By Kotie Geldenhuys
Selected photos by Joseph Chirume and Shaun Swingler/GroundUp
In a country where there is limited trust in the authorities, many communities welcome vigilante or mob justice groups that promise to stop gang violence and other crime in their areas. The theme was even highlighted in an Afrikaans television drama about gangs that create fear in a community. In one scene a police member who lived and worked in that community was equally aggrieved about the ongoing gang violence resulting in him taking justice into his own hands and eliminating some of the gang members himself. The fact that mob justice was highlighted in a drama made us realise how frustrated people are with the escalating crime in the country. Although this incident was part of a television drama, the reality is that people across the country are so enraged about crime that they take the law into their own hands.
An incident that happened in Diepsloot, Gauteng that is far removed from a television drama is the case about which Crawford (2012) reports. It shows a man from Malawi sitting in the centre of a pack of men, naked and bleeding. The men around him were holding sticks, stones or bricks in their hands. The man is seen being pelted with stones which bounced off his head and his bare back; he is kicked and whipped. As he tries to run away, he falls while more stones are thrown at him. His attackers leave him to recover for a while before he is hauled in front of the mob only to be beaten further. At one stage it is clear that two women are whipping him, deliberately aiming for his genitalia as the crowd encourages them. His crime? He was apparently found carrying a firearm which, in Diepsloot, is interpreted as “you’re a criminal and up to no good”. The footage shows how the man pleads and begs for his life. He repeatedly shakes his head as the vigilantes shout questions at him. “No, no,” he is heard saying. Although the footage goes on for 20 minutes, his torture probably lasted much longer. According to witnesses, the man lost consciousness by the time the police and medics arrive and he dies in hospital.
Understanding mob justice
South Africa has one of the highest violent crime rates in the world and many communities do not hesitate to take matters into their own hands. Many community members prefer to turn to community thugs to sort out their problems rather than rely on the police. Although mob justice has existed in South Africa for many years, its nature and shape have changed over time and will probably persist into the future for as long as crime exists.
Mob justice is causing rampant murder of people accused of committing crimes. According to the 2017/2018 crime statistics, 849 people were killed in cases the police classify as mob justice in the 12-month period from April 2017 to March 2018. Of these, 264 occurred in Gauteng, 173 in the Western Cape, 145 in KwaZulu Natal, 95 in Limpopo, 83 in Mpumalanga and 72 in the Eastern Cape (https://citizen.co.za/ news/ south-africa/2007884/crime-stats murder-motives-revealed). During the 2018/2019 report year, there was a slight decrease to 789 people killed as a result of mob justice (www.sanews.gov.za/south-africa/murder-rate increases-14). Roughly calculated, that is an average of more than two people a day who lose their lives due to mob justice. This is the fourth highest causative factor for murder according to the SAPS’s analysis, following arguments or misunderstandings; gang-related murders and domestic violence.
According to Nel (2016), vigilantism or mob justice refers to the concept of people “taking the law into their own hands”. Maele (2018) adds that one can explain mob justice as an incident where a group of people, sometimes several hundred, take the law into their own hands, act as accusers, jury and judge and punish an alleged wrongdoer on the spot. It is a violent phenomenon where the person accused of a crime has no chance to defend him- or herself or claim innocence. The procedure often ends with the victim being beaten to death or seriously injured. The victim of a mob is denied a fair trial and the right to life which process violates the person’s basic human rights.
Monyela (2017) argues that it is undeniably the most ferocious way in which a human being can be killed. This is usually done by stoning to death or severely assaulting the victim until he or she is unconscious. Others are killed when a tyre is placed around their neck and they are set alight, a practice which is commonly known as “necklacing”.
Occurrence of mob justice
Mob justice usually occurs in communities ravaged by lawlessness and minimal police presence. As a result, community members regard taking the law in their own hands as a legitimate effort to maintain the semblance (the likeliness or impression) of law and order. They usually operate on the basis of an “eye for an eye”, which is the punishment that would correspond with the seriousness of the alleged crime committed. In mob justice incidents, the group usually kills a suspect, but these murders are often neither reported nor do any witnesses come forward. These actions are not only an expression of people’s anger or frustration, but also of their fear (Maele, 2018).
Isaacs (2015) reports that the criminologist Gail Super claimed that marginalised communities in South Africa have a history of self-policing. “Moreover, political violence has always played a prominent role in local politics. The danger of rallying communities around crime combating is that it can, and does, unleash violent practices in the quest for a ‘moral community’. The ironic twist is that ‘mob justice’ is in part a mass technology to protect private property in a context of endemic inequality. When community members unite against an outsider, they are bonded for an intense moment in a way that masks the very real problems that tear the community apart and/or separate it from other less or more socially connected and empowered communities.”