Assassinations are rising sharply in South Africa, threatening the stability of hard-hit parts of the country and imperiling Nelson Mandela’s dream of a unified, democratic nation.

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UMZIMKHULU, South Africa — Their fear faded as they raced back home, the bottle of Johnnie Walker getting lighter with each turn of the road. Soon, Sindiso Magaqa was clapping and bouncing behind the wheel of his beloved V-8 Mercedes-Benz, pulling into familiar territory just before dark.

Minutes later, men closed in with assault rifles. Magaqa reached for the gun under his seat — too late. One of his passengers saw flashes of light, dozens of them, from the spray of bullets pockmarking the doors.

The ambush was exactly what Magaqa had feared. A few months before, a friend had been killed by gunmen in his front yard. Then, as another friend tried to open his front gate at night, a hit man crept out of the dark, shooting him dead. Next came Magaqa, 34. Struck half a dozen times, he hung on for weeks in a hospital before dying last year.

All of the assassination targets had one thing in common: They were members of the African National Congress (ANC) who had spoken out against corruption in the party that defined their lives.

“If you understand the Cosa Nostra, you don’t only kill the person, but you also send a strong message,” said Thabiso Zulu, another ANC whistleblower who, fearing for his life, is in hiding.

“We broke the rule of omertà,” he added, saying that the party of Nelson Mandela had become like the Mafia.

Assassinations are rising sharply in South Africa, threatening the stability of hard-hit parts of the country and imperiling Mandela’s dream of a unified, democratic nation.

But unlike much of the political violence that upended the country in the 1990s, the recent killings are not being driven by vicious battles between rival political parties.

Quite the opposite: In most cases, ANC officials are killing one another, hiring professional hit men to eliminate fellow party members in an all-or-nothing fight over money, turf and power, ANC officials say.

The party once inspired generations of South Africans and captured the imagination of millions around the world — from impoverished corners of Africa to wealthy American campuses.

But corruption and divisions have flourished within the ANC in recent years, stripping much of the party of its ideals. After nearly 25 years in power, party members have increasingly turned to fighting, not over competing visions for the nation, but over influential positions and the spoils that go with them.

The death toll is climbing quickly. About 90 politicians have been killed since the start of 2016, more than twice the annual rate in the 16 years before that, according to researchers at the University of Cape Town and the Global Initiative Against Transnational Crime.

The killings have swelled into such a national crisis that the police began releasing data on political killings for the first time this year, while the new president, Cyril Ramaphosa, has lamented that the assassinations are tarnishing Mandela’s dream.

But Ramaphosa is struggling to unite his fractious party before elections next year and has done little to stem the violence. His administration has resisted official demands to provide police protection for two ANC whistleblowers in the case surrounding Magaqa’s killing, baffling some anti-corruption officials.

Personal political feuds

The recent assassinations cover a wide range of personal and political feuds. Some victims were ANC officials who became targets after exposing or denouncing corruption within the party. Others fell in internal battles for lucrative posts. In rural areas — where the party has a near-total grip on the economy, jobs and government contracts — the conflict is particularly intense, with officials constantly looking over their shoulders.

Magaqa’s province, KwaZulu-Natal, is the deadliest. Here, 80 ANC officials were killed between 2011 and 2017, the party says. Even relatively low-level ward councilors have bodyguards, and many politicians carry guns.

“It was better before we attained democracy, because we knew the enemy — that the enemy was the regime, the unjust regime,” said Mluleki Ndobe, the mayor of the district where Magaqa and five other ANC politicians have been assassinated in the past year.

“Now, you don’t know who is the enemy,” he said.

More than any other, the death of Magaqa, the most prominent politician assassinated so far, has focused attention on the deadly scramble within the party that helped bring democracy to South Africa.

A rising star in the ANC who had become a national figure, Magaqa returned to local politics in his hometown, Umzimkhulu. After accusing party officials of pocketing millions in the failed refurbishment of a historic building, he and two allies were killed in rapid succession.

Many others have suffered similar fates. This month in Pretoria, the capital, an ANC councilor who had called for an inquiry into government housing was gunned down while driving her car with her three children. A few months earlier, a party official in a neighboring ward was shot dead near his home after exposing the shoddy quality of public housing.

In Mpumalanga, the province of Deputy President David Mabuza, an ANC city council speaker was gunned down in front of his son outside his home after exposing corruption in the construction of a soccer stadium.

In KwaZulu-Natal, an ANC councilor critical of corruption was shot to death last year while escorting a friend to her car. In March, an ANC municipal manager known to be tough on corruption was gunned down behind a police station by two hit men. And this month, in a rare arrest, an ANC councilor and the son of an ANC deputy mayor were charged in the killing of an ANC official who had led protests against corruption.

But few other political figures have been arrested in such killings, adding to a widening sense of lawlessness.

“The politicians have become like a political mafia,” said Mary de Haas, an expert on political killings who taught at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. “It is the very antithesis of democracy because people fear to speak out.”

Peril of speaking out

For good reason. After Magaqa’s death, Zulu, the whistleblower now in hiding, loudly condemned corruption in Umzimkhulu. The impoverished municipal government spent a large chunk of its budget to refurbish a historic building called the Memorial Hall. But after five years and more than $2 million in public money, the project was a sinkhole of dubious spending, with little to show for it.

For breaking the code of silence, Zulu, 36, and another party official are now in grave danger, according to a 47-page report released in August by the Public Protector’s Office, a government authority that investigates corruption. The two whistleblowers, the report said, fear “they may be assassinated at any time.”

The Public Protector’s Office urged the national police to provide security for the whistleblowers and reprimanded Ramaphosa’s police minister for being “grossly negligent” in failing to do so. But the police minister rejected the report and moved to challenge it in court.

The Public Protector also had a message for Ramaphosa: The president should “take urgent and appropriate steps” to protect the whistleblowers. But Ramaphosa has not responded. Khusela Diko, his spokeswoman, said the president is consulting his police minister.

The government’s inaction reflects the ANC’s inability — or unwillingness — to stop the internal warfare because it could expose the extent of corruption and criminality in its ranks, current and former party officials say.

“These allegiances go all the way to the top of the party,” said Makhosi Khoza, a former ANC politician who works at OUTA, a group fighting graft. “That’s why the ANC is not interested in this, no matter how many murders there are.”

For decades before the end of apartheid, different factions under the ANC’s umbrella — communists, free marketeers, trade unionists, agents in exile — competed with one another, sometimes violently, as they fought white rule.

But the recent increase in killings inside the ANC is a potent reminder of how far the party has strayed from creating, in the ashes of apartheid, a political order based on the rule of law.

The Public Protector’s investigation into the Memorial Hall has frozen the renovation. Umzimkhulu’s mayor, Mphuthumi Mpabanga, called the project a “dream” that would change “the lives of the people.”

But it has little resonance for many in Umzimkhulu, a vast municipality with pockets of extreme poverty. Margaret Phungula, 60, carries buckets to a muddy stream six times a day for water, adding spoonfuls of chlorine. Shown a photo of the Memorial Hall, she stared blankly.

“They’re not thinking of us,” she said of the town’s leaders. “We’re still suffering.”