“Cape Town cop eats banana as woman sjamboks man accused of theft” read a headline in a local newspaper last month. In the latest, and perhaps more bizarre, instance of mob justice, a woman used a sjambok to attack a man she accused of theft, while three police officers – including the one seen eating a banana in a video footage – watched idly.
In another recent incident residents of a township near Pretoria went to a police station with details of a man suspected of killing women – only to be told to go to a different station. Fed up, the residents burned the accused’s house and beat him severely .
Since I moved to South Africa last year, I have been struck by the similarities between those in poor communities who mete out their own justice and the behaviour of my neighbours (and my own) in a posh suburb of Johannesburg. Both groups have lost faith in the state to provide basic public services – in this case security – and have taken matters into their own hands, albeit with very different means.
Those who can afford it have basically opted out of almost every public service. They buy private healthcare, never use public transport, send their children to private schools and have the most dazzling array of private security devices. In our neighbourhood this includes electric fences, burglar alarms with laser beams inside and out, panic buttons and an armed response service. Six hundred residents in Parkview have even clubbed together to have three vehicles, with heavily armed guards, on constant patrol night and day.
But for the majority of South Africans, access to basic public services continues to be a struggle. Anger over water shortages, power outages, school closures and unsolved crimes has led to service delivery protests across the country.
As a result, South Africa is often dubbed the protest capital of the world, with an average 34 registered protests a day, five of which are violent.
And mob justice is the extreme manifestation of this frustration with the state, with people taking things into their own hands – just as people at the other end of the economic spectrum are using their purchasing power to deal with their problems.
The behaviour of both rich and poor undermines democracy and good governance, but in different ways. When poor people are fed up with political institutions they usually stop engaging with the mechanisms that underpin democracy, from talking to ward councillors to complaining to public protectors.
When rich people opt out of public services, they have little interest in driving the quality of public services or holding governments to account. Left unchecked, the South African state will simply become the bastion of rent-seeking elites trying to rig regulations or win contracts.
When we look around the world, it is these aspiring middle classes that often drive accountability and good governance. In fact, the 2014 Civicus State of Civil Society Report suggests that what is happening in South Africa stands in contrast to other middle-income countries.
In Brazil, what started as a few students protesting against bus fare rises quickly snowballed into a large-scale movement about poor governance and inequality that included middle-class professionals and favela residents.
In Turkey, what started as a handful of people trying to protect some green space turned into a mass-scale movement that has mobilised regularly on issues ranging from the collusion of business and political elites to anger over the recent Soma mine tragedy. In Venezuela, the middle classes take to the streets almost every weekend to call for better governance.
In South Africa, in contrast to the unity achieved within the Mass Democratic Movement during the anti-apartheid struggle, there seems little prospect of building a broad-based movement to drive accountability. The rich are busy getting worked up about rhino poaching while the poor are dumping poo in public places to highlight the fact that one in five South African households has no sanitation facilities.
In many ways, while the focus has been on dismantling South Africa’s racial divides, little has been done to promote solidarity across classes. Indeed, the growing black middle classes – up from 1.2-million in 2004 to four million this year – show no signs that they will behave differently from rich white folk. Many “black diamonds” may have benefited from public policies or state contracts, but they do not necessarily want to consume state services.
As South Africa celebrates 20 years of freedom and democracy, it remains one of the most unequal countries in the world. Unfortunately, one of the most obvious ways of closing the gap – access to quality universal public services – seems beyond the reach of the poor, and hardly of interest to the rich.
Dr Dhananjayan (Danny) Sriskandarajah is the secretary general of Civicus, the global civil society alliance. Follow him on Twitter at @civicusSG