Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Members of the South African Police Services (SAPS) guide members of the prominent left-wing opposition party, Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), as they march through the streets in central Durban on March 20, in a national protest against President Cyril Ramaphosa.RAJESH JANTILAL/AFP/Getty Images

A wave of targeted killings and attempted assassinations in South Africa’s business and government sectors has triggered widespread predictions that the country is becoming a mafia state where corruption is enforced by violence.

South Africa mobilized tens of thousands of police and soldiers on Monday to protect its economy from a threatened shutdown by an opposition party, but the surge of graft-related violence is emerging as the bigger danger to the country.

One of South Africa’s leading business liquidators, Cloete Murray, and his son, Thomas, were gunned down in their car on Saturday in a brazen daylight attack on the busy highway between Johannesburg and Pretoria. The killings sent shock waves through the country’s business and political circles, where Mr. Murray was known for recovering assets in high-profile corruption cases.

In January, a bodyguard was killed during an assassination attempt against a senior official who had been fighting corruption at the University of Fort Hare. In the same month, the chief executive of South Africa’s national electricity utility reported that someone had laced his coffee with cyanide in a murder plot, and another business liquidator quit a high-profile case after receiving death threats.

In February, a Cape Town city employee was shot dead at a housing construction project that had already been the scene of gunfire and petrol bombings in an extortion scheme. A growing number of South African construction projects have been shut down by criminal networks – often calling themselves “business forums” – that demand 30 per cent of the revenue for their members, threatening violence against any company that refuses.

A health official who tried to blow the whistle on hospital corruption, Babita Deokaran, was shot dead in her car in 2021. Her killers were arrested, but the organizers of the hit have never been caught.

After the latest assassination on Saturday, many South African political commentators said the country is becoming a mafia state, where criminal networks are deeply embedded in state-owned corporations, government departments and business sectors. South Africa has endured a series of high-profile corruption scandals involving top politicians over the past 15 years, but violence is increasingly becoming a routine method of settling political battles and winning control of government contracts and business revenue, analysts say.

The South African branch of Amnesty International warned on Monday that the assassination of the two business liquidators was part of “the disturbing increase in extra-judicial killings and high levels of crime” in the country. “The culture of impunity in South Africa is being weaponized to create a state of fear for those who are fighting against corruption,” it said in a tweet.

Because of the growing links between politics and criminal violence, there were widespread fears that anarchy would erupt on Monday when a prominent left-wing opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), tried to shut down the country in a national protest against President Cyril Ramaphosa. Some EFF members had warned of possible looting attacks against any shops or other businesses that defied the shutdown.

Mr. Ramaphosa ordered the deployment of more than 3,400 soldiers to reinforce a massive police presence on Monday, ensuring that highways and airports could keep operating and major businesses could stay open. No major violence was reported. But thousands of smaller businesses, worried about looting, opted to shutter their doors in cities such as Johannesburg, Durban and Pretoria as EFF members marched past. Several buses were hijacked or stoned by protestors, forcing a suspension of some bus services.

Police said they arrested more than 550 people and confiscated more than 24,000 tires that the protestors had allegedly positioned at key intersections with the intention of setting them on fire to block traffic.

While the government mobilized enough police and soldiers to keep the economy functioning on Monday, it seems powerless to stop the violence and extortion that has targeted key sectors of industry, inflicting heavy damage on the economy.

André de Ruyter, the former chief executive of state electricity company Eskom and the reported victim of the cyanide poisoning attack in December, has alleged that Eskom is losing the equivalent of about $75-million a month as a result of corruption and theft by criminal syndicates. A senior member of South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress, is heavily involved in the corruption at Eskom, he told reporters after announcing his resignation in December.

Corruption has been a major factor in the electricity cuts that have badly damaged South Africa’s economy, causing its GDP to drop by 1.3 per cent in the final quarter of last year. The central bank forecasts that the rolling blackouts will reduce growth by two percentage points this year, leaving the economy largely stagnant, despite the country’s growing population.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe