On a Friday in the middle of August, a 32-year-old man who had given himself the name “Mkhonyovu,” or “Corruption,” entered a rural police station in South Africa to make an alarming confession: he was “tired of eating human flesh.” Mkhonyovu was not believed until he produced a piece of a leg and a severed hand. At his house, near the town of Estcourt in Zululand, eight ears were discovered in a pot. Other body parts were lying in a suitcase. The only living victim seems to have been a young mother, murdered on her way through town and eaten. For the most part bodies had been disinterred from nearby cemeteries. Five men were eventually arrested for their involvement in killing and dismemberment. It is likely that a secret community of hundreds, perhaps thousands, used their products.
The subject is lurid, a staple of colonial invention, but it is also an opening into the civil disintegration of South Africa in recent years. Medical murder is not unknown in the country. In one study a fifth of respondents admitted coming into contact with the trade in human body parts. Superstition holds that the organs of a child, an albino, or a woman contain the seeds of success—fertility, prosperity in business, victory in a court case, or recovery from an illness. The HIV epidemic brought out the nature of many people’s beliefs about disease and infection, which notoriously reached into the office of then-president Thabo Mbeki, but medical cannibalism is shrouded by its taboo standing. The scale of the operation in Estcourt, where a large fraction of the town may have participated, reveals something disturbing: law enforcement and community norms have ceased to function in the course of three generations of conflict spanning the fall of the previous regime and the degeneration of the state since the retirement of Nelson Mandela. The man who incarnates this atmosphere of lawlessness, Jacob Zuma, came to the end of his term as head of the ruling party this weekend, though he continues as the country’s president for the time being.
Even under Zuma the community in Estcourt was naturally wary of acquiring the reputation of a cannibal town. Estcourt’s local councilman, Mthembeni Majola, disputed the extent of complicity with the cannibal ring, while also offering an explanation for its unusual size. According to Majola, many of Mkhonyovu’s clients were stock thieves who believed that his potions made them bulletproof. Estcourt is notable for a concentration of meat-processing plants, but more relevant is its situation some distance from the mountainous border between South Africa and Lesotho. Livestock raids from the independent kingdom of Lesotho once plagued white farmers along the frontier. The disbanding of white militias in 1995, combined with a breakdown of security, attracted raiders from the other direction, gunmen who come from places in the interior like Estcourt to seize the cattle of what are now predominantly black farmers along the border. The zone of instability is wide and has created a countryside almost as murderous as South Africa’s cities.
The nature of the instability is illustrated by the figure of Majola himself who lives in a modest house not far from Makhonyovu’s rented hut. He faces a set of criminal charges but, in the opaque world of Zululand politics, it is difficult to understand their basis and they may amount to no more than political harassment. In certain ways, to be sure, Majola’s Zululand is a familiar scene of contemporary democracy in which Majola uses social media vigorously to communicate with his constituents. On Facebook he presents himself in his wheelchair at dances and community events, promoting his conservative rural party: “TRUST US. We can meet your needs.” He chides the ruling ANC for using government vehicles to distribute its pamphlets but also, in an unusual show of political tolerance, insists that its posters not be defaced. As a disabled man Majola registers the decency of ordinary men and women that goes beyond race: “Yesterday employee (black lady) and the Manager (white guy) tolerated the heavy rain as I couldn’t jump down (wheelchair bound) the car to make groceries…they did it for me…Thank you God bless you and support your business.” His New Year’s messages are uplifting: “Don’t cry now it’s 2016 things are happening. Watch the wheelchair this year only the miracles coming through.”
Majola’s wheelchair is a familiar presence in his constituency. It was not always there. In 2010 he turned (or seemed to turn) against corruption and nepotism in his own party, Inkatha, which represents the same rural Zulu constituency that backed Zuma in the ANC. In July of that year an assassination attempt, likely by rivals in Inkatha, left his bodyguard dead and robbed Majola of the use of his legs. Alongside the civic-minded scenes he records on social media are accounts of further attacks on his person and snapshots of assault weapons. In one photograph he sits in a van, cradling a machine gun in his lap. In context it is perhaps less a display of bravado than self-protection. For decades Zululand has seen endemic violence, not only between the ANC and Inkatha, but between factions and splinters of each party. The disputes between factions tend to be settled at the point of a gun. In this context is difficult to reserve sympathy for a community leader who, at least on social media, projects optimism and cautions against the misuse of public funds, braving the hurricane of violence and moral collapse that has brought political murder, disability, and cannibalism to his doorstep.
