It was, by all accounts, an ordinary small-town political meeting. The leaders of the local branch of the African National Congress gathered in September at a convent here to discuss candidates for a newly vacated seat on the ward council, the lowest-level elected position in South Africa.
When it was over, Dumisani Malunga, the local party chairman and the front-runner for the seat, stopped at a friend’s house for a late meal of chicken curry. As he and another party official, Bheko Chiliza, drove home at 9:30 p.m., a gunman fired into their car. Their bloody, bullet-riddled bodies were later found sprawled on the ground beside the white Toyota hatchback.
Mr. Malunga and Mr. Chiliza were the latest casualties in an increasingly bloody battle for local political posts in South Africa. Dozens of officials, including ward councilors, party leaders and mayors, have been killed in what has become a desperate, deadly struggle for power and its spoils.
The killings threaten to tarnish the image of the so-called rainbow nation, whose largely bloodless transition from white minority rule to nonracial democracy has made it a beacon of peace, tolerance and forgiveness.
Amid rising corruption and waning economic opportunities, political killings are on the rise. Here in KwaZulu-Natal Province, nearly 40 politicians have been killed since 2010 in battles over political posts, more than triple the number in the previous three years, according to government figures. Over the past few years, dozens more have been killed in provinces like Mpumalanga, North West and Limpopo.
Many new [ANC] members come in search of wealth and power. Fewer than half of South African’s young black adults have jobs, and many lack the basic skills to find work after years of attending substandard schools in townships and rural areas. For these youths, politics is a seemingly certain route out of poverty. The rise in corruption has fed the belief that political posts mean kickbacks and contracts.
In the ranks of public servants, the post of rural ward council member in a speck of a town like this one would seem no great prize. The job pays about $150 a month, and its occupant must digest a steady diet of complaints from residents about the most fundamental ailments afflicting South Africa: schools that do not teach, taps that do not deliver water, crime that the police seem helpless to stop, jobs that are impossible to find.
But ward councilors are also a conduit for development projects in their areas, and they can influence the awarding of government contracts. The potential upside—earnings from bribes or surreptitious deals—is high.