OSHABENI, South Africa — It was, by all accounts, an ordinary small-town political meeting. The leaders of the local branch of the African National Congress gathered in September at a convent here to discuss candidates for a newly vacated seat on the ward council, the lowest-level elected position in South Africa.When it was over, Dumisani Malunga, the local party chairman and the front-runner for the seat, stopped at a friend’s house for a late meal of chicken curry. As he and another party official, Bheko Chiliza, drove home at 9:30 p.m., a gunman fired into their car. Their bloody, bullet-riddled bodies were later found sprawled on the ground beside the white Toyota hatchback.
Mr. Malunga and Mr. Chiliza were the latest casualties in an increasingly bloody battle for local political posts in South Africa. Dozens of officials, including ward councilors, party leaders and mayors, have been killed in what has become a desperate, deadly struggle for power and its spoils.
The killings threaten to tarnish the image of the so-called rainbow nation, whose largely bloodless transition from white minority rule to nonracial democracy has made it a beacon of peace, tolerance and forgiveness.
Amid rising corruption and waning economic opportunities, political killings are on the rise. Here in KwaZulu-Natal Province, nearly 40 politicians have been killed since 2010 in battles over political posts, more than triple the number in the previous three years, according to government figures. Over the past few years, dozens more have been killed in provinces like Mpumalanga, North West and Limpopo.
The A.N.C., once a banned liberation movement engaged in one of the 20th century’s most important struggles for justice and human rights, is now in power, and it has come under harsh scrutiny for the rampant poverty, deep inequality and widespread unemployment plaguing the country. A wave of wildcat strikes that began in August, and the lethal crackdown against them, has fueled anger at a party seen as increasingly out of touch and whose leaders appear only to seek to fill their pockets.
That is a stark change from the A.N.C.’s early days, when people risked their lives and freedom to join the party and its fight to end apartheid. But in recent years, the party has sharply increased recruitment of new members, with little consideration for who joins and why.
Many new members come in search of wealth and power. Fewer than half of South African’s young black adults have jobs, and many lack the basic skills to find work after years of attending substandard schools in townships and rural areas. For these youths, politics is a seemingly certain route out of poverty. The rise in corruption has fed the belief that political posts mean kickbacks and contracts.
In the ranks of public servants, the post of rural ward council member in a speck of a town like this one would seem no great prize. The job pays about $150 a month, and its occupant must digest a steady diet of complaints from residents about the most fundamental ailments afflicting South Africa: schools that do not teach, taps that do not deliver water, crime that the police seem helpless to stop, jobs that are impossible to find.
But ward councilors are also a conduit for development projects in their areas, and they can influence the awarding of government contracts. The potential upside — earnings from bribes or surreptitious deals — is high.
“Due to the high rate of unemployment, people look for any opportunity to create an income and capitalize on it,” said Mzwandile Mkhwanazi, the regional chairman of the A.N.C. in the area that includes Oshabeni. “They are influenced by levels of poverty. They come up with any ways and means of getting money.”
Such changes in fortune explain why the post of ward councilor in Oshabeni, an impoverished town nestled in rolling hills about 15 miles inland from the Indian Ocean, was so hotly contested. When the woman who held the post died of illness in August, many local politicians were eager to throw their hats into the ring.
One of them was a young taxi driver named Sfiso Khumalo, the leader of the local branch of the A.N.C.’s Youth League. But Mr. Khumalo did not have a very good reputation, fellow Youth League members said. He was hotheaded, they said, and had spent nine years in prison for theft.
“We knew him as a stealer,” said Gcinile Duma, the secretary of the Youth League. “He had been in jail and was with the wrong kind of people.”
Other members of the local A.N.C. branch’s executive committee said they were worried that Mr. Khumalo was not a suitable candidate.
“Some people get into politics for the wrong reason, only for money,” said one local party leader who did not want to be named discussing party business. “Sfiso Khumalo was not looking to help people, only to help himself.”
Standing in his way was Mr. Malunga, 42, the party chairman and a popular local figure.
“People liked Dumisani and saw him as a good leader,” Ms. Duma said.
On Sept. 9, Mr. Khumalo attended the meeting at the Daughters of St. Francis of Assisi Convent to declare his candidacy. There was no open confrontation between Mr. Malunga and Mr. Khumalo, people who attended the meeting said. But when Mr. Malunga was found shot to death near his house, few doubted who was the prime suspect.
“We told the police, ‘We know who did this. It was Sfiso Khumalo,’ ” Ms. Duma said.
After two days of investigations, the police arrested Mr. Khumalo, who promptly confessed that he had conspired with a local businessman to have Mr. Malunga killed. On Sept. 18, Mr. Khumalo was sentenced to 22 years in prison. The person accused of being his co-conspirator is still in court.
In a statement, the leader of the A.N.C. in KwaZulu-Natal condemned the violence and the culture it springs from.
“The A.N.C. can ill afford the development of the culture of the underworld, criminality and violent elimination of opponents,” said the provincial chairman, Zweli Mkhize. “Neither can the A.N.C. afford the association of political appointment to self-enrichment where ascendancy to office is not linked with capacity, competence and dedicated service to our people.”
Party officials paid for Mr. Malunga’s burial, and his brick and stucco grave looks lavish next to the unadorned earthen mounds in the family graveyard that hold his father, brother and nephew.
Mr. Malunga’s mother, Sizakele Malunga, has already buried 5 of her 11 children, but losing her youngest son was a special blow, she said. Mr. Malunga lived with her and kept her company in her widowhood.
“I am lonely, but nothing will bring him back,” Mrs. Malunga said. “I just try to make the time pass without him.”
By Lydia Polgreen for New York Times.
Mukelwa Hlatshwayo contributed reporting.