How to stay alive as a politician
Since 2000, more than 450 political leaders have been assassinated in South Africa. The majority of these murders have occurred at local level, where councillors are targeted by communities, political rivals and entrepreneurs who feel threatened or wish to benefit by removing a sitting elected councillor.
Political assassinations are increasingly being tied to competition for resources. This competition is intensifying as candidates vie for positions in public office, with its attendant rights and privileges.
This is happening while service-delivery protesters increasingly target councillors’ properties and demonstrate escalating levels of public violence.
Vandalism and arson are often accompanied by implicit or explicit threats of personal harm.
The phenomenon of the “political assassination” is so widespread and pronounced in South Africa that it has its own Wikipedia entry.
The collaborative online encyclopaedia has a list of more than 20 councillors who have perished at the hands of political rivals and politically motivated criminals.
Conflict is stirring under the surface as communities grow restive with councillors who they perceive as unresponsive to their aspirations for a better life. Levels of expectation have yet to be managed correctly to reduce the risk of tension building up as a result of ill-considered promises.
This means that leaders across all levels, from the local to the provincial and national, need to craft realistic promises and plans carefully.
These must be followed up with effective delivery and constant dialogue.
Relative deprivation may play a role in this, as councillors living in poor communities become income earners and lead a more privileged lifestyle than that of their neighbours.
There have been instances where the houses of councillors and mayors have been looted prior to being torched. It starts off with public gatherings – protected by law – that often turn violent and deteriorate into vandalism, arson and theft.
The consequences of these acts are seldom felt by the perpetrators, and their perceived impunity encourages more of the same.
The systemic challenge to democracy and state legitimacy posed by councillor assassinations and the destruction of property is not simply an electoral issue. It touches on how leaders engage with communities, how conflicts over resources are mediated, and how law and order are enforced.
If local government is to become the seat of excellence in resource governance, public representation and participation, the issue of councillor assassinations must be considered in terms of short- and longer-term solutions.
In the short term, those at risk will require protection, while in the medium to long term, collective efforts must be invested in addressing major systemic challenges at a societal and governance level.
The successful resolution of deep-seated, systemic challenges will minimise the need for preventive measures such as paying for protection services.
Nkhahle is an executive manager at the SA Local Government Association