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15 May 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:22pm

Amid protest and murder, South Africa’s new president struggles to assert his authority

Cyril Ramaphosa is discovering how difficult it is to govern the country.

By Martin Plaut

South Africa’s newly installed president, Cyril Ramaphosa, is discovering just how difficult governing the country can be. For the first time in living memory (and certainly since the end of apartheid) central government has had to take direct control of a province.

Bordering on Botswana, the North West Province is mostly dry, desolate scrub, although the platinum around the town of Rustenberg means it contains some hugely valuable mines. Over the weekend, the cabinet decided it could no longer tolerate the autocratic rule of the provincial leader, Supra Mahumapelo. He was stripped of his powers for at least the next 180 days. The province will be run from the centre.

As is now so often the case, this is a conflict at the heart of the African National Congress. Mahumapelo is accused of mismanagement, fraud and corruption amounting to about R160m (£10m). The allegations are being investigated by the elite anti-corruption police unit, the Hawks. Mahumapelo protests his innocence and might have escaped prosecution, if he had not backed the wrong leader: being identified as a Zuma supporter. With Zuma out of office, Mahumapelo’s political cover vanished.

For the people of the province, Mahumapelo’s rule has been little short of disastrous. Services of almost every kind have been poor to non-existent. Everything from water to electricity has been in short supply. Public satisfaction has plummeted.

Only one thing gets the attention of ANC: taking to the streets. There were riots in April, with public buildings burnt down and even badly needed clinics attacked. The situation deteriorated so badly that President Ramaphosa decided to cut short his very first Commonwealth Summit in London, to try to restore order.

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The president was meant to visit the North West on Monday, to deal with the crisis. Ramaphosa had to cancel the trip, as an even more pressing issue required his immediate attention: political killings in KwaZulu-Natal.

There have been three such murders in the past week – all within the ANC. Such assassinations have become a routine part of political life within the governing party, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal. There were more than 450 political murders in the province between 1994 and 2013: fewer than one in ten saw a conviction.

President Ramaphosa promised that he would not allow the murders to continue. “We will not allow KZN [KwaZulu-Natal] to be the killing fields of South Africa.” It is a pledge he’s unlikely to be able to fulfil. These murders – sometimes carried out by professional assassins – are now a routine way of settling disputes over who controls the levers of power within the ANC.

South African politics is increasingly dangerous. Professor Mark Shaw and Kim Thomas of the University of Cape Town have been tracking the murders. Their database recorded just over 1,000 individual cases of assassination or attempted assassination over a period of 16 years.

In his book Hit Men for Hire: Exposing South Africa’s Underworld, Professor Shaw explained the devastating toll murders have taken on the political system: “The system of assassinations is a vicious political cycle: it empowers those whose power comes from the gun, and disempowers those who rely on their standing and capacity for delivery. Unchecked in South Africa, it will undermine the very foundations of the democratic system.”

The violence guarantees political office. With political office comes contracts, and with contracts comes the backhanders that keep leaders in power. It is a cycle that is becoming almost impossible to break. Little wonder that President Ramaphosa is struggling to assert his authority.