Identifying ‘hits’

The greatest challenge to measuring an illicit social phenomenon such as targeted killing, ‘hits’, contract killing or organised crime is the obvious one that such activities are “hidden” given the consequences of their discovery. This collection of the available data services as a “window” to a wider problem, even if it is unable to fully demonstrate the extent or nature of the phenomenon in its entirety. Our approach has been to build a database of individual ‘hits’ or attempts over a seventeen-year period. We drew on the resources of an electronic database, SABINET, of print media covering local, regional and national news. We supplemented that with searches of electronic news sources.

The process was as follows: based on a review of an initial set of pilot cases, we initially searched the following four categories “contract killing”, “political assassination”, “hitman”, and “taxi killing”. These search terms generated over 15,000 individual articles. These were each reviewed to identify specific cases where the circumstances and the commentary provided by the police, court proceedings, the community or family suggested that the victim or attempted victim had been the subject of a ‘hit’.

The process described above has so far yielded over 1140 individual cases over a seventeen-year period.

We fully recognise that the database we have constructed does not and cannot represent all ‘hits’ conducted and that the database is a work in progress, constantly being refined, as well as growing in magnitude (2017 cases) and details (including more information from the news articles).

Classification of ‘hits’ into different categories

It should be emphasised that these numbers only provide a relatively broad distinction between the different types as we found increasingly that political, economic, criminal and often personal motives merged with each other.

Cases placed within the “political category” generally targeted individuals designated as holding a political or administrative office, almost always in local government.
We categorised cases related to “economic interests and organised crime” as clearly using targeted violence to influence an economic outcome. There have been multiple hits of high-level criminal figures related to a variety of disputes, most prominently around drugs.
The “personal category” as expected, included several cases related to “love triangles”, attempts to obtain insurance payments and several cases of children arranging for their parents to be killed.
The “taxi category” includes hits targeting taxi bosses, taxi drivers and members of taxi association committees. These hits are usually connected to disputes over route allocations and power struggles within taxi associations.

The distinction between the four categories of victims or types of ‘hits’ are far from clear-cut.

Political motivations shade into economic ones, and visa versa. Personal motivations are most easy to isolate, but they also have economic and in some cases political motivations.

For more details concerning the methodology see: Shaw, Mark, and Kim Thomas. ‘The Commercialization of Assassination: “Hits” and Contract Killing in South Africa, 2000-2015’. African Affairs, 2016, 1–24. doi:10.1093/afraf/adw050.

Identifying ‘hotspots’

Using the above data set as a guide three ‘hotspots’ were identified. In identifying the ‘hotspots’ certain factors were taken into consideration. These factors included: The concentration of certain types of assassinations in a geographic location and the potential impact of the type of assassination on society. This resulted in the selection of the following hotspots:

  1. KwaZulu-Natal for political and taxi hits for the year 2016;
  2. Gauteng for taxi hits for the year 2016; and
  3. A national look at the assassination of people involved in legal proceedings (judges, magistrates, attorneys and witnesses) over the duration of the data set (2000 to date).

An in-depth case study will be done for each ‘hotspot’. The in-depth case studies will include a follow up of investigations and court proceedings falling within the ‘hotspots’. Essentially following the cases through the justice system, where possible. Interviews will be held with: local news reporters following assassinations in South Africa; assassination target survivors; local councillors; members of taxi association committees; and members of the legal profession who have experienced intimidation.

It is believed that these in-depth case studies will provide further insight into the social and political circumstance surrounding assassinations in South Africa.