Angy Peter has frequently tried to intervene when people are being savagely beaten by a mob in sprawling Khayelitsha township.
Sometimes she has been able to save a life, but often she has been unable to prevent a brutal death. Witnessing the violence has had a devastating effect on her, although it is the damage to the young children who are exposed to it that worries her most.
“People in Khayelitsha have lost trust in the police,” said the dynamic 31-year-old chairperson of the Social Justice Coalition, which seeks to bring about positive changes in the community. “Mob justice is only done when people do not trust the police.”
Nine people are believed to have died at the hands of vigilante groups in Khayelitsha this year alone. One man was accused of stealing a woman’s handbag, another a cellphone. The crowds gathered very quickly.
“People are so sick of crime,” she said. “You just have to shout ‘thief’ and everybody comes running. It is as easy as that.”
Call us when people are dead
The bodies of those killed by the community are often placed on a railway line to make it look as if they were hit by a train so that the police would not go looking for murderers.
When the police did search for the killers, she said, sometimes only a handful of people would be arrested when, in fact, about 20 to 30 people had been involved.
In some cases, the police did come if they were called to the scene of an attack, but not always, she said.
“Seeing a stone going through someone’s face is horrible. The other day I called the police and a person managed to escape. I have seen the community attack an innocent man. You never know how the police will react. The police have been heard to say: ‘Call us when people are dead, not for thieves; this requires investigation.’”
Peter claimed to have taken a victim of domestic violence to the police in Site B one night, but they were turned away and sent to a rape centre. “Nobody at the police station wanted to open a case because it was domestic violence. The police know they have to investigate murder, but often, for anything less serious, they don’t want to open a case.”
Her own experiences as a victim of crime have been terrifying for her and her four children. For years, Peter lived with her children in the bustling and crowded RR informal settlement in Khayelitsha, where shacks lie cheek by jowl on low-lying land that often floods in winter. She paid about R6000 for the shack where she thought her family could live safely.
Not go looking for justice
First, everything she owned was stolen while she was out. But a second incident was more serious – a man broke into her shack while she was out taking her eight-year-old daughter to the toilet in the dark. He had a gun, threatened her and her children and tried to rape her.
“That man took every cent I owned. I didn’t even report it to the police because I knew it would be of no use. If I got raped, I would go to try to get some medicine to prevent a disease, but I would not go looking for justice.
“Unless you can identify a person who has robbed you and you can give the police his address, they don’t want to open a case. Trusting police is the worst thing you can do. To me, police stations are useless.”
But, Peter said, “enough is enough” and she is now one of the many members of the Social Justice Coalition calling for a provincial commission of inquiry into the poor policing in Khayelitsha.
“This would give us a start in identifying why the criminal justice systems and the police are continuing to fail us,” she said.
A commission of inquiry
The movement’s leaders and members last year went to the offices of Western Cape Premier Helen Zille in Cape Town to present her with an open letter calling for a commission of inquiry to investigate the failure of the police and the criminal justice system to address unacceptably high levels of crime.
This month they presented Zille with another letter, imploring her to establish the commission and they were elated last week when Zille announced that the legislature had, in principle, endorsed it.
“While crime affects everyone, it is particularly bad in poor townships containing large numbers of informal settlements, like Khayelitsha. In these areas, crime has continued to flourish and the fear felt by residents is increasingly turning to frustration, anger and fear,” the delegation said in the letter.
“Police statistics indicate that the most reliable indicator of crime, murder, has been on the decrease nationally in the period 2008-2009 and 2010-2011. Khayelitsha during the same period has experienced a steady increase in the numbers of murders – 283 in 2008-2009, 290 in 2009-2010 and 310 in 2010-2011.”
Crime had escalated since their previous letter, they claimed. “Each day our friends and neighbours are robbed, beaten, raped and murdered. We cannot walk to communal toilets or use public transport to get to and from work without fear of falling victim to crime.
“When we try to report crimes to seek justice, we are turned away from police stations or treated very poorly by officers. When crimes occur and we report them, police often don’t arrive at the scene at all. If a case makes it into the courtroom, it can drag on for years or be thrown out due to bungled investigations or corruption.”
Law into their own hands
This situation frustrated residents, who took the law into their own hands.
Although it was reported that Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa had been upset about the proposed inquiry, his spokesperson, Zweli Mnisi, said the minister had not been briefed about it and could not comment on the matter.
“We don’t know anything about the commission of inquiry yet,” said Mnisi. “We will have to wait to comment until we have been informed about it and shown its terms of reference.”
Police spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel André Traut of the corporate communication department said that, because of a moratorium, crime statistics were only issued quarterly by the police minister and he could therefore not say how many people had been killed by vigilantes in Khayelitsha this year.
“However, acts of vigilantism are strongly condemned by the SAPS. We will not allow the community to take the law into their own hands and we cannot allow the public to punish suspected criminals. Those who are responsible for these violent crimes are criminals themselves and will be dealt with accordingly.”
Traut said there were several initiatives to reduce vigilante attacks and make the community aware of the dangers of participating in them. “Frequent engagements are held with communities, such as provincial police imbizos, police station imbizos, sector forums, to name but a few.”
Captain Dennis Adriao, national spokesperson for the police, said that they would not comment on the proposed commission of inquiry into policing in Khayelitsha.
‘The dog is dead’
The South African Policing Union participated in an Institute for Security Studies seminar on promoting the safety and wellbeing of the police last year and went to the root of the vigilantism crisis.
“Let me indicate to you that the recent incidents of vigilantism have left organisations shaken and we have started to ask serious questions about what could be wrong in our policing,” said Mpho Kwinika, president of the union.
In the institute’s 2002 paper, “Vigilantism and the state’s response” by Makubetse Sekhonyane and Antoinette Louw, it said the high crime rate and inefficient criminal justice system made many people feel, at best, insecure. At worst, they felt they were being held to ransom by both the criminals and the government.
“Many people have turned to self-help safety measures or have sought assistance outside the government for protection against crime. The most obvious example is the private security industry … But for those who cannot afford these services, vigilantism has become a viable option.”
The West Coast News agency covered a necklacing case in Khayelitsha this month involving the death of 32-year-old Andile Mtsholo. According to the report, community members said vigilante killings were a result of police not responding to calls. They said Mtsholo stole a cellphone from a young man, who alerted residents. He was taken to a field where a tyre was put around his neck. “The dog is dead and we will walk freely with our cellphones now,” said one resident. – Glynnis Underhill