By Peroshni Govender
WELBEDACHT, South Africa (Reuters) - Mthembeni Shezi, an ANC local councilor in the run-down suburb of Welbedacht on South Africa's east coast, was wrapping up a routine meeting last month when two men barged in, sprayed the room with gunfire and shot him five times in the chest.
"It was like a movie. The men just shot indiscriminately. It was scary. Everyone panicked. We hit the floor. I didn't think I would come out of there alive," said one woman present, who remains too frightened to reveal her name.
"The gunmen seemed to know who they wanted."
Far from being a movie, the hit represents the bloody reality of local politics for some in the African National Congress, and shows how far Nelson Mandela's 100-year-old liberation movement has strayed from the moral high ground it occupied when it came to power 18 years ago.
Rare since the advent of democracy in 1994, political murders within the ruling party have soared in the last 18 months, with local officials turning on each other in a dog-eat-dog scramble for the spoils of power.
President Jacob Zuma, who came to office in 2009, has pledged to crack down on corruption, but watchdog Transparency International suggests South Africa is sliding down the ranks, from 38th in the world in 2001 to 64th in 2011.
As the level of corruption has risen, so has the carnage at the party's grass roots.
In Zuma's home province of KwaZulu Natal, 38 ANC members have been killed since February 2011, according to an internal party investigation. By comparison, the previous three years saw only just over 10 politically linked murders in the region.
At the funeral of a prominent ANC official killed in a drive-by shooting in July, Zuma blamed the killings on "some forces of darkness ... bent on dividing our movement".
Even though Africa's biggest economy has been struggling since a 2008/09 recession and the Treasury is trying to keep a lid on spending, local councils remain awash with cash ear-marked for roads, houses, water and electricity to redress the inequalities of decades of underspending under apartheid.
Exact reasons for the sharp rise in levels of corruption and the attendant killings are hard to pin down. But the sluggish recovery from the recession means there are fewer money-making options elsewhere and it also seems that the word has got out that local officialdom is the way to riches.
There are also plenty of examples at the top of the ANC. Zuma was accused and never fully exonerated of receiving backhanders from a 1997 arms deal. Former ANC youth leader Julius Malema has been charged with money laundering.
According to his friends, the 38-year-old Shezi, who died of his wounds a day later in hospital, became a target because he was one of the few straight ones.
"People hated him because he was fighting corruption," his fiancée, Buyi Tshabalala, told Reuters. "He was in constant fear that he would be killed."
Others contend that Shezi's lifestyle was too flashy for someone on a local councilor's salary. Those who attended the meeting at which he was shot believe his killing resulted from a dispute related to his job.
'BETTER LIFE FOR SOME'
Reuters has spoken to eight ANC officials in KwaZulu Natal, who said politicians and officials were dying in battles for council positions that give access to lucrative government contracts.
Such killings have been recorded in all of South Africa's nine provinces - in July, for instance, the mayor of the northwest city of Rustenburg was convicted for ordering the murder of a rival councilor.
But Zuma's back yard, historically the wild and untamed home of the Zulus, has been hit hardest.
In an episode typical of the violence in the province, an ANC branch chairman, Dumisani Malunga, was killed in August in a hit organized by a rival, Sifiso Khumalo.
"There was absolutely no justification for you to eliminate him by the barrel of a gun to prevent him from vying for the position as ward councilor," the judge said in sentencing Khumalo to 22 years in jail for masterminding the killing.
With an ANC leadership race coming up in December, few expect Zuma to crack down for fear of alienating supporters and damaging his chances of re-election as head of the party and, by extension, securing a second term as national president in 2014.
"Having ANC membership is the best CV in town. The higher you go in the party, the more you can dish out patronage. It's about taking care of yourself and those close to you," said a member of the ANC's National Executive Committee, its highest decision-making body.
"It's no longer about the ANC slogan 'A better life for all'. It's now about a better life for some," said the official, who asked not to be named. "People are reducing the ANC to their personal kitty and are prepared to kill to get their slice of the wealth."
Much of the problem lies with local government, with a staggering 95 percent of municipal administrations being unable to account for their receipts and spending, according to the Auditor General.
Many councilors - Shezi included - come from impoverished backgrounds and some are barely educated. For some, having control of hundreds of millions of rand a year with little oversight is too great a temptation.
"There are as many bad things to say about Shezi as there are good. People look at his lifestyle and ask: 'How does a herd boy from Nkandla go from having absolutely nothing to a fancy 4X4 and several houses?'" an ANC official in nearby Durban said.
The ANC has spent billions of dollars fighting poverty since the birth of the "Rainbow Nation" in 1994, and has made enormous strides in providing electricity, running water and housing to the poor.
It has also seen enormous sums lost at the local level where checks are fewer and prosecutions rare for officials suspected of lining their pockets.
"People start to see that being a local councilor can be a means to acquire wealth," the Durban official said.
As the corruption has soared, so too have the protests by blacks living in shanty towns around major cities with no power, running water or job prospects. From just a few dozen a year under former President Thabo Mbeki, they are now a daily occurrence.
The anger is unlikely to translate into a loss of power any time soon for the ANC, which continues to win support on the back of its role in ending apartheid. It was more than 40 percentage points ahead of its nearest rival in 2011 elections.
However, there is a risk of the greed and cynicism tearing the party apart and, at least in KwaZulu Natal, rendering the province ungovernable.
"If the situation is not controlled now, we run the risk of reverting to the early 1990s, when the province was wracked by political violence," said Kwanele Ncale, a spokesman for the team investigating Shezi's killing.
(Editing by Jon Herskovitz, Ed Cropley and Giles Elgood)