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Assessing and promoting civil and minority rights in South Africa.

[Source: Business Day Live by Gareth van Onselen.]

On the back of a recent Mail & Guardian (M&G) story, the South African media has decided political assassinations deserve a bit more attention. As the corpses pile up, the daily hard news stories have increased, as well as some more tangential follow-ups in Sunday Times and City Press.

The numbers vary. The Institute for Security Studies says there were 71 killings related to politics between 2006 and 2014. The Wikipedia page dedicated to political killings in SA lists about 53, although it doesn’t appear to have been updated since 2014. Dave Bruce estimates there have been 450 politically motivated murders since 1994, a claim repeated by the South African Local Government Association.

As for the ANC itself, one internal report claims 38 members have been killed in KwaZulu-Natal alone since the beginning of 2011 (excluding 13 Inkatha Freedom Party and National Freedom Party members killed then). That report is more than three years old.

Any way you cut it, a lot of people have died and the overwhelming majority involve the ANC.

Of course none of this is anything new. The M&G story, titled “Killings signal the start of the battle for power”, seems to suggest the phenomenon is triggered by elections but the truth is it has no season, and all the murder it describes has been covered before.

Assassinations are now a common feature of ANC politics, even if they enjoy no formal legitimacy in the party, they just become more common around elections. But better late than never. The prominence given to the issue has heightened attention on it and government has been forced to react — Police Minister Nathi Nhleko recently announced a task team to investigate the problem.

Typically, the killings revolve around local politics and much of the analysis has focused on the prospect of a job as a councillor as a determining factor. There is no doubt much truth to this. In his usual detached fashion, ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe says “the reality is that selection of candidates for council is always a life and death issue”.

But for all this, little attention or, indeed, pressure, is applied to the ANC itself. Routinely the media is all over political parties for the various problematic “cultures” their behaviour engenders — patronage, corruption, racism and so on. These and many others elicit a stream of analytical commentary, which usually follows the line: “What can such and such a party do to address the culture of patronage/corruption/racism in its ranks?” Or, “How such and such incident/position reinforces a culture of patronage/corruption/racism”.

In pursuing answers to these questions, every aspect of a party’s attitudes and values are brutally interrogated in microscopic detail. Not just what a party says or does, but what it doesn’t say or do. The pressure is relentless and the criticism strident and bold.

But what of the culture of violence? On the evidence, the ANC is an extremely violent party. Its members are literally killing each other. And, when they aren’t killing each other, they are beating each other to a pulp.

This summary of the “Top 20 violent ANC fights” (The ANC’s top 20 violent fights) provides some numbers on that front, post Polokwane, as branches turned on each other, chairs were thrown and bones repeatedly broken across the country.

It hasn’t abated, and it has spread across the alliance.

In February 2015, after members of the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the ANC in Mpumalanga sent each other to hospital, over attendance of a speech, former ANC treasurer-general Mathews Phosa, the person delivering the speech, said afterwards: “I have never seen ANC cadres in T-shirts attacking SACP members. It induced a sense of shock for me. My view is that it’s like Charlie Hebdo in France, because blood was spilt where people were supposed to assemble and express themselves freely. The right to expression was trampled on and violated in the most shocking way imaginable.”

Over and over again, ANC institutions supposedly dedicated to democratic outcomes turn to force, intimidation and physical harm to achieve the result they desire.

There are not just killings and beatings, there’s destruction of property too. ANC offices are routinely torched as mob rule governs. The list of these kinds of incidents is now too long to properly document but hardly a week goes by without something ANC being set on fire. Some attacks relate to poor service delivery, many are the consequence of factionalism.

It is now largely irrelevant what the ANC has written on paper, in party constitutions and charters. Its real nature is spelt out in blood and destruction. Its ostensible good intentions cut a stark contrast with reality.

