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In the past month people have tried to kill the CEO of a public utility and the vice-chancellor of a university in SA. It is shocking beyond words. But aside from expressing horror, there is much to be said. What does it mean that the leaders of these sorts of institutions are targets? What does it augur?

Six years ago Mark Shaw, the foremost analyst of organised crime in SA, published a book called Hitmen For Hire. A prodigious empirical study, it aimed to gather data on every professionally contracted killing and attempted killing in SA from 2000 to 2016. In the end, Shaw recorded 1,146 separate incidents.

More than half of these hits were associated with the taxi industry, he found. But, as he got closer to the present the spheres of society in which hits took place widened. The story told by the data was clear. It was in the taxi industry that a large market for assassination was born. And as that market grew, so others began to hire its vendors, until contracted killings had become entrenched in several other parts of SA society. The most notable was local government; no fewer than 17 sitting mayors had died in targeted assassinations.

The book ends with a warning. As professional killings fan out from their origins along taxi routes and in ganglands, there was no saying where they would stop. Then it was local government. Where next? Nowhere was sacrosanct. Events of the past month offer sad vindication of Shaw’s counsel. There now exists a deadly nexus between organised crime and tertiary education, between organised crime and the provision of electricity. It has been a dark month indeed.

In 1998 I was hired as a Business Day reporter. One of my beats was the taxi industry. It was an exhilarating beat, for it was the site of an inspiring tale. In the past, the story went, the taxi industry had to use violence to enforce agreements, for the apartheid government had not so much as recognised its existence. It had grown enormously, transporting more than half of SA’s working class, entirely outside of formal regulation. Of course, hitmen were hired when agreements were broken; there was no law, no regulator, no tribunal, to turn to.

Now, the story continued, with the arrival of democracy the industry could finally come out from underground. Liberated from the need to hire gunmen, it would be governed by regulation and law. “Liberated”, the story insisted, really was the right word, for as it took shape as a formal industry, paying its taxes, abiding by rules, there was no limit to what it could achieve.

With its commuter fares as a foundation it could start financial institutions to rival the big four. It could start vehicle plants that would export to the entire continent. A hardscrabble township industry once run on sweat and gunfire, it could become a corporate colossus. The story did indeed come to pass, but inside out. Organised crime did not wither and die through exposure to state institutions. Instead, state institutions were infected by organised crime. The two are now so entangled that hits are taken out on vice-chancellors and CEOs.

Another of my beats at Business Day in the late 1990s was the police. In that capacity I met a visiting dignitary who ran one of the largest police services in the world. Off the record, he told me that the police in SA had two essential tasks. First, avoid being corrupted. And, second, prevent corruption in the state apparatus as a whole. If they don’t get those two things right, he said, you’re screwed.

A quarter of a century later I am writing in the pages of the same newspaper about attempts on the lives of Sakhela Buhlungu and André de Ruyter. It is a grim column to write. It is especially grim when I remember the thrill I felt when I filed those hopeful stories back in 1998.

Steinberg teaches part-time at Yale University.

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