Violence in Democracy: The Political Killing and Intimidation of Local Representatives and Administrators

Author: South Africa Local Government Association

Publication Date: 2017

Executive summary:


SALGA conducted this study to determine the extent to which councillors and municipal managers experience violence and intimidation. The study was a response to SALGA’s growing concern over the ongoing killing of its members. SALGA wanted to understand what it could do to further support/protect its members. It was thought that the extent of the problem and consequences thereof would be best understood from the perspective of those who would be most affected by violence, threats, property damage. Existing literature was reviewed in order to gain insight regarding the subject matter. Subsequently, primary data was collected from 54 Councillors 40 Municipal Managers using a survey instrument.

Study Findings: Councillors

  • Of the 54 councillors who participated in the study, 66% reported being threatened while 46% reported being threatened often.
  • Threats were biased by the gender of the councillors with men being threatened more often with physical violence or damage to property than women.
  • Women received more threats against family and were sometimes threatened with rape.
  • Speakers and Chief Whips tended to appear more likely than ward and proportional representation councillors to receive threats. These threats emanated from three primary sources: own party, opposition parties and 
community members. Union behaviour was occasionally seen to be threatening.
  • 55% of councillors said that threats and intimidation reduced their willingness to run for office for another term 
while 66% saw violence and intimidation as negatively impacting on their performance.

Municipal Managers

  • Of the 40 Municipal Managers who participated in this study, 60% reported being threatened.
  • In one-third of instances, municipal managers reported being threatened often.
  • In more than 25% of instances, Municipal Managers reported economic reasons (e.g. tender awards, employment, 
wages/salaries etc.) as causes for the intimidation and threats they experienced.
  • In 30% of all instances of intimidation, the threatening behaviour and language stopped once they were reported 
to authorities or the political structures. In 12, 5% court restraining orders stopped the threatening language and
  • More than 70% of municipal managers reported that threatening and intimidation negatively impacted on their 
work performance while 65% saw the issue as severe enough to contemplate resignation.
  • In addition, it was found in the study that, violence and intimidation contributed to the councillor turnover, particularly around election time. Competition for access to resources between communities, local elites and other actors, and the power to make decisions over the allocation of resources, appeared to be at the heart of 
political killings.

During the 2007 to 2016 period, the IEC reported 1,086 by-elections, more than 5% of the number of councillorships contested in the time period. Of these, 396 were due to the deaths of councillors, 377 due to resignations, 49 expulsions, 97 terminations of party membership and 36 vacancies caused by dissolved councils. Moreover, by-elections spiked just before national elections which may indicate political pressure through party structures or an intensification of competition at the local level to capitalise on national leadership transitions.

The impact of killings on Councillors and Municipal Managers 
It is clear that councillor and municipal manager killings are not to be viewed in isolation. There is also a culture of threat-making and intimidation surrounding the killings needs to be addressed. While many communities grow impatient and demand responsiveness from their elected representatives, it is apparent that the levels of intimidation and violence, particularly from community members, maybe encouraging local government personnel to withdraw from the fulfilment of their duties or at the very least cause them to discharge those duties with furtiveness and reduced zeal.

Some authors believe that most political killings and acts of arson directed against councillors and municipal managers emanate from local rivalries (Duncan, 2010). Many issues are resolvable to access to resources and controlling the decisions around allocation as well as securing support.

They further warn this culture of killing and arson generalizes to political processes at the national level, the whole political culture of the country can tip away from democratic representation to a form of state capture by organised lawlessness in which a tendency of criminal intent used to resolve reasonable disagreements becomes normalised.

Violence towards councillors is prone to increase the fragility of local governance representational systems as positive change-motivated community members may be forced out of office or become less inclined to stand for local office. This leaves the way wide open to unscrupulous citizens to contest public office who have the wherewithal to counter such threats and violence directed against representatives and office bearers with violence and threats of their own.


SALGA has undertaken a number of initiatives in support of its members. Amongst others is the advocacy for the application of SASRIA (South African Special Risk Insurance Act) in which municipalities indemnify councillors and mayors against the loss of property caused by civil insurrection. The protection of councillors is also prioritised through the South African Police Service who conducts security assessments of councillor property. The municipal manager is empowered to authorise security details to councillor homes when a threat has been deemed credible by the South African Police Service (SAPS). The primary issue here is to ensure that the SAPS conducts the threat assessments timeously. Councils have commensurate powers to promote security measures for municipal managers.


Capacity Building – municipalities & their constituencies

  • The introduction of training initiatives to enable improved conflict management would assist municipalities in de-escalating tense situations and conflict sites.
  • Civil society and community-based organisation could be used as possible conduits of community intelligence and
  • Promote the use of data intelligence to facilitate meaningful engagement and dialogue between councils and their 
constituents to improve participatory local governance, accountability and transparency and trust.
  • Capacity Building – municipalities & their constituencies
  • Civil society and community-based organisation could be used as possible conduits of community intelligence and
  • Promote the use of data intelligence to facilitate meaningful engagement and dialogue between councils and their 
constituents to improve participatory local governance, accountability and transparency and trust.
  • Counselling and debriefing to be made available to those who have been threatened.

Justice System

  • Creation of a specialised unit to investigate political killings in identified hotspots.
  • Strengthening of investigation teams to ensure successful prosecutions and convictions.


  • Development of a safety and security manual for councillors:
  • The manual should cover what to do in the event of a threat and what to avenues are open to safeguard offices and homes from potential assassins or intimidation and threats from disgruntled colleagues and community members.
  • Councillor and municipal manager killing and intimidation database be developed.


The profile of received threats appears to be similar for both municipal managers and councillors. This is corroborated by the literature review, the media scan and the survey. This suggests that South Africa is not dealing with isolated events but an entire ecosystem of violence, intimidation and murder that is embedded into the fringes of political culture. The contagion of political intimidation and killings is a very real possibility now that the council architecture has been radically altered through the recent local government elections. The first political killing after the local government election of a councillor, a kidnapping and execution, was as a result of the councillor winning award belonging to an opposing political party. Of the entire list of murdered councillors, only three reports of successful prosecutions were encountered. These were of the triggermen hired to do the job, and in two cases, the men who ordered the ‘hit’, a mayor and a ‘businessman’. The apparent protected nature of some killings and the low rate of prosecution may indicate the inculcation of a culture of impunity around killings classified as “political”. Far too few cases of murder are resolved with both the perpetrators and those ordering the killings being successfully prosecuted and jailed.


Full citation:  Justin Steyn, “Violence in Democracy: The Political Killing and Intimidation of Local Representatives and Administrators” (South African Local Government Association, 2017).


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