A series of reported mob justice and vigilante incidents has gripped South Africa in recent weeks, fuelling the perception that the once popular “Township Act” for dealing with political spies and hooliganism is on the upsurge.
In one weekend, mob justice incidents left at least four people dead and three injured. By Wednesday, in two separate incidents, members of the public had killed a suspected thief and assaulted two others.
Yet, say researchers, increased media attention does not necessarily reflect an increase in vigilante activity.
Recent reports quoting data from the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD) depict a rise in vigilantism. The ICD reports that, from March last year to March this year, the number of deaths in police custody as a result of injuries prior to custody rose by 184% to 71 deaths.
But the category of deaths as a result of prior injuries also reflects people who are shot in self-defence by members of the public, explains David Bruce, a senior researcher at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR).
Additionally, the statistic does not measure vigilante acts in which the suspect is dead upon police arrival.
“If you compare levels of vigilantism now with the late 1990s, it has gone down,” says Themba Masuku, another senior CSVR researcher.
The difficulty in monitoring vigilantism is partially a problem of definition.
According to a paper on post-1994 vigilantism by Anthony Minnaar, of the Institute for Human Rights and Criminal Justice Studies at Technikon SA, vigilantism refers to a diversity of acts, ranging from people catching petty thieves, beating them and then handing them to the police, to mobs stoning suspects to death or organised groups assassinating individuals. As community responses to real and perceived inadequacies in policing and the judicial system, they are all acts of vigilantism.
“Vigilantism is a last resort based on the perception that institutions are not delivering,” explains Munuku.
Last Sunday, residents of Olievenhoutbosch, in Tshwane, assaulted three men accused of robbing and raping a woman in a nearby area.
The people responsible for the assault were members of the neighbourhood watch, which residents had formed to help the police combat crime.
One of the committee members, who would only identify himself as Lawrence, recognises the need to educate members of the neighbourhood watch about not assaulting suspects.
Lawrence, trying to contextualise the actions of the committee, says the incident took place in the light of a “judicial system that is not delivering”.
But, says Bruce, the emotional context of vigilantism may prevent the guilt of suspects from being established.
“People are overwhelmed by [anger and frustration] and the need for a proper process to be followed in identifying the person, so innocents are not victimised, goes out the window.”
In one such incident in Khutsong, Carletonville, a mob recently stoned Papi Diale (23) to death, alleging he had stabbed and killed a 17-year-old boy.
“My son was mentally unstable and did not deserve to die like this,” asserts his mother, Pauline Diale, who maintains his innocence.
The Khutsong police have opened a murder case, but no arrests have been made.
Bruce says, according to the orthodox community-policing model, it was envisaged that community members would become involved in community policing forums, “but that this would stop short of direct involvement in policing activities”.
But, he says, police efforts to combat vigilantism may come into conflict with their attempts to build relationships with the community.
“One of the lessons of the past 10 years has been that winning the respect of the community is not just about community structures but [also about] consistent standards on police delivery.”