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Vigilante groups out of control: South Africa's spiralling crimewave is producing a disturbing backlash--the growth of vigilantism and 'instant justice'. Criminals, and those suspected of being criminals, can expect little mercy from the public when they are apprehended. What sort of society will this new trend produce, asks Tom Nevin.

The pre-Christmas party buzz and bonhomie at the popular north Johannesburg Buck and Hog bar and grill were shattered at about 8.00pm when three armed robbers burst in and ordered the patrons to surrender their valuables and cash. Waving handguns, shouting and pistol-whipping the terrified diners, the intruders were stopped in their tracks by fatally accurate revolver fire by an off-duty policeman, a diner at the eatery.


One robber dropped to the floor and died instantly, another staggered to the doorway, where he collapsed and died while the third ran bleeding out to the sidewalk where he fell and slowly died. Two other bandits waiting outside escaped into the night in a station wagon hijacked in a neighbouring suburb earlier in the day.

In the process, something uniquely South African happened in this climate of violent, out-of-control crime. The diners gathered around the wounded man, shot through a lung, and laughed as they watched him die.

Now South Africans are questioning the kind of society they are becoming. Which is worse--to terrorise, brutalise and rob innocent people, or to stand by and watch another human expire in agony and do nothing to help him? Has South Africa irrevocably entered a level of vigilantism, rough justice and cold indifference?


An increasing number of news reports, and some incidents reported by the police, show a gruesomely mounting tally of death and injury to apparent wrongdoers by members of the public. Vigilantism and kangaroo courts are becoming a South African way of life as a hapless, outnumbered and outgunned, and reportedly demoralised, police force finds itself unable to cope with the country's spiralling crimewave.

A Pretoria motorist rams a hijacker with his car, a suspected rapist is beaten to death in Soweto, a maize meal thief is stripped naked, painted white and paraded through a Northern Province Township. The stories are legion and are fading from media attention by their sheer volume.

The following is a chronicle of death by instant "people's justice" in South Africa over just 10 days in December 2006.

* Villagers beat a would-be robber to death after he held up a shopkeeper in a Pomeroy, KwaZulu-Natal store. Wielding a shotgun, the intruder demanded money. He was immediately tackled by the storekeeper and in the struggle the weapon went off. Nearby villagers heard the gunshots and rushed to investigate. They grabbed the robber, dragged him outside and beat him with sticks. He died later in hospital.

* A financial deal gone sour was apparently the cause of the shooting to death of a Dalton, KwaZulu-Natal businessman and his wife in ambush gunfire allegedly by contract killers.

* A man accused of stealing a teenage girl's mobile phone was allegedly handed over by the police to the young woman's father in Dobsonville township near Johannesburg. The man's body was found the following day, severely beaten and shot three times.

* A Liberian trickster was beaten to within an inch of his life, shot in both legs and stabbed after he was tracked down to East London in Eastern Cape province by a man he had allegedly cheated out of thousands of rands. The man and his accomplices, along with the aggrieved fraud victim, have since been arrested and are awaiting trial.

* The people of Ivory Park township near Johannesburg became so fed up with a serial hooligan that they eventually beat him up, tossed him into a wheelbarrow and set fire to him. The 25-year-old burned to death. Two township dwellers have been arrested and charged with his murder.

* In an instance that illustrates how civic anger eventually overcomes fear, vendors, shoppers and storekeepers in Durban chased an armed man who had held up a service station owner and grabbed a bag of money. Ignoring shots by the robber, the throng caught up with him and beat him senseless. Police took him in a serious condition to hospital.

Only the most violent criminal deeds receive media mention, and then only a paragraph or two, so overwhelming is the flow.

In the Cape Town township of Kkayelitsha, a kangaroo court has been set up by a man who calls himself Alex, reports researcher Janine Stephen writing in the Sunday Times. He also says he's chairman of the Peninsula Anti-Crime Agency (Peaca).

"Here we help residents who are affected by crime," maintains Alex. "Eyewitnesses often give the victim information and they report this to Peaca. We then go and apprehend the suspect. Sometimes we will sjambok (whip) or slap him until he tells the truth. He will point out the stolen belongings, and we return these to the victim."

Says Stephen: "Peaca, formed by former members of Umkhonto weSizwe (the ANC's liberation army) and the Azanian People's Liberation Army in 1998, was at its peak around 2000. Although not as large these days, it has been operating in full view of the police for eight years."

