The Death of Dialogue: Politically-Motivated Violence in South Africa


The votes have been counted and the ANC leadership positions filled. But there remains some unfinished business from the ANC elective conference at Nasrec this week. And it is business which new ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa must attend to urgently.

If Ramaphosa is serious about rebuilding the organisation then he must start with rebuilding a culture of dialogue – as opposed to violence – within the movement.

And this might be easier said than done – given the video associated with now deputy president of the ANC, David Mabuza, which went viral last week.

A video emerged on social media recently showing several party-goers fire round after round into the Mpumalanga sky amongst a crowd of jubilant ANC members allegedly celebrating the success of their preferred Branch General Meeting (BGM) candidate. The gun-brandishing folk, it said, were enforcers and members of a ‘private army’ in the employ of Mabuza. More than the brazen shooting and the danger it posed to those nearby, what is even more shocking about the video is that the shots were met with casual indifference, and to some extent delight from the gathered crowd.

Interpretations of this incident remain the subject of speculation.

The political atmosphere it reflects, though, is all too real.

What became clear in the build-up to the elective conference, and more broadly the last 20-odd years of democratic rule in South Africa, is that healthy political contestation in this country is at risk of being supplanted by violence and public indifference.

These concerns were raised at a public seminar on ‘Violence and Politics’ hosted by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) earlier this month against a backdrop of increasing political violence.

In August, Police Minister Fikile Mbalula, responding to a parliamentary question from the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), said that from 2009 to August 31, 2017, five councillors in the Eastern Cape, one in the Free State, four in Gauteng, seven in Mpumalanga, three in the North West, one in the Western Cape and – most notably – 24 in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), had been killed. The Moerane Commission of Inquiry into political killings in KZN is a key step in illuminating the extent of the crisis in the province that has witnessed the vast majority of this violence. But apart from the commission, police and law enforcement agencies have done little to assure party officials and whistle-blowers of their safety.

This situation has been reiterated by attacks, threats and intimidation levelled at local government officials across the country. South African Local Government Association (SALGA) representative, Sonwabo Gqegqe, told the seminar that their report, Violence in Democracy, listed 22 councillor killings between 1996 and 2016. Based on a series of interviews with municipal managers and councillors across the country, the report details startling evidence of threats and intimidation levelled at local government officials. Forty-six percent of councillors interviewed claimed that they had been threatened several times with the majority of threats stemming from community members (21%), other political parties (18%) and opposition from within one’s own political party (20%). The motives behind these threats are given as a range of drivers from frustration with poor service delivery, to municipal elections, contestation over access to tenders, and access to employment.

In addition to democratic determinants of the threats, enduring drivers of politically-motivated violence have their origins in the settler colonial and apartheid periods.

For one, as Gqegqe explained, “part of what [colonialism] did was to create a particular culture of dealing with problems.” In the context of a liberation movement fighting an oppressive and violent regime, due process and dialogue are time-exhaustive practices when more expedient measures can deliver vital successes.

We also heard of ongoing assassinations and the emergence of inkabi (paid assassins) in KwaZulu-Natal.

While the historical drivers of political violence persist, the nature of the violence has changed under democracy. ‘Assassination’ implies the elimination of an individual to dislodge a broader ideological agenda. Under the democratic dispensation, the ideological motive for murder has been removed from its apartheid-era roots. In the pursuit of political influence and access to resources, it is ‘killings’ and not ‘assassinations’ that have become distinct in democratic South Africa. As the spread of political killings begins to affect those outside of party-political structures, this distinction becomes most evident. Activists, trade union members and non-partisan community leaders have been murdered in contexts where they have stood in opposition to others’ interests.

These attacks have been mirrored by intimidation aimed at high profile members within the ANC, such as ex-Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan as well as recently resigned MP Makhosi Khoza. The horizontal movement of this violence, which extends from beyond party-political borders to the targeting of high profile political figures within parties, indicate an expanded mandate for politically-motivated attacks and a widening list of targets.

Last year Sisonke Msimang wrote of “the death of compromise” and a departure from the culture of dialogue and negotiation that delivered South Africa’s recent past.

In the absence of dialogue, said Msimang, it is brinkmanship that has found purchase in the national debate, digging its heels in along the fault lines that divide this country.

It is one thing for dialogue to cease to yield common ground between our differences. It is another matter entirely when we kill to give preference to our needs. In defence of South Africa’s democracy, the threat of politically-motivated violence cannot be overstated.

The 2019 general elections are fast approaching, and it will take more than the police to ensure a non-violent political season.

It will take our leaders emulating peaceful political contestation and making it clear in the remaining days at Nasrec that violence is not tolerated within the ANC. Most of all, it will take a departure from indifference to political violence for dialogue to persevere.

Nomfundo Mogapi is the Executive Director of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) and Daniel Hartford is a Research Consultant with the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR)