The rise of the political murder

Heinrich Matthee says it is no longer easy to distinguish between criminal and political crimes

On 10 August 2017, Shaheed Omar‚ 43‚ was driving with his mother Zubeida Omar in Cape Town when an attempted car hijacking took place. However, the people involved in shooting and killing the nephew of former minister of justice and African National Congress (ANC) veteran Dullah Omar had no real intention of robbing him.

The deceased’s aunt and younger sister of the former ANC minister of justice‚ Mariam Omar‚ stated: “It’s absolutely senseless. They didn’t take anything [and] he offered them the car and whatever they wanted‚ but they didn’t take anything. They just shot him and then left. Fortunately his mother was unharmed.”

Social media and some newspapers immediately concluded that it might have been a political assassination. TimeLive’s headline on 11 August was “Dullah Omar’s nephew killed in possible hit”. After all, the killing occurred amidst increased political tensions and intimidation between pro-Zuma factions and others in the ANC, nationally and in the Western Cape.

A week earlier, the Omar family had also released a statement distancing the late stalwart from the current ANC leadership under the scandal-ridden president Jacob Zuma. Their statement came before an important parliamentary no-confidence motion brought by opposition parties against Zuma on 8 August, which could have pushed him from power.

Mysterious crimes and dirty tricks

Other news reports and also family members have instead concluded that the event was not a political killing, but only a criminal act. There is no conclusive evidence yet. However, the demarcation between political or criminal murders in South Africa is also no longer as clearcut as one might imagine.

University of Cape Town criminologist Mark Shaw rightly states in Hitmen for Hire that more professional political hits are more difficult to identify as they can be disguised as accidents or the by-product of crime. Rogue policemen and criminals are also involved in political hits. As the security services have become more politicized, mysterious burglaries and thefts of computers that are described as crime and that just happen to target lawyers, NGOs or officials that stand in the way of ANC factions are multiplying (see here.)

What is perhaps most telling for a putative democracy, is that political dirty tricks, intimidation and even assassinations have become a commonplace alternative explanation of some criminal events in South Africa. This is not without good reason. Shaw, among others, believes the number of assassinations has increased, particularly over the last year. “Our most recent data suggests that the increase is because of greater political tensions.”

Risky to oppose Zuma’s faction

It has clearly become risky for many ANC leaders to openly oppose Zuma’s faction. In July 2017, ANC MP Makhosi Khoza announced that she had received a series of death threats after publically pushing for Parliament to hold a no-confidence vote against President Zuma. On her Facebook account she posted screen grabs of the death threats, warning her against pushing for the secret ballot.

The Zuma faction in the ANC hopes that his former wife Nkosana Dlamini-Zuma will succeed him as ANC leader during the ANC’s leadership conference in December 2017. Major opportunities for patronage and self-enrichment are at stake. In July 2017, ANC presidential hopeful Mathews Phosa also warned that the vote of no confidence against Zuma had the potential to endanger the lives of some members of parliament who are suspected to be preparing to vote against party wishes.

Phosa said there were already ANC corpses due to the power struggles and political killings in areas such as KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, North West and, more recently, the Eastern Cape. He said people were killed in some provinces before elections or often when they occupied leadership positions.

"The killing fields are expanding. In North West, [Wandile Bozwana] was killed. For what? So these four provinces have become the killing fields of South Africa; where different views are not tolerated."

Phosa’s statements were on the sidelines of the funeral of ANC councillor Thozama Njobe, the speaker of Raymond Mhlaba Local Municipality in Fort Beaufort, Eastern Cape province. On 17 July 2017, Njobe was shot dead in Fort Beaufort in a political assassination. Njobe’s death comes just four days after former ANC Youth League secretary-general Sindiso Magaga and two other councillors survived a shooting after being ambushed at a local shop. Three ANC councillors were shot dead between April and May this year in the same region.

Institutionalised killings

These are not isolated events. Before, during and after the August 2016 local elections in South Africa, at least 20 political candidates had been assassinated. Already in August 2013, Raymond Suttner, a lawyer and honorary professor at Witwatersrand University, as well as a former ANC activist, stated: (W)holesale assassinations have become a regularised way of deciding on leadership and access to wealth within the ANC and its allies.

