Political killings are a symptom not of how much this country has changed, but of how much it hasn’t.
As each week seems to bring awful news of another killing in KwaZulu-Natal, we are awash with explanations.
Most seem to state the seemingly obvious: political disputes should not be solved with violence and we need politicians who understand that and conduct themselves accordingly. But few trace the violence to its roots in a past 23 years of democracy has not changed nearly enough. And so we fail to see political killings as warnings of the need for change not only in how some people in one political organisation in one province conduct themselves, but of how this society operates.
The immediate causes of the violence are fairly clear to researchers and those who know the available evidence: victims are usually killed because they are in the way of people trying to get their hands on public resources. The epicentre of the violence, the Moerane commission investigating political killings has heard, is the Glebelands Hostel in Durban where, it has been told, hit men are available for hire.
These realities mean that there is a clear link between the killings and the fact that many remain excluded from the economy. It has been pointed out repeatedly that, where the market route into the middle-class is closed, government – local government in particular – becomes the most obvious alternative. And so, in parts of this country, not only is serving as a councillor a route into the middle-class; municipalities become key providers not of public service but of money to those who can gain control of them. Given that there are no alternatives for those who can’t get in on the game, some are willing to kill to ensure that they stay in.
The hostel itself is clearly a symptom of the past. Hostels were built to house the men apartheid forced to travel alone to the cities to earn their living. Migrant labour is no longer imposed by law, but the patterns remain and so Glebelands houses men on the margins of the economy, some of whom, the commission was told, see killing as a way into the economic mainstream. Not surprisingly, witnesses reported that Glebelands is “dirty, overcrowded and dangerous”, just as hostels were before 1994. So a slice of the past preserved in the present may be the place from where the violence radiates.
But why only in KwaZulu-Natal? The first answer is that there have been killings in Mpumalanga too. More important, the second is that this too may be a hangover from the past. Patterns persist that were established during the violence in that province during the 1980s, when conflict was conveniently labelled a battle between the IFP and ANC but was often at least as much a fight between those who were allowed into the urban economy and those who were not.
The killing of councillors that attracts attention now is also not the only type of political murder in the province – the other targets activists in grassroots movements who challenge local power holders. As this column has pointed out before, people who live in townships and shack settlements often do not enjoy the freedom to speak and act politically that is the norm in the suburbs. They may fall foul of bosses in politics and government who want to ensure that their local power – and with it their access to resources – is not threatened by people trying to hold them to account.
As long as these past patterns remain, so will the danger of political killings. But none of these problems will be sorted out in a hurry and the country obviously cannot allow political murders to continue while we wait for the economy to be opened, the violent patterns of the past to be changed, and the places where the poor live to be opened to more democratic politics. And so an immediate response is needed from police. Here too, the past leaves its mark.
While police have arrested some whom they accuse of killing councillors, the killing machine remains intact. It is claimed that police don’t intervene at Glebelands because they can’t enter the hostel without getting killed.
This may well reflect the reality that policing in this country has never been about breaking up criminal networks that threaten people at the grassroots – it has always been about controlling the many in service of a few. Another obstacle is that police are often accused of taking the sides of local power holders against their victims. These too are patterns left over from a past in which police were the political instrument of a minority.
So the evidence is overwhelming. Political killings are not a sign that something has gone horribly wrong in the past few years. They are, rather, another reminder that some of the things that were horribly wrong before 1994 still plague us. And so they also remind us of the price in human life we may continue to pay if we allow these patterns to survive.
Friedman is research professor in the humanities faculty of the University of Johannesburg.