The normalization of political killings in KwaZulu-Natal poses a threat to South Africa’s democracy ahead of the 2021 local government elections

South Africa’s 2021 local government elections are almost certain to be marred by political violence, assassinations and instability. Over the past decade, municipal elections have proven significantly more volatile than general elections, in part because local-level political offices present opportunities for unscrupulous officials to enrich themselves by controlling lucrative government contracts.

In South Africa’s imploding economy and rising unemployment, politics can offer a way out of poverty. This, in addition to factional infighting within the African National Congress (ANC) and lack of accountability throughout all levels of government, is likely to lead incumbents to fight with more desperation to retain their positions and therefore render the 2021 elections more violently contested than ever.

Despite President Cyril Ramaphosa’s commitment to cleaner governance, cadre deployment (the placement of unqualified but loyal cadres in public administration and state-owned enterprises by the political elite), corruption and political patronage networks – which often operate in the same manner as criminal syndicates – continue to divert funds away from much-needed basic services and infrastructure maintenance and development.

During the 2016 local government elections, at least 60 people were murdered across KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) province, and politically linked killings there have risen steadily. There are early signs of political turbulence, as communities brace for branch and regional elections ahead of the ANC’s National General Council, to be held later this year.

Power struggles within the governing party have had a knock-on effect at the local level. Respected local community leaders are becoming increasingly reluctant to stand as candidates in next year’s elections, especially if it means aligning themselves with the ANC. For many poor communities, the ruling party has become synonymous with violence and corruption.1

When principled, committed individuals who could bring much-needed vitality and change to what has become a toxic political arena are deterred by the threat of violence from representing their communities, it poses a significant threat to political diversity, the representational system of governance, electoral credibility and the future of South Africa’s democracy.

Voting for the ANC is like digging our own grave. A vote for the ANC is a vote for the izinkabi, for the gangster councillors.

Abahlali baseMjondolo press statement2

Mkhokeli Ndamase is a community activist from the rural Eastern Cape who has fought since 2009 against corruption and for his people’s right to basic services, particularly water. Bhekizizwe Zungu is a senior South African Communist Party (SACP) leader at Glebelands hostel in Umlazi, south of Durban. Both names have been changed to protect their identities.3 A vast and squalid low-cost housing complex built to accommodate migrant labour during the apartheid era, Glebelands gained notoriety as a base for hitmen who operate across the province and beyond.4 Between 2015 and 2016, violence rooted in intra-party conflict flowed from the hostel across the province, leaving more than 130 people dead, some of them councillors from other parts of KZN.5

Both Ndamase and Zungu are former ANC activists. Their communities remain loyal to the ANC – despite its many failed promises, corruption and scandals – not because they harbour lingering love for the party but in the absence of what they feel are viable political alternatives.6 Fear also plays a part.

Both men are acutely aware that serving their communities could be fatal for them and their families. Whereas they would previously have leapt at political office, they now say they are worried that any official association with the ANC may damage their reputation and credibility among their constituents. They are also concerned that their attempts to improve their communities’ lives may become subject to the party’s factionalism.

KwaZulu-Natal political killings, 2010–2019

Figure 2 KwaZulu-Natal political killings, 2010–2019

SOURCES: Data obtained from: Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime’s Assassination Witness report, The rule of the gun: Hits and Assassinations in South Africa, January 2000–December 2017, University of Cape Town, March 2018,; KwaZulu-Natal Violence Monitor; Mary de Haas unpublished research data; press reports; South African Police Service records, including docket lists presented to the Moerane Commission; local government submissions to parliament and political parties’ media statements 2010-2018; the Moerane Commission of Inquiry into KZN’s political killings report, transcripts and oral evidence presented during public hearings; interviews with community sources, and the author’s personal records and observations.

Ndamase, who previously mobilized his community to oppose a local mining project, says he has received death threats (in the form of photos, sent via Whatsapp, that appeared to show suspects shot dead by police), and was assaulted by police members, allegedly at the behest of local politicians and the mine owner. Similar incidents have been widely reported by other communities who mobilize around housing issues or against mining.7

When asked if he thought he would face much opposition from the incumbent ward councillor, Ndamase replied: ‘He’s vowed to fight to the end; he has nothing else. If he comes back to the community he will be a nobody. And remember, he has friends in high positions with all the resources who put him there. They want him to stay so they can still get tenders. This is what I am up against.’

Both men fear their nomination could be an attempt to co-opt them and neutralize their stance against corruption, especially relating to lucrative tenders. Zungu put it like this: ‘The SACP – although it is a member of the Alliance – we can throw stones at the ANC. If I am inside the ANC, I can no longer throw stones.’

From 2015 to 2016 at least 12 SACP members were killed at Ntshanga, just outside Durban, in violence linked to the SACP–ANC leadership contest at the city and regional levels.8 Although some prominent SACP leaders have since been assimilated into President Cyril Ramaphosa’s cabinet, others claim they were purged from local government positions by forces loyal to Ramaphosa’s predecessor, Jacob Zuma, who is due to stand trial on corruption charges.9 Communities continue to bear the brunt of the ANC’s obsessive factional battles, unceasingly subjected to divide-and-rule tactics, manipulation and misinformation while the bodies pile up.

