From the air, the sugarcane fields of KwaZulu-Natal look like peaceful seas of verdant green. But inside is a festering nightmare of carnage, as young women looking for work in factories are lured to their death by a serial killer. These grisly crimes are uncovered by police profiler Reyka Gama (Kim Engelbrecht), haunted by her own abduction as child by a predatory sugarcane farmer, trapped in a claustrophobic farmhouse.
Reyka — nominated for both Best Actress (Engelbrecht) and Best Drama series at the 2022 International Emmys — explicitly draws inspiration from real-life crimes. The murders reference Thozamile Taki, who killed thirteen young women before he was apprehended. Reyka’s kidnapping in early 1990s Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal’s second city, echoes the abduction of Fiona Harvey by the apartheid-era serial killer Gert van Rooyen. The contemporary reality of organized crime and assassinations conducted by Izinbaki — hitmen who work for criminal syndicates within the taxi industry — is used as narrative backdrop. A key location is clearly modeled on Glebelands, a hostel in Umlazi (a township in Durban) with its notorious reputation as a haven for gunmen.
The show is a successful, often disturbing, exercise in applying the tropes of neo-noir to the South African context. The themes of troubled antihero protagonists and murders that reveal wider societal injustices and secrets have become part of international narratives. Reyka’s quietly sinister fields, ominously shrouded in mist, parallel Memories of Murder, a 2003 film by Parasite director Bong Joon Ho, about the hunt for a serial killer in rural South Korea. Narcos: Mexico — the final season of which is competing in the Best Drama category of the Emmys — includes a plot about the ongoing femicides in Ciudad Juarez, where hundreds of women, often working as migrant labor in border factories, have been killed in the last decades.
The KwaZulu-Natal depicted in the series is full of lawless, scuzzy taverns and taxi ranks where armed hoodlums lurk against an ominous soundtrack of gqom — a percussive dance music originated by bedroom producers in the townships of Durban. These tropes are widely circulated in mass media, where KwaZulu-Natal is depicted as a national crime capital and the “wild west.” Depictions go back to at least the 1980s, when the province was in a state of virtual civil war, as tensions between the African National Congress (ANC) and the Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) were deliberately manipulated by the apartheid state. The “third force” counterinsurgency strategy fueled intercommunal violence, state-supported massacres, and the rise of warlords and “no-go” areas. This violence was rooted in the specific politics of the day, but continued even after the 1994 elections in spirals of reprisals and vengeance.
But rather than locating such conflict as a problem with definable contemporary origins, media portrayals choose the more dramatic conclusion that the province was condemned to an intractable violence, rooted in undying enmity from a social hierarchy where whites, descended from British and Irish settlers, dominated both Africans and Indians. This perspective was seen in the reportage of Rian Malan, a white South African author who built an international reputation off his best-selling book, My Traitor’s Heart. Malan’s reporting included extensive focus on KwaZulu-Natal.
In a story about the trial of Simon Mpungose, known as the “Hammerman” for a series of killings where he broke into the homes of white victims, Malan reports the actions of one psychopath as conveying the truth about the province as a whole. In highly racialized language Malan claims that the courtroom gave an illusion of civilized order. Instead, the “real KwaZulu-Natal is outside. You can hear it through the open window — a clamoring throng of several hundred Zulus held at bay by cops with dogs.” This depiction of the police is especially ironic, as the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) revealed that apartheid-era police and the KwaZulu “homeland” forces were instrumental in facilitating and participating in political killings.
But elements of this Kurtzian discourse of horror have persisted in contemporary reporting. Organized violence in KwaZulu-Natal today is rooted in a political economy based around patronage and kleptocracy, where construction mafias and “business forums” use force to control local markets. Criminal violence is closely linked to power struggles within the provincial ANC, currently dominated by a self-described “Taliban” faction. In the aftermath of the July 2021 unrest, in which supporters of Jacob Zuma orchestrated looting and sabotage of public infrastructure as a reprisal for the former president receiving a jail sentence for contempt of court, the image of KwaZulu-Natal as an armed backwater which threatens the stability of the rest of the country was again in circulation. In this latest version, South Africa has a “KZN problem.”
Reyka, however, complicates these narratives. For one, its heightened depiction of plantations and farms as quasi-gothic spaces of domination and pain shows how the poor and women are at the mercy of a wildly unequal political economy, which reproduces violence on a daily level. Rather than viewing this as an immutable fact of history, it depicts how these structures intersect with new struggles over control and resources. From power brokers using private security as armed militias to religious pastors abusing the trust of their followers, the series paints contemporary South Africa as a society where the ruthless pursuit of money leads to human life becoming the cheapest commodity of all.
Violence in KwaZulu-Natal is not merely localized, but also linked to wider national and global circuits of crime. Izinkabi are regularly outsourced to commit murder for hire in other parts of the country. And though Jacob Zuma presents himself as a Zulu traditionalist — tradition being a shorthand for whatever benefits him at any particular moment — his presidency was based on transnational exploitation, with Asian businesspeople and American corporations colluding to plunder public finances.
Rather than being an outlier, KwaZulu-Natal is at the forefront of the most destructive politics and social forces of the twenty-first century.
Christopher McMichael is a writer based in Johannesburg and the author of Shoot to Kill: Police and Power in South Africa (Inkani Books, 2022).
Featured image: M-Net, 2021
This article was first published on Jacobin.