Hitmen for Hire: Exposing South Africa’s Underworld

Mark SHAW, Hitmen for Hire: Exposing South Africa’s Underworld (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2017)

WANT someone rubbed out? It could cost you as little as R10 000 in a society in which extreme violence is commonplace – and commercialised. Killing is effectively an occupation for many, complete with potential career path although it is often all too short. Even more alarming is the fact that the services of the underworld are increasingly in demand by what Mark Shaw terms the upperworld. While violence is most obviously connected with the taxi industry and drug trade, as we know only too well In KwaZulu-Natal it is a major factor in the murky world of tenders, contracts and leases, stirred by the factionalism known as ANC politics. As Shaw so neatly puts it, ‘the criminalisation of politics and the politicisation of crime’ or government by gangsters; and he has an ominous name for KZN – KwaSicily.

He makes the point that the electoral list system, and the concentration of so many local economies in the municipal offices of small towns, is tailor made for violence if the competition is intense and vicious enough. Disappointed aspirant politicians remove rivals higher up the list; while positions of municipal manager, financial officer and procurement manager involve considerable risk from thwarted, violent entrepreneurs. The ultimate source of violence often turns out to be housing, both construction and allocation. Obscure but locally powerful politicians have been granted bodyguards at considerable expense sometimes with the bizarre result that they go to war with one another; a case of ratepayer-funded violence.

To this extent South Africa has become a mafia state: 450 local officials have been assassinated since 2000 and the publicity given to hit lists sows greater fear. This culture has entered national politics with a contract reportedly put out on Public Protector Thuli Madonsela; while Makhosi Khoza understandably fears for her life. Activists who oppose big business interests, such as potential Transkei strip mining, and promote the cause of social movements, like Abahlali baseMjondolo in Durban, have been targeted – fatally. Whistleblowers are also at high risk

The degree to which this is a consequence of the violent struggle against apartheid is debatable. There is clearly continuity in service delivery protests. But targeted violence is more a legacy of the ANC-in-exile, where the boundary between the criminal and political was often hard to discern. Shaw goes into considerable detail about the breeding grounds for violence and a hit culture. The taxi industry in KZN and the Eastern Cape is particularly prone to the violence of izinkabi and Shaw blames the national mother associations for criminal governance. Cape Flats gang culture is another obvious breeding ground, although this involves not just drugs but also property auctions. The Salt River morgue has for several years been unable to cope with demand.

If this not enough, South Africa with its modern infrastructure, culture of corruption and lax regulation, has been a magnet for foreign organised crime. The Italian and Israeli mafia date back to the apartheid era, but have been joined by East European and Russian criminals, Nigerian drug dealers, and the Chinese triads specialising in the illegal abalone trade.

What is most disturbing is the involvement, complicit and implicit, of the police. This is nothing new. In late-apartheid Johannesburg, club bouncers had close links with law enforcement, which had a strong and violent political content. Overuse of the informant system laid the police wide open to compromise. Nearly thirty years later police provide information (the crime intelligence branch of the SAPS is notoriously corrupt and in Shaw’s view as dangerous as the old SAP special branch), protection, weaponry and even hitmen for the purpose of assassination. Many police officers have interests in the taxi and transport industries and the drug trade. The most notorious of the foreigners involved in organised crime, Radovan Krejcir, lost no time and seems to have had little difficulty in identifying as allies corrupt and influential police officers in very high places.

The depressing truth is that South Africa is awash with weaponry, there is a significant number of gunmen and women willing to kill for money, and a ruthless ‘big man’ political culture that regards assassination as part of the landscape of patronage politics and competition around resource access. The mutuality of crime, politics and economic self-interest is deeply entrenched in kleptocracy and reinforces a symbiotic relationship between criminality and State that may become unbreakable.

On the other hand, there is the Constitution and civil society. The two are incompatible. Shaw’s book tempts the reader to conclude that the endgame lies squarely within the ANC.