Another worrying factor is the militarization of democratic processes. In remote rural areas, far from media attention, electoral freedom is under fire.10

For many years Ndamase’s community has agitated for improved access to basic services, especially clean water. His village relies on a filthy trickle it is forced to share with livestock. Even this meagre supply is now threatened by local quarry operations. His community believes money meant for water infrastructure deve­lopment has been misappropriated. Hitmen, including those linked to the taxi industry, are used to silence witnesses in corruption investigations, undertaken, according to Ndamase and his community, by an increasingly complicit local police force.11

After years of being ignored by government departments, Ndamase’s community declared they would not participate in the 2019 general elections. According to Ndamase, this elicited a heavy-handed response from government. With photographs and real-time running commentary via Whatsapp,12 Ndamase described events at his village during a voter-registration weekend held in January 2019. His observations, including what appeared to be a clear case of political interference in Independent Electoral Committee (IEC) operations, are instructive in their portrayal of what democracy has come to mean for many poor communities:

The ward councillor is driving around the village escorted with heavily armed police, the very same unit that beat me, and other unknown vehicles. They are putting up IEC banners. People heard him [the councillor] saying: ‘People will go to register whether they like it or not, [he] is going to make sure of that.’

People are running for their lives or locking themselves in their yards, nobody knows what is going to happen. The police are supposed to protect us … It’s like they are forcing people to go and register.

Ndamase confirmed there were no protests – the community had simply stayed away. His photographs showed roads empty of all but police vehicles, a deserted registration station and a community in lockdown.

At least three assassinations as well as the disappearance of one of Ndamase’s associates ahead of the ANC’s 2017 elective conference have left in him in little doubt as to the danger he faces, should he agree to represent his community in next year’s elections. He put it like this: ‘They wanted to kill me when I was fighting the ANC for water for my people. Now they want me to fight to change the ANC from inside. They don’t know who to turn to anymore. What must I do? I can’t turn my back on them. But either way, the ANC will probably kill me.’

This does not bode well for the 2021 polls or the parti­cipation of principled individuals in the critically needed restoration of what has become a lethal political arena. The threat to democracy cannot be overstated.


  1. Abahlali baseMjondolo, Press statement on the 2019 General Election, 7 May 2019,

  2. Ibid. 

  3. The author conducted numerous interviews with both individuals, with whom she has worked on community advocacy issues since 2014. 

  4. Kaveel Singh, Glebelands Hostel the ‘centre’ of KZN violence – Moerane Commission hears, News24, 15 March 2018,; Vanessa Burger, ‘If we speak up, we get shot down’, Building resilience in Glebelands Hostel, Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, August 2019,

  5. For example, Harding Ward 1 candidate councillor Bongani Sikhosana was assassinated on 18 July 2016, and two Glebelands suspects were charged. This case was later provisionally withdrawn due to the young age of the witness. Former Bulwer ANC branch chairperson Nkosinathi Ngcobo was murdered on 2 October 2017; the suspect in that case was also based in Glebelands. 

  6. Interviews with multiple Glebelands community sources, 2014–2019. 

  7. On housing, see Abahlali baseMjondolo, Statement for the Human Rights Commission hearings relating to access to housing, local government and service delivery, Johannesburg, 12 February 2015, On mining, see the Amadiba Crisis Committee Facebook page, 24 September 2018,

  8. Data obtained from the Global Initiative, KZN Violence Monitor, press reports, South African Police Service records, government presentations to parliament and official media statements, report and evidence presented to the Moerane Commission of Inquiry into KZN’s political killings, interviews with community sources, and the author’s observations. 

  9. Clive Ndou, ‘Divisions still deep in KZN ANC,’ says sacked former councillor, The Witness, 1 November 2018,

  10. Vanessa Burger, Mbizana voter registration weekend: So is this democracy?, Daily Maverick, 30 January 2019,

  11. Sources in specialized police units, unrelated community leaders in KZN and the EC, a former member of the EC provincial legislature and the author’s own investigations. 

  12. Whatsapp conversation with Eastern Cape community leader during voter registration weekend, 28 January 2019, who was reporting on events in his own village as well as sharing information from other local community sources. 

  13. Des Erasmus, Premier Zikalala talks up KZN’s achievements with his eyes on 2021 polls, Daily Maverick, 5 March 2020,

  14. Mary de Haas, Freedom Day 2018: Corruption kills freedom and democracy, Violence Monitor, 27 April 2018,

  15. Abahlali baseMjondolo press statement, Assassinations continue within the ANC in Durban, Facebook, 2 March 2020,; Sandile Motha, Assassins strike again in bloody KZN mining wars, Mukurukuru Media for Daily Maverick, 28 January 2020,

  16. Des Erasmus, The rogue cop and his hitmen, City Press, 8 September 2019,

  17. Police minister wants probe into political killings, eNCA, 29 October 2018,; Riaan Grobler, KZN political killings: 161 arrests made so far as crackdown continues, says Cele, News24, 28 March 2019, 

  18. Mary de Haas, South Africa fails to get to the bottom of killings in Kwazulu-Natal, The Conversation, 21 January 2020,

  19. Paddy Harper, Charges provisionally withdrawn against Ndobe, Mail & Guardian, 25 March 2019,; Tammy Petersen, Newcastle mayor arrested on murder charge, News24, 22 March 2019,; The Office of the KwaZulu-Natal Premier, Report of the Moerane Commission of Enquiry into the Underlying Causes of the Murder of Politicians in KwaZulu-Natal 2011–2017, Durban, June 2018, 417–423,