Through their research at the Public Affairs Research Institute (PARI), Joel Pearson, Thomas Lesaffre and Mosa PhadiÂ have found that political violence does not simply emerge spontaneously or only during election periods, but is an element interwoven in local histories of political action.
Political assassinations, rising protests and burning buildings have made news headlines with the approaching local government elections. Media commentary has largely focused on the surface causes of violence: competition over the nomination of mayors and councillors and the lucrative opportunities that these positions offer.
Our research in a troubled municipality in Limpopo encourages a deeper look at the dynamics that underpin acts of political violence. This municipality is not distinguished by the extremity of violence â€“ political killings are more rampant elsewhere. What is remarkable is rather that the threat of violence grew to become an institutionalised element of what was once largely peaceful and well-functioning institution.
It suggests that political violence does not simply emerge spontaneously, nor only during election periods. It is an element interwoven in local histories of political action.
Dramatic scenes unfolded at the municipality in late 2014 when an ousted mayor forcefully returned to the premises assisted by a host of private bodyguards, the police, and high-ranking members of the provincial police leadership.
Police fired rubber bullets and teargas at municipal workers and security personnel when they tried to deny the mayor access to the municipality. A junior clerk on the job for just two weeks was shocked to see armed guards clearing the premises. Councillors and municipal officials were indiscriminately removed from the building.
The majority of officials reported to the neighbouring municipal library for almost three months. Many claimed that they were being prevented access to the municipality by the mayorâ€™s security guards; some feared returning to the scene of violence.
A spokesman for municipal workers told a local newspaper: â€œIt is not safe to returnâ€¦ We will go back once the buildings and site have been thoroughly searched and can be declared safeâ€.
To understand how these extreme circumstances came to prevail, we need to look at the climate of deepening insecurity that had developed over the previous five years. Behind the sharpening instability was a complex factionalised battle within the governing party, which drew in actors from multiple rungs of party and state.
A smouldering dispute between the mayor and the municipal manager (MM) fractured the local ANC into two distinct factions. Yet the conflict was directly shaped by competing networks of the ANC at regional and provincial level too.
The MM had been deployed in 2009 on the instruction of the provincial government of Cassel Mathale. Mathale â€“ and his political ally at the time, Julius Malema â€“ had risen to office through support for Jacob Zuma. By 2011, the Mathale-Malema faction had fallen out with the president and ANCâ€™s national executive. The MMâ€™s affiliation with this rebellious provincial faction made him a marked man, especially in the eyes of the pro-Zuma region.
To deflect threats to his position, the MM called upon the protection of the provincial government.
But when the Mathale-Malema grouping was finally removed from provincial political leadership in 2013 by the ANC NEC, the MM was left bereft of the support of high-level political muscle.
The fall of the Mathale, as one councillor put it, â€œset the cat amongst the pigeonsâ€ at the municipality.
The mayor, with the tacit support of the incoming provincial government, attempted to remove the MM from office. This occasioned a dramatic split: 23 ANC and 9 opposition councillors voiced support for the MM, while 29 councillors fell behind the mayor.
The narrow majority of council that supported the MM authorised a forensic investigation and disciplinary hearings to remove the mayor and his faction in council.
Meanwhile, the newly-installed provincial powers moved to undermine the MM and his supporters. The provincial government tried to impose an administrator to take over the running of the municipality. The ANCâ€™s Provincial Disciplinary Committee expelled the 23 ANC councillors who supported the MM. Both of these actions were held in abeyance by court challenges.
The MM and the rogue ANC councillors refused to leave. A deadlock prevailed.
A climate of insecurity
Having reached the limits of political action, a particular climate of insecurity deepened at the Municipality and the town at large. In the build-up to the mayorâ€™s forceful return, violence came to feature more flagrantly.
Council chambers played host to scenes of increasing hostility. The MM hired â€œbouncersâ€ that attended council meetings, and allegedly physically removed belligerent councillors. The mayor meanwhile, was accompanied by the â€œmen in blackâ€ â€“ a contingent of 27 bodyguards.
Security expenditure tripled over a period of three years. Armed guards became persistent features in the corridors of the municipality.
Council minutes detail incidents of intimidation and fear amongst councillors and officials.
After the removal of the mayor and his supporters, their re-entry was blocked by security guards stationed at the municipalityâ€™s entrance. An official described the situation as a â€œlock-downâ€. On one occasion, a councillor was shot in the leg as a â€œrowdy groupâ€ reportedly broke the municipalityâ€™s gate and forced their way in.
The factional divide spilled out into the community. The leader of a local social movement was shot dead outside his house. He had been deeply involved in matters of the municipality, vocal in his criticism of the mayor and the province â€“ he had launched the court challenge against the Provincial Cooperative Government, Human Settlement and Traditional Affairsâ€™ (CoGHSTA) attempted administration.
Shortly after the killing, rumours of a â€œhit listâ€ surfaced which was said to include the MM. One official remarked that the MM had received warning that â€œsnipersâ€ were waiting for him on the road to Tshwane.
The mayorâ€™s re-entry and the removal of all municipal personnel in late 2014 thus took place within an environment of acute insecurity in which the threats of violence â€“ both real and imagined â€“ had become elements of daily life.
After almost three months stationed at the library, most municipal officials had returned to work. Yet the forceful removal they had endured â€“ seemingly endorsed by provincial ANC bosses â€“ had instilled profound anxiety amongst many.
Many expressed little faith in legal protections against the arbitrary decisions of those in power. The MM and several long-serving managers had been summarily dismissed. Ad hoc disciplinary hearings and emboldened political intrusions into daily processes under the watch of a CoGHSTA-appointed administrator sustained a climate of fear and paranoia.
Local histories of political action
Political violence should not simply be pathologised as the product of individuals hungry for positions â€“ it lies at the core of the contradictions facing the ANC and its governance. These actions take place within particular settings, shaped by particular histories, which frame the range of options available to political actors. Political violence must be understood against this deeper backdrop.
Local government comes with its own particular constraints, and violence is most visceral at this level. The position of municipalities in the architecture of the state makes them vulnerable to various political intrusions â€“ they are theatres in which a range of actors converge, sometimes with damaging results.
In the troubled Limpopo municipality, ANC figures at various levels of party and state intervened directly to shape the course of events, often disregarding the legislated autonomy of municipalities.
With ANC unity splintering across the province, competing factions advanced contradictory claims over the institution, which brought with it profound levels of instability to the municipality, hampering the basic functions of a municipality.
Within this factionalised context, a stalemate developed as excluded local political actors challenged the directives of the provincial ANC and court applications dragged on without resolution. In this environment, the use of physical force became an increasingly pervasive feature as other avenues for resolving the conflict were steadily shut down.
In the midst of negative media coverage, rising community protest and stalled service delivery output, the mayor was recalled by the ANC. What remained, however, was a weakened institution. Threats of violence are now embedded in the repertoire of political action.
And what has persisted are the unresolved and profound fractures within the ANC, which continue to foster a climate of insecurity at the local municipality.
The Public Affairs Research Institute (PARI) is conducting longitudinal studies across a range of municipalities in the Limpopo Province through extensive interview as well as archival research. This piece is a product of continuing research and originally appeared here.