Contract killing business booming in South Africa

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The contract killing business is booming in South Africa, but the SA Police and State fly blind without specific official recognition or categorisation of a growing threat, warns yet another ground-breaking report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime (Gitoc).

In 2022 alone, Gitoc recorded 141 assassinations in South Africa – defined as a targeted hit with victim/s taken out for political, commercial or personal gain by a third party or parties contracting in a hitman or hitmen.

Such killings have now reached the status of what Gitoc refers to as a “strategic tool” in South Africa, with the country’s burgeoning assassination industry spawning a pipelined supply chain of fully-fledged hitman.

Yet despite this clearly-defined criminal market, no official database exists in South Africa on these destabilising crimes and those who commit them.

Gitoc says in its latest report (released in April) that the core issue is that there is no disaggregation of SA Police Service (SAPS) data and statistics on targeted killings – all are simply officially lumped under the category of murder, resulting in no consistent and relevant collection of data or coherent strategy being possible on the issue.

Gitoc is developing a database drawn from media reports quantifying and categorising targeted contract killings in South Africa – which overall show a marked increase in targeted killings from 2021 to 2022.

In turn, this database feeds into a Global Assassination Monitor, which now rates South Africa as the location of up to 10% of Africa’s assassinations and seemingly forming a Southern African contract killing nexus with its chaotic and insurgency-ridden neighbour Mozambique notching 5% of the recorded African hit total.

The Gitoc report, titled The Business of Killing: Assassinations in South Africa, categorises assassinations (used interchangeably with targeted killings or hits) under four broad categories: taxi-related, organised crime, personal and political.

The report highlights especially politically-motivated hits increasing by 33% between 2021 and 2022 due to heightened political rivalry within South Africa’s ruling African National Congress party – 30 being recorded in 2021 and 40 in 2022, mainly in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN).

This is ominous news in South Africa, which is set to hold a general election in 2024 widely seen as having the potential to unseat or even force a national coalition government with the present ANC incumbents – and whose political structures spawn most politically-motivated contract killings.

South Africa’s behemoth taxi industry, KZN and South African law enforcement agencies are also singled out as the primary sources or reservoirs of both contract hitmen and firearms for contract assassinations.

“These provide a steady stream of hitmen and weapons for targeted assassinations,” says the Gitoc report.

Firearms are used in almost all assassinations (stabbings and poisonings are distant also-rans) and their seemingly ubiquitous availability even from South African law enforcement agencies is feeding the contract killing phenomenon.

In terms of recommendations, Gitoc identified four focus areas:

  • Disaggregation of Police and Law Enforcement data to allow focused strategies on contract killings
  • Stem the recruitment process of hitmen through targeted strategies and operations
  • Intensified control on firearm availability
  • Robust investigations and court convictions

Despite the limitation of being based only on cases making it into the South African or SA-based media, the Gitoc report provides a good proxy of trends relating to assassinations in the country, said Lizette Lancaster, Manager: Crime and Justice Information Hub at the Tshwane-based Institute for Security Studies (ISS).

“This partial picture spotlights the serious challenge South Africa faces on murder for hire. Given the structural realities of South Africa, hitmen can be arranged from any community but will range in experience and skill and can engage in more than one attempt. What is clear is that this type of profession has become popular in certain areas where already-established networks can provide training, resources and jobs to new entrants,” said Lancaster.

The availability of firearms and lack of firearm control has been cited by both Gitoc and the ISS as a major contributing factor to both multiple murders and targeted killings by hired hitmen.