Amanda Dissel, a researcher with the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, says members of the public are entitled to use lethal force, just as police are, if their lives are in danger within the bounds of the law. "However," she adds, "this kind of vigilantism is a clear indication of how fed up people are. It seems that people have no respect for police and our criminal justice system. This way they can see justice taking place."

According to Kashiefa Ajam of the Saturday Star newspaper, quoting Johan Burger of the Institute of Security Studies, people are tired of being powerless victims.

Statistically-speaking, one number alone tells the horrifying story of South African crime: 18,545 -that's the number of people who died in crime-related violence in the 12 months to March 2006. That works out to about 51 people a day.

Burger says people feel more insecure now than they did in 1998 when crime was at its peak in South Africa. "Because people feel more unsafe they're taking the law into their own hands. More and more people are arming themselves--it's a natural reaction."


Anatomy of a vigilante group

A perceived ineffective police and prosecuting structure brought about the growth of South Africa's biggest vigilante group Mapogo a Mathamaga, named after the African National Congress's second president.

At its height the group had about 70,000 paid-up members and gained infamy for its kangaroo courts and harsh instant corporal punishment in, it claims, 'the real African way'.

Since its launch in 1996, Mapogo has been embroiled in controversy. Set up by a group of black businessmen in the Northern Province in response to a spate of murders and armed robberies, the group rapidly became known for its illegal and strong-arm tactics when dealing with criminal suspects. Consequently, Mapogo was soon referred to as a vigilante group.

According to a report by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, vigilantism has been part of South Africa's informal policing strategy for decades. During the 1980s and early 1990s, when informal policing intensified with the establishment of People's Courts and street committees, the term 'vigilante' was largely used to denote state-sponsored groups that sought to undermine the liberation movement.

"Although vigilantism ceased to be a tool of repression with the democratic elections in 1994, it did not disappear," says the study. "Just as the nature of violence more generally is said to have changed from political to criminal violence, current vigilantism is seen as a response to the high rates of crime and a weak criminal justice system. Rather than being politically motivated, as were the majority of vigilantes during the 1980s, these groups argue that their sole aim is to act against crime in a situation where the police and the judiciary are seen as inefficient and corrupt."

The preamble to Mapogo's 1996 founding constitution states: "Our areas are presently suffering under an unprecedented wave of crime and lawlessness, where criminals are openly flaunting their crimes in complete contempt of law and society. The state and its political rulers do not have the political will and/or ability to stop this wave of crime by giving tangible and material support and encouragement to the police and by devoting adequate funds for law enforcement and to see to it that these funds are spent properly and effectively."


The constitution, which urges members to work within the law, indicates that from the outset Mapogo attempted to employ legal methods to apprehend criminals and to cooperate with the police. The group initially arrested suspects and handed them over to the police, but changed tactics after police released a number of them. "This gradual move from compliance to circumvention of the law by vigilante groups is a common phenomenon," says the study.

According to many respondents, Mapogo does not follow due process. Suspects are not presumed innocent, and there is no separation between investigation, prosecution and conviction. Members have to pay an annual fee, ranging from R100 to R10,000 ($1,450) depending on their status or the size of their businesses. Paid-up members who have become victims of crime usually call Mapogo, recount the incident and name suspects. Mapogo then tracks down the alleged offender, demands the whereabouts of the stolen goods and metes out punishment.

Investigation into the allegations is scant and members usually rely on suspicions, rather than evidence. Suspects do not get the chance to defend themselves against the allegations. Asked about allegations of using force to obtain confessions, a senior Mapogo manager responded: "I don't want to deny that if a sponge is retaining water and water is needed out of the sponge, we have to squeeze it a little. That is what happens with Mapogo and in most cases they are successful."

Suspected miscreants are often treated with 'African medicine'--corporal punishment in various forms. Sjam-bokking is a favourite, the beating of the suspect with a leather whip, sometimes a soaking in piri-piri (pepper) sauce is used, but members have also been accused of dragging people behind cars, or throwing suspected criminals into crocodile-infested rivers. The degree of punishment is arbitrary and dependent on the individual member meting it out.
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Comment:Vigilante groups out of control: South Africa's spiralling crimewave is producing a disturbing backlash--the growth of vigilantism and 'instant justice'.
Author:Nevin, Tom
Publication:African Business
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Feb 1, 2007
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