In recent years South Africans have been stunned by a spate of murders of high-profile individuals – gangsters and crime fighters alike. We think immediately of Babita Deokaran in 2021, Muzi Manyathi in 2022, Cloete and Tom Murray in 2023, Mpumalanga crime boss Clyde Mnisi also in 2023 and his widow two days after his funeral, Moss Phakoe back in 2009 – for whom there is still no justice. There are many more.
The country’s overall murder rate is shockingly high – the latest crime statistics released in February by the South African Police Service (Saps) shows that in the third quarter of 2022 the average was 82 per day, from a total of 7 555 murders recorded during the period. Taking the average for the 12 months from the fourth quarter of 2021 to the most recent revelations, the average works out to 74 people every day.
Of those murders, though, no data is collected specifically regarding organised or targeted killings. As far as the state in concerned, it seems, these particular victims are just more numbers on an ever-growing general list.
A new report written by analyst Rumbidzai Matamba of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC), sheds more light on such killings, with the aim of constructing an “evidence base that can provide a platform for a call to action”. Titled The Business of Killing: assassinations in South Africa, the report assesses and analyses the proliferation of targeted killings by paid hitmen in South Africa, drawing from the latest Global Organized Crime Index, as part of GI-TOC’s Global Assassination Monitor project.
It examines the reasons behind the latest targeted killings, measured between 2021 and 2022, and analyses their characteristics and the illicit markets in which they occur.
“Despite the high levels of targeted killings in South Africa, and even though there is recognition of this criminal market by the state, there is no dedicated state-level database that disaggregates targeted killings, which are instead grouped under the umbrella category of murder in the police annual crime reports, and there is still no consistent collection of data on the topic,” the report notes. This is where the Global Assassination Monitor and its database of quantified and categorised assassinations recorded cases since 2000, comes into play.
A market for murder
Assassinations destabilise the state by weakening democracy, fuelling tensions within political parties, and by doing away with whistle-blowers, undermining the criminal justice system.
The fact that several commissions of inquiry into violence have been established, including the Moerane Commission of Inquiry into political assassinations in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), says Matamba, shows that the South African state has acknowledged the phenomenon of murder for sale.
Add to that a number of task teams set up to investigate and prosecute violence, and the result is – not much in the line of curbing anything.
South Africa‘s high level of criminality is fuelled, the report notes, by “endemic gang violence, with groups particularly active in the drug trade and extortion rackets, compounded by accessibility of illicit firearms”. The prevalence of targeted killings should be considered as a subset of these violent organised domestic criminal markets.
“In 2022, GI-TOC recorded 141 assassinations in the country, an average of more than two a week. And that is almost undoubtedly an undercount given the limited sources of data,” says Matamba. “They occur so frequently that the cases and the headlines blur together in the news cycle and are quickly forgotten.”
Especially over the last two decades, she adds, violence has become “a monetisable commodity that can be bought and sold”.
And in this commercial market for organised violence, assassinations, or contract or targeted killings, abound. They are commissioned for economic, political, or personal gain, and facilitate other criminal markets within the country’s organised crime ecosystem, such as illicit drugs, extortion, organised corruption, organised robbery, or illegal mining.
Although they account for a relatively small proportion of murders in South Africa, assassinations constitute an explicit message and threat to other opponents, and families, colleagues, and communities of the victims.
“Professional hired assassins (hitmen) are in high demand within the taxi industry and organised crime markets, and are also contracted by political and business actors to remove rivals and threats,” says Matamba. “Assassination has therefore become a strategic tool.”
Perpetrators are often sourced from certain segments of South Africa’s criminal underworld, she says. These include armed gangs in the Western Cape and the minibus taxi industry, particularly in KZN and the Eastern Cape. In some cases, Matamba warns, perpetrators are hired from law enforcement agencies.
The deadly details
Targeted killings are categorised in this report into four themes:
- Taxi industry-related killings;
- Organised crime-related killings;
- Political killings; and
- Personal killings.
According to the Global Assassination Monitor, taxi-related killings count for 46% of cases recorded since 2000 in South Africa. They are followed by organised crime and politically motivated cases, at 26% and 21% respectively.
“Overall, cases related to political motives show a steady increase over time (except for a dip seen in 2020), and cases related to organised crime have also steadily increased,” the report notes. “In contrast, the number of taxi-related targeted killings has been more volatile, increasing from 2015 to 2017, followed by a marked surge in 2018.”
These worrying trends are likely to continue, says Matamba, unless investigations are conducted into specific clusters of killings, and unless steps are taken to address the underlying drivers of targeted killings – the proliferation of illegal firearms and the recruitment pools of hitmen being created in the largely unregulated taxi industries of KZN, the Eastern Cape, and the Western Cape, and in Western Cape gangs.
