When the stars come out over the dark green hills of beautiful KwaZulu-Natal, so do the sophisticated guns and the hooded assassins. Nine months prior to South Africa's second democratic elections, indiscriminate murder has reemerged as the political tactic of choice in this strategically important province. The violence has reached a level to rival that of Algeria.
"I believe there are two motives for all this violence," said Andrew Ragavaloo, the mayor of hard-hit Richmond, in an interview. "It is to destabilize and demoralize the populace prior to the 1999 elections."
On July 28, while the army patrolled other parts of the Richmond district, gunmen crept through the bush to reach a village deep in a rural area. Inside one house, a family of nine slept. The killers kicked down the door and executed everyone, including several children. Neighbors said the family was apolitical, and reported that the gunmen spoke English and Afrikaans and "sounded white."
While statistics differ depending on their source, there's little doubt the murder rate here is rising again. Whites are believed to be fomenting black-on-black violence. The number of murders had been falling in recent years, after reaching a high in the early 1990s as politicians vied with each other to intimidate the public prior to the 1994 elections. Provincewide, murders averaged 167 per month in 1993, but fell to 22 in 1997. But in July alone in the district of Richmond, the toll was 40.
Mayor Ragavaloo is a member of the African National Congress (ANC). The party is in power nationally, and it controls the Richmond municipal council. But the KwaZulu-Natal provincial administration is governed by the Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). Ragavaloo says the perpetrators hope this campaign of terror will lead to disillusionment with the ANC, so that voters will join the IFP to be safe. He claims that 94 people have been murdered in Richmond since May 1997, and that 76 of them were ANC members, including four of his councilors.
Both the ANC and the IFP used murder as a political strategy prior to the 1994 elections. But in the last two years they have sought an entente to permit them to govern side by side in their respective fiefdoms. The two parties jettisoned their more infamous members from the 1994 pre-election period. Among them was Sfiso Nkabinde, a former ANC leader widely regarded as a brutal warlord.
After his expulsion, Mr. Nkabinde ran in a council by-election, losing to the ANC candidate. The murder spree started shortly after. Four ANC councilors in Richmond have been killed. Ragavaloo now lives behind a wall of armed bodyguards and barbed wire.
Last year the ANC national government sent "super cop" Bushie Engelbrecht to clean up Richmond. In August 1997, Nkabinde was charged with 16 counts of murder. Within three weeks of his arrest, the murder rate in Richmond fell to zero.
The case against Nkabinde was flawed, however, by shoddy police work that included coaching witnesses and eavesdropping on Nkabinde's meetings with his lawyers. A disgusted judge threw out the charges, and Nkabinde walked free April 30. On May 1, the killings resumed.
Nkabinde blames the ANC for the Richmond violence. Anthropologist and peace activist Mary de Haas disagrees: "The ANC has nothing to gain by fomenting instability. As the government, they must be seen as a stabilizing force. ... The only people who can gain through a campaign of terror are those who can't win at the ballot box."
Among those who can't win election are disgruntled whites. Most observers see the invisible hand of white landowners and the white-dominated police and security forces behind this resurgence in violence.
TESTIMONY before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has shown that the former apartheid government funded and trained IFP hit squads in the 1980s. These revelations have deeply damaged the IFP's credibility in the province and encouraged the party to seek rapprochement with the ANC.
Ragavaloo, Ms. De Haas, and others say peace cannot take root in KwaZulu-Natal until the "cycle of impunity" is broken.
"There are good black policemen at the bottom of the heap," De Haas says, but when they make progress on Richmond murder cases they are blocked.
Part of the problem is that in negotiating an end to white rule, the ANC agreed not to purge the old white guard from the top levels of civil and security services.
She and a group called the Network of Independent Monitors have turned up evidence that white landowners, police, and army members are training militias deep in the countryside. Some operate in the guise of legally constituted commando units to protect white farmers, who say they are threatened by black militants. Other militias are disguised as security companies. Still others are trained secretly to back pliant, corrupt tribal chiefs.
Political murder is but one example of violence generalized throughout the province. Murder and other forms of intimidation are also used to keep blacks from making land claims against whites. And retribution takes place between rival taxi operators and drug lords.