With the exposure of the Mkhonyovu ring a pall has fallen on Estcourt and its surroundings. People hurry home and try to stay behind doors during the night, a self-reinforcing cycle of civic withdrawal that has taken hold of the entire country. The injuries sustained by the town are often inexplicably intimate, saying something about the way South Africans dishonor one another. Ntombifuthi Sithole has been blind since 2007. Her son, Mongezi Mkhize, was shot dead by his brother in 2011: “I hurt so much for both my children that I wanted to die myself.” Six years later Mongezi was dug up and eaten by his brother-in-law, one of Mkhonvoyu’s collaborators. Mrs. Sithole’s words are stark: “I cried. I asked what it was that God was punishing me for.” As she put it to another reporter, “I wanted my heart to stop being sore, now I don’t even know where his bones are.”
In 2003 a single case of cannibalism in the coastal section of Zululand, two hundred miles from Estcourt, came to the attention of a flamboyant policeman, Bheki Cele, who posed a simple question: “What will agitate the community of Esikhawini (Richard’s Bay) if it can’t be agitated by cannibalism?” Although the perpetrator turned out to be Mozambican Cele brought the responsibility home to the community: “These criminals are not UFOs, they are your sons, cousins, sons-in-law, et cetera.” His audience at Esikhawini was unconvinced that they had a role to play in denouncing cannibalism, having previously brought ordinary criminals to the police station where the officers were too drunk to process an arrest. Cele subsequently rose to become Zuma’s national commissioner of police before being found too corrupt to hold office, in 2011, a bygone era of ostensible honesty when officeholders were sometimes forced to resign if their corruption was exposed. Cele was demoted to the level of a deputy minister where he continues to serve. Before Sunday’s election he took the position that, absent a change in leadership, only witchcraft would save the ruling party at the next election, due in 2019.
Despite its long record of disasters the African National Congress has been saved at the polls by inertia, rural loyalties, and racial polarization. Zuma controlled the party as it disintegrated from within. His main handlers, including conmen, bank robbers, and fraudsters, tried various means, fair but largely foul, to pass his control onto his former wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma—rigging the internal vote totals, disrupting the meetings of party branches opposed to the Zuma faction, abusing the power of provincial barons, and distributing fake news about Nkosazana’s rival, Cyril Ramaphosa. The chief whip of the ANC, the mercurial Jackson Mthembu, soon made the connection between what had happened in Estcourt and efforts to destroy Ramaphosa’s candidacy with accusations of womanizing: “My heart goes to the wife and the family of comrade Cyril who have been subjected to so much pain by this political cannibalism.” The effort almost succeeded. Ramaphosa’s margin of victory was no more than 2 percent and three of the top six vote gatherers at the weekend were highly compromised members of the Zuma faction, including a man who controls his own private militia and is likely responsible for many killings of the kind that almost took the life of councilman Majola. Ramaphosa himself is a politically connected billionaire who, among other things, buys and breeds very expensive cattle.
Generalizations about the politics of the continent are viewed dimly as a fixation on outlandish practices, but there are underlying attitudes and values that shape political life in South Africa and beyond. Michela Wrong’s study of Kenyan corruption adopted a proposition for its title—“It’s our turn to eat”—which encapsulates the mindset of what political scientists call neo-patrimonialism. The state is a source of sustenance for those who control it, sometimes quite literally a provider of meat. One of the most striking recent formulations of vegetarianism, J. M. Coetzee’s analogy of chicken farming to the Holocaust, was presented in characteristically indirect fashion but contained a longstanding impulse at its core: the desire of white South Africans to claim a measure of colonial innocence, disassociating themselves from black politics. Coetzee borrowed from the toolkit of poststructuralism to sustain a form of radical prestige for his community. The strategy is unexpectedly personal and rivalrous. My own faculty at the University of Cape Town collapsed in 2015 in a feud between mostly white vegetarians who believed that meat should never be served at university functions and black academics who saw cultural disrespect in the demand. One of the vegetarian militants unwisely opened her presentation by comparing the rights of animals to the rights of slaves.
