/ 26 March 2024

The hell that is vigilantism

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Group rule: Members of Operation Dudula march in Hillbrow. (Mohamed Shiraaz/Getty Images)

On the day that Mam Neni was attacked, the vigilante group Operation Dudula had reportedly approached at least two other areas up on the Far East Bank in Alexandra township. Last Gate was just one target among many scheduled for the day’s operations.

It was late May 2022. Joshua had recently been released on bail for his alleged role in the violence in the area known as Pan over the past few months. A Dudula crew barged into Mam Neni’s house early that morning. They were armed with sjamboks and handguns and proceeded to “evict” the old gogo, tossing her belongings into the street. This is what the cops call a property hijacking, and in Alex Dudula had in recent months become notorious for it. It is something of an Alexandran specialty.

When the elders tried to intervene, or when the younger boys tried to help Mam Neni, they were beaten or threatened with a whipping.

“For the first day they remove your clothes and they go. They