Cases of taxi-industry-related targeted killings declined by 19%, from 80 cases recorded in 2021 to 65 in 2022. Organised crime cases went down slightly from 30 cases in 2021 to 29 recorded in 2022, while political cases increased by 33%, from 30 cases recorded in 2021 to 40 in 2022. Personal cases went up from five in 2021 to seven in 2022.
Taxi-related violence in KZN has increased sharply, by 87.5% since 2021. In the Eastern Cape, the number of cases increased in 2021 and 2022 after a decline between 2018 and 2020. Western Cape taxi violence cases have declined since their peak in 2020/21.
The number of organised crime cases recorded in 2022 declined by one over the previous year. Victims in this category include drug dealers, gang leaders, and law enforcement officials investigating organised crime cases, including prosecutors, police officers, and detectives.
In KZN, 13 cases were recorded in 2021, up from just two the previous year. The Western Cape shows an increase from one contract killing recorded in 2021 to 11 cases recorded in 2022. Meanwhile, in the Eastern Cape the number of cases is holding steady, with seven cases in 2020, six in 2021, and six in 2022. Gauteng cases are increasing slowly, with four cases in 2020, six in 2021 and six in 2022. In Mpumalanga, one case was recorded in 2020, two in 2021 and one in 2022.
Politically motivated killings have increased overall from 24 in 2020 to 30 cases in 2021 and 40 in 2022. KZN again tops the list with 21 cases – more than half the number for the entire country. The Eastern Cape follows, with 10 cases – worryingly, this is the highest number of political hits recorded in that province.
Organisations such as Abahlali baseMjondolo (ABM) are particularly heavily targeted in KZN – the movement has lost 24 members since its establishment in 2005. In 2022, three ABM leaders were killed within five months of each other. ABM leaders claim that the reason for their persecution is their clash with the City of eThekwini over their occupation of the land on which they have established the eKhenana commune. The city, they say, has built an alliance with local ANC members, the taxi industry, the Cato Manor police, and a magistrate in the Durban Magistrates’ Court.
Cases of personal contract killings average nine a year between 2000 and 2020, with a decrease of five in 2021, and a slight increase in 2022 to seven. Personal hits are often related to family or romantic disputes, or insurance fraud, the report notes – in 2021 South Africa followed, with horror, the trial of former police officer Nomia Ndlovu, who received six life sentences for the murder of her partner and five family members so that she could claim funeral and life insurance taken out on their lives. There are now new allegations that Ndlovu planned other murders from her prison cell.
Another insurance scam involved the conviction of the murderers of 25-year-old Hlompho Mohapi, who was stabbed to death in July 2018. “She had been lured to her death under the guise of a job interview (a common ruse used by criminals in South Africa) for a position at George Airport.”
The scam was orchestrated by a pastor, Melisizwe Monqo, his then fiancée Siphosihle Pamba, and his cousin Phumlani Qhusheka, the hitman. They took out a life insurance policy in the name of the unsuspecting victim, planning to cash in after a successful hit. The trio was found guilty of murder in 2021. Monqo and Qhusheka received life sentences, while Pamba was jailed for 20 years.
- The need for disaggregated data:
The current crime statistics data released annually by the state does not contain disaggregated data on assassinations. The disadvantage is that this does not allow the state and civil society to accurately quantify the problem of targeted killings in South Africa and subsequently develop strategies or policies to address this phenomenon.
- Stem the recruitment pool of hitmen:
In its quantification of targeted killings in South Africa, this report also establishes that the taxi industry and KZN province provide reservoirs of hitmen for recruitment. A strategic and concerted effort by law enforcement to disrupt targeted killings and hitmen for hire should be directed at these recruitment pools. This will assist in stemming the source of hitmen willing to be hired for money and help reduce targeted killings across all the categories.
- Firearms control:
The majority of killings recorded in our database were committed using firearms. GI-TOC research has established that illicit firearms often used in targeted killings mostly come from domestic sources, including the private security sector and firearms illegally diverted from state-owned coffers.
- Robust investigations and convictions:
There is a need for more robust intelligence gathering and more professional police investigations into threats of violence and targeted killings. Intelligence gathering and investigative capabilities have been crippled by years of police mismanagement, political interference, deep-seated corruption and lack of specialist skills. The country urgently needs specialised intelligence personnel and properly trained police with resources to conduct thorough investigations that are followed through with arrests, convictions, and sentences. Delays in the judicial process result in delayed justice for victims and their families.