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Rise in political violence a worry ahead of polls

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Picture: Bongiwe Mchunu / African News Agency (ANA) / April 3, 2012 – Slain councillor Sindiso Magaqa. No one has been prosecuted for attempting to kill Thabiso Zulu – despite sufficient evidence – and the investigative groundwork for the attack on three councillors resulting in the death of Magaqa, was done before the team took the docket. It has still not been finalised, the writer says.

By Mary De Haas

As the elections loom, reports of the murder of councillors and skirmishes between various political party supporters at by-elections have fuelled fears about a possible return to the carnage of the 1990s.

That conflict was sponsored by the apartheid state but, although the context is now different, the events of July 2021 showed how much damage could be done by covert, well-organised and as yet unidentified forces with an unknown agenda.

Based on pre-election periods in the past decade, it is probable that violence levels will increase.

There are serious shortcomings in state intelligence structures and the SAPS’s operational and investigative capacity. Our highly politicised police service lacks the capacity to prevent crime and deliver justice for most victims.

Defining what constitutes a political killing is problematic. It is one thing to compile lists of people who are active in governance, political parties, corruption-riddled municipal management or those attacked while attending political meetings.

However, assessing probable motives is quite another. Knowledge of context is crucial. If there are known intra or inter-party tensions and factions, the motive is likely to be political.

A complicating variable is that many in public or political office have other enemies, as many of them run businesses – a perk of office.

It is likely that the recent killing of Nongoma councillor Ndukenhle Duma was connected to his business interests. Only in cases which are prosecuted does evidence throwing more light on motives emerge – but, even then, the trial may be only of hitmen, not whoever sent them.

One of the few recent cases showing the complexity of unravelling motives is the conviction of Fisokuhle Ntuli, who was given six life sentences for murdering Nongoma councillor Thami Nyembe and witnesses (he is currently accused 5 in the Meyiwa trial).

Nyembe had been an IFP councillor who crossed to the ANC, but fell foul of factions in the ANC who planned the killing.

Nyembe’s killers were exposed through the excellent work of a Hawks detective who had been seconded to the irregularly constituted ministerial task team on political killings. He and others with similar competence were removed from the team before they could expose other politicians.

The ministerial task team is unconstitutional as it is the minister who decides on deployment. Its head reports to the minister and not to the national commissioner as per the SAPS Act – a very convenient arrangement when suspects may be his own colleagues. There is growing evidence that the team serves the interests of politicians and not justice.

No one has been prosecuted for attempting to kill Thabiso Zulu – despite sufficient evidence – and the investigative groundwork for the attack on three councillors resulting in the death of councillor Sindiso Magaqa, was done before the team took the docket. It has still not been finalised. Among the many dockets taken by the team – not all political – were those of the murders of ANC activist Musawenkosi “Maqatha” Mchunu and youth leader Wandile Ngubeni. In both cases, senior ANC leaders were initially arrested, but charges were subsequently withdrawn. Years later, both matters seem to have disappeared from the prosecutorial radar.

The man deployed to head the task team five years ago has no detective experience, having served in Operational Response. He was the ministerial front and, under his watch, the team ran up huge expenses while achieving little.

The position currently is unknown as the same frontman, lacking intelligence experience, now heads SAPS Crime Intelligence (CIS), reporting to the minister. His sidekick, who runs the secret service fund, is alleged to be a close relative of the minister and has a criminal charge outstanding against him.

Since last year, the CIS has been in a state of crisis, with funds for informers, transport and safe houses disappearing elsewhere, and the minister and his cohorts engaging in disastrous politically-driven restructuring of the component. Any vestige of constitutional transparency and accountability is lacking. There were dangerous shortcomings in intelligence in July 2021, and the situation has worsened with ministerial meddling. Because of the politicisation of policing, it is likely that significant numbers, especially in KZN, support Zuma, including those he sent to China and Russia to hone their surveillance skills.

There is little evidence of meaningful improvement in training and equipping Public Order Policing – missing in action, and lacking functioning water canons in July 2021. Good detectives are in short supply and those doing excellent work do not get rewarded, for it is nepotism and politics that rule the promotions arena. Some of the best police members are victimised with expeditious disciplinary hearings, including for speaking out about corruption, and some are in danger of being killed by corrupt colleagues.

How is this politicised, largely dysfunctional police service going to do justice to pre-election policing?

It is essential that the parties contesting elections, especially in KZN, and faith-based and other civil society bodies start monitoring SAPS performance closely, and speak out publicly if they encounter corruption and political partisanship.

Mary De Haas is a violence monitor in KZN, an honorary Research Fellow at the University of KZN’s School of Law and a member of the Navi Pillay Research Group on justice