bleeding from her wounds. The bullets had passed through her,” said Mhlongo, leaning his powerful shoulders back and closing his eyes. They had been together for 25 years. A mother of four, Nokuthula Mabaso was a warm, confident leader who would even crack jokes with her adversaries.

As his wife lay dying, Mhlongo said the residents called for the police and an ambulance. Neither came.

Katherine Houreld/The Washington Post
Sibusiso Mhlongo points to the dents in his the corrugated iron wall of his shack in the eKhenana squatters’ settlement where his wife, Nokuthula Mabaso, hit her head after being fatally shot in 2022.

The violence was linked to a dispute with the ANC over a tract of once-vacant land where the squatters had settled after, they alleged, government-built homes elsewhere meant for the poor were instead sold by town councilors to political cronies.

The squatters had built their settlement known as eKhenana in an overgrown ravine, complete with jury-rigged power, a chicken house and school named for the Martinique-born revolutionary Frantz Fanon. On the wall of the shipping container that functions as an office and library are letters of support from global intellectuals.

But the settlement was on valuable land. In 2018, residents say, the local ANC councilor told the people to get out. “He came with petrol to burn people’s houses,” recalled resident Thozama Mazwi. Their homes were demolished.

But the squatters came back.

Then in March 2022, Khaya Ngubane, the son of the local ANC party chief, was accused of attacking one of the residents with an ax. The attack was witnessed by Ngila, and a few days later, he was shot dead beside the fig tree. Ngubane was charged with the murder and later convicted.

During Ngubane’s trial, two witnesses to that fatal assault were, in turn, killed: Mnguni at the hillside shack and Mabaso beside the corrugated metal wall.

ANC spokesperson Mahlengi Bhengu-Motsiri did not reply to a request for comment.

Mhlongo, Mabaso’s widower, said he used to be an ANC supporter, but after the violence in their community and the poor response to her death, he plans to vote for another party.

“When we need government, where are they?” he asked. “Why should we come out for them?”