Two weeks ago, ANC activist and whistle-blower Thabiso Zulu wrote prophetically about an imminent assassination attempt on his life.
Writing on the eve of a trial featuring people who had been involved in the murder of another ANC activist, Zulu lamented the lack of progress in the investigation and prosecution of those who had been involved in political assassinations in KwaZulu-Natal.
This is a subject he has been passionate about and one he has laboured to get the country’s leaders and law enforcement agencies to take seriously. He gave gripping testimony in the Moerane commission of inquiry into the killing of political office bearers in the province, and made a shocking declaration at the funeral of former ANC Youth League secretary-general Sindiso Magaqa that his assassination was linked to a big construction tender.
His outspokenness earned him many enemies in a province where bumping into a hitman is as commonplace as bumping into a lady-boy on the streets of Bangkok. (For the record, this lowly newspaperman has never been to Thailand and owes his knowledge to media reports and accounts from returning tourists.)
Despite many warnings, threats and attempts on his life, Zulu was undeterred. On October 13, he realised that his moment had arrived.
“I may not attend the trial because of safety concerns, but I trust my efforts will be rewarded one day in this life that I waged an open war against those who murdered and those who were trying to cover up,” he wrote.
“I may not be alive when the trial is concluded because I can see that the danger around me has increased immensely, but history will remember my efforts, as well as those of many others who did everything at a great risk to themselves and their families to expose graft.”
Last Saturday, he was lucky to escape with only a wound on his arm when heavily armed gunmen opened fire on him while he was walking with friends. He was admitted to hospital, but discharged himself so that he could go into hiding.
The attempt on Zulu’s life came despite instructions from the Public Protector and the State Security Agency that he and other whistle-blowers get protection. These were ignored by the police.
Zulu alluded to the fact that the murders were being ordered from high up in the political chain. He singled out somebody who used to be in the Union Buildings; someone whose supporters call “umntomdala”. He predicted that, despite “umntomdala” not being physically present in the dock, the shadow of this “bigger figure” would “loom large in it”.
“Yes, I know I may not win against him, but one thing I know is that I have waged a risky fight tirelessly and that even if he is not found guilty by a court of law, he and those who protected him from prosecution will never find peace on this earth, and their conscience will forever haunt them.”
He concluded his statement with a quote from Steven Seagal’s 1990 movie Hard to Kill: “At an early age of my life, I watched a movie that had the line ‘anticipation of death is worse than death itself’. I can attest to this. No amount of brutality can compare to what I felt fearing for my life.”
The scourge of political killings that Zulu speaks of is something that has, sadly, been normalised in South Africa. In the preamble to its report, the Moerane commission noted that, had “Shakespeare lived in KwaZulu-Natal between the years 2011 and today, he may have had a modern-day Marcellus say that ‘something is rotten’ in this state”.
Initially a phenomenon unique to KwaZulu-Natal, the killings have spread to other provinces. They revolve mainly around government tenders, competition for positions in state structures (which enable access to tenders) and battles for supremacy between factions (which are also linked to tenders). The hits are 99% of the time ordered by members of the ANC on other members of the ANC.
The Moerane commission stated in its report that “there was overwhelming evidence from the majority of witnesses that access to resources through the tender system is the main root cause of the murder of politicians”.
It said that, although the Constitution states explicitly that the provision of services and goods, and the entering into of contracts should be done “in accordance with a system that is fair, equitable, transparent, competitive and cost-effective”, there was rampant violation of this precept.
“There was ample evidence before this commission that the above constitutional provisions were violated in all respects by manipulation and exploitation by politicians and public officials in collusion with businesspeople.”
This is, of course, not news to South Africans. These violations are par for the course, therefore, if the country is to deal with the culture of these killings, it will take much more than beefing up intelligence gathering, policing and prosecution, which are all key elements of this effort.
It will need political parties – particularly the one that controls the levers of power and deployments in the bureaucracy – to reform their attitudes towards the state and state entities.
This might be a tall order considering how deep the attitude that the state is there to be fleeced runs. But we have to start somewhere. Equally important will be bringing to book the man referred to as “umntomdala” because the dots all seem to connect back to him.