Analyst David Bruce has estimated that there have been more than 450 politically motivated murders since 1994, a claim repeated by the South African Local Government Association (SALGA).[1] The trend seems at present to be largely concentrated in northern provinces, especially KwaZulu Natal, but also in Northwest, Mpumalanga and Eastern Cape. Political killings have also occurred in Gauteng and in the Western Cape provinces.

According to the Institute of Security Studies, motives for political killings have included the silencing of whistleblowers revealing corruption in the ANC or civil service, the targeting of political opponents, or competition for positions in the ANC or civil service that provide access to public funds and cash from firms eager to buy political influence.

The ANC’s political factions seen at national level are also mirrored in provinces where councillors kill each other for positions. A few provincial cabinet members and senior ANC officials have been suspected of or involved in such killings. In 2016, Neo Moepi, previously the spokesperson for Thandi Modise, the chairperson of the National Council of Provinces, said that he had to watch his back.  “It’s not just me; everyone in this province is scared.” David Mabuza, Mpumalanga province’s premier, himself survived an alleged poisoning attempt in 2015.

Political killings to continue

Political analyst Gareth van Onselen commented:

In response to one apparent assassination, ANC general secretary Gwede Mantashe said: “The reality is that selection of candidates for council is always a life-and-death issue.”  That is a stunning admission.  For all the pretence the ANC regularly offers up of South Africa as a modern, progressive constitutional democracy, it is in truth a far more crude and violent affair.  The ANC, which is neither a revolutionary movement nor a traditional political party, remains caught between the world of armed struggle and formal democracy.  A culture of assassination has inculcated itself into its internal political dynamics.  At local government level, democratic choice and death often sit side by side.  That is not a picture well-illustrated by the media.  It is remarkable how little sustained and meaningful attention this aspect of South African politics receives.[2]

To date, political assassinations have largely affected local politicians, even if there may have been involvement by politicians at a higher level.  However, in 2016, there were reports of provincial and national politicians fearing attacks.  Reports emerged of one of President Zuma’s four wives being implicated in a plot to poison him in June 2014.  She is still treated as a suspect in the case.

Factional infighting, sometimes involving intimidation and political assassinations, will intensify in the run-up to the ANC's leadership succession in 2017 and in the run-up to the national elections in 2019. In order to get the support from key provinces, any successor to president Jacob Zuma will have to make deals with provincial leaders who are corrupt, perhaps even implicated in political killings in their areas. The same dilemma will be faced by international companies trying to conclude major deals in South Africa.

Shaky rule of law

In 2016, the then Police Minister Nathi Nhleko established a political violence task team to deal with recurring murders, attacks and threats. However, more than 90% of the hitmen or those who ordered them are still walking around free. This situation naturally reinforces the degree of fear, paranoia and compliance within the ANC at all levels.

Corrupted law enforcement also feeds political killings. Violence monitor Mary de Haas points out that in the past police had done little to investigate possible assassinations. In fact evidence, she said, pointed to police involvement. She added that police often did not investigate these murders properly, even when the killers were caught on CCTV footage.

Shaheed Omar was by all accounts  a talented and decent man. His murder is an outrage. Hopefully, Shaheed Omar’s family and friends will receive all the support they need from those around them. Hopefully, his killers will be brought to court and convicted. And hopefully, citizens from all communities will stand together in organizations and projects to monitor and resist the spreading blight of intimidation and violence.

As political intimidation and offers of patronage continue to play a role, the Zuma faction may still produce the new ANC president in December 2017. If so, mysterious crimes and political violence will remain part of the morphing rules of the game in South Africa.

Dr. Heinrich Matthee is a political analyst for companies and NGOs and a guest researcher at the University of Amsterdam, Netherlands.


[1] Legal Brief, 12 July 2016.

[2] Gareth van Onselen, “Corpses pile up in ANC power struggle”, Business Day, 29 February 2016.