Communities plagued by crime, often violent, claim desperation as the reason for their acts of vigilantism.
This was according to David Bruce, senior research specialist with the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, who believed mob justice was a result of citizens’ desperation and lack of confidence in the country’s criminal justice system.
“We do not want to condone vigilantism but, to some degree, we empathise with these poor people who feel they cannot rely on the government and the police to fight crime,” he told the South African Press Association (Sapa).
Bruce said people living in poor areas like townships did not have money to hire private security guards and end up [being] caught in acts of mob justice in their attempts to protect themselves.
“Because of their experiences, they have accepted an attitude that says reporting crime through the justice system has failed them.”
He said the major problem with mob justice was that there was often no proof of the guilt of the victims.
“Communities tend to be selective of who their victims are, regardless of whether they are guilty or innocent.”
They often chose people they were less afraid of, those from outside their communities or those who were not connected to the powerful people in the community, he said.
Murders and brutal attacks have become a common occurrence in South Africa, with five people on Wednesday reported killed in two separate incidents, in Mthatha in the Eastern Cape and Gauteng’s Lenasia South.
Three men were burnt to death by a mob who accused them of being cable thieves in Lenasia South on Wednesday, according to Gauteng police.
The trio was believed to be part of a group who had been stealing electricity cables in an informal settlement in Lenasia South, said Captain Mpande Khoza.
Accused of stealing clothes
The other two were killed after being accused of stealing clothes by a mob in Mthatha.
“At 10pm last [Tuesday] night two boys were assaulted by an angry crowd in Slovo Park in Mthatha. They were rushed to Mthatha Hospital where they later died,” said Lieutenant Colonel Mzukisi Fatyela.
Since the beginning of this year, Sapa has reported on a number of mob-justice incidents that have left at least 17 people dead and a few others injured.
According to the police’s 2009 annual report, 5% of reported murders were related to mob justice that year, he said.
“A few years ago we came up with a similar figure of 7% in our research. These statistics are a bit high and show that this is an ongoing problem in this country,” Bruce said.
Police Department spokesperson Zweli Mnisi had a strong message for all vigilantes: “Hand criminals over to the police or you will be arrested when you take the law into your own hands.”
He said there was no justification for mob justice.
“We can never support it. There are always ways of dealing with criminality and vigilantism in not one of them.”
There might be a few people who needed education on vigilantism, but some were aware of its criminality and consequences, but were “taking advantage”.
“South Africa is a country governed by rules and regulations. We will unfortunately arrest anyone who takes the law into their hands,” said Mnisi. — Sapa