Following Dianne Kohler Barnard’s callous Facebook post and Penny Sparrow’s racist rant, so much pressure was applied — much of it by the ANC itself — to the DA, its leader was forced to address the nation in a live television broadcast. Steps had to be taken, pledges signed, policies adopted. It felt the full brunt of South Africa’s outrage.

But the ANC is killing its own and the response is at best muted, at worst casual. Anyone who thinks South Africa a normal, functioning democracy should think about that for a moment.

The ANC is very quick to downplay national crises by comparison to international trends and patterns. Violent crime, we are often told, is a problem, but a problem no different to what other countries experience. Likewise the economy — things are bad, but they are bad everywhere, every local problem the manifestation of a global recession.

The party will be hard-pressed, however, to point to a modern political party in any other well-established democracy, as the subject of a government inquiry into its own assassinations. This is a problem the Democratic Party, the Conservatives or the Republicans just don’t have. And, if there are parties in a similar position, you can be sure they are not the kinds of models one would evoke as an example of best democratic practice.

We have a strangely neutral reaction to death in South Africa; perhaps because there is so much of it. The thing that really gets us going is self-esteem. When things like dignity, or respect or equality are infringed upon, then the blood really gets pumping. But not death. Death, it seems, is someone else’s problem. When we do take issue with it in a serious way, it can be somewhat myopic.

Socialist thought is a great example. As with so many other collectivist ideologies, it fairly thrives in South Africa. Yet it has a history steeped in blood and death. The Chinese command economy under Mao orchestrated a famine the likes of which the world has never seen. Tens of millions of people killed or starved to death in the most brutal and inhumane fashion. The English language cannot do the full horror justice. Stalin turned the Soviet Union into an empty shell of country, killing millions, destroying lives and imposing a dictatorship of fear for decades.

But is this ever spoken about? The SACP doesn’t mention it. The EFF never alludes to it. For all the death and destruction colonialism inflicted on the world, and there was much of it, nothing is ever said about the mind-boggling damage Socialist thought has done. It’s as if it never even happened.

And its contemporary advocates feel little or no obligation to address it, even to explain their own understanding of socialism in relation to it.

Of course the legacy of colonialism has very particular consequences for SA, this is not an attempt to suggest a moral equivalence in relation to our particular history. Nevertheless, if it is the idea one takes issue with, as a global evil, well it certainly doesn’t exist in a vacuum. . There are many ideological horror stories writ large throughout history.

The ANC’s particular ideology, a kind of heavily diluted socialism has this as part of its ideological history but it can name streets after Mao and no less than its president evoke his ominous call to “let a thousand flowers bloom” (a call which proved to be the death knell for thousands of intellectuals in China) as if it were entirely ahistorical. It can flirt with North Korea, perhaps the ultimate communist dictatorship, without any meaningful consequence or outrage. And Julius Malema, as then-ANC Youth League leader, can visit Venezuela and champion it as a model for equality. But the underlining ideology or history of these things and places is rarely critically engaged or condemned. What outrage follows is rarely meaningfully applied to those who indulge this kind of thinking.

It seems to be the same with regards to the ANC’s internal culture of violence and death. It is accepted as acceptable. Somehow just the way of things. There is much we accept in SA as the unofficial order. To that list we can add political assassination and violence. It just doesn’t feature on the radar as a make-or-break concern. Certainly not like “corruption” or “state capture”.

The heightened media attention given to the problem should be welcomed. This kind of thing should be front page news. It doesn’t get worse than murder. Pressure should be relentlessly applied to the ANC to explain itself, to address the problem, and to take concrete steps that it explains to the public; ultimately, to report on the consequences.

The ANC, through apathy and factionalism, decay and neglect, has engendered an internal culture of death. We have seen only the tip of the iceberg. Follow it down, or in any detail, and there is a monstrosity below the surface. It is time to demand some political accountability from the governing party.

South Africa at a Glance
59 620 000 (mid 2020 estimate)
3.2% y/y in July 2020 (CPI) & +1.9 y/y in July 2020 (PPI)
-51% q/q (2nd quarter of 2020)
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