Despite a series of surprises and intrigues, including Zuma’s last-minute promise of free university education, “political cannibalism” failed to secure Nkosazana’s election largely because of a string of legal interventions that limited the rigging of the candidate lists and excluded many dubious delegates from the conference. The courts were the real December surprise, the only effective part of the political order, which the Zuma faction could never quite bring itself to confront head-on despite its violation of many other norms. Throughout Zuma’s presidency judicial activism went a long way to regulate and resist what would be unexceptional exercises of executive privilege in the United States, overturning one presidential action after another on the basis that they didn’t meet the minimal test of rationality. Noticing that the 783 charges of corruption against the president have languished for years, the courts have even insisted that Ramaphosa choose the prosecutor to assess and proceed with the case.
Cyril Ramaphosa’s triumph makes for unsatisfactory closure, given his long silence as Zuma’s deputy, and the holdovers elected along with him to run the ruling party, not to say the dual centers of power in the party and the presidency that will likely persist until the 2019 general election. Ramaphosa lacks (or seems to lack) the psychological strangeness of his predecessors, Zuma and before him Thabo Mbeki, who were often in the grip of destructive and self-destructive political passions. He nevertheless embodies the contradictions of the society, being at once the most successful trade unionist on the continent and, as a mining executive, the face most associated with the police killing of mineworkers at Marikana on August 16, 2012.
Despite his bravery before 1990, Ramaphosa has been an excessively cautious political operator in recent years, unwilling to oppose the machinations of the presidency until Zuma backed him into a corner by sponsoring Nkosazana’s candidacy. Compared with the revolutionary phrasebook (“white monopoly capital”) created for the Zuma camp by a British publicity agency, Ramaphosa’s religious values and concern with process and good governance have their appeal. During the campaign he steered clear of the demagoguery that has consumed the universities, avoiding the tirades against business and the West that are the stock-in-trade of South African politicians, who are unaccustomed to acting on any of these imprecations.
The way forward under Ramaphosa is unclear, given the fragility of the society, faltering as it has not since the widespread violence in the years running up to the first democratic election in 1994. The decline of security has reinforced the general acceptance of civic violence to achieve political ends. The state is fragile and cannot perform its minimal responsibilities, from providing water and electricity, to running the schools or creating a budget, and yet for many it is the only viable means of self-advancement.
South Africa’s condition is not easily understood in ordinary political terms. The left has not come to terms with the paradoxical results of its economic policies, as actions designed to combat inequality have only led to far greater inequality, an economy that has been stagnant for a decade, and one of the highest unemployment rates in the world. (Zimbabwe’s even higher unemployment rate, around 90 percent, reminds us that there is always some place to fall and a political sector to enjoy the decline.) The government’s attempt to create a class of black businessmen, which dates to Mbeki and relies on quotas and competitive bidding for government contracts, backfired spectacularly, creating instead a vast number of corrupt coalitions between politicians, businessmen, and gangsters, three groups that have increasingly blurred into one another. It is unlikely that a plan of clean government alone can lift their suffocating hold on towns and rural areas. Ramaphosa’s own great fortune was built on insider deals between white capital and black political power that are not entirely different in kind to those forged in the Zuma years. But he is trained as a lawyer and, from what we know, always stayed within the framework of legality.
Like an American politician, Ramaphosa published a book this election year. In Ramaphosa’s case, the volume Cattle of the Ages was sold as “a narrative and pictorial celebration of the Ankole, the most magnificent breed of cattle in the world.” With an ear to the concerns of the present as well as to the customs of past, Ramaphosa claimed that his herds of Ankole represent an excellent source of beef in a time of climate change, one of the rare occasions on which he has stretched the truth. He may yet steer a middle course between “political cannibalism” and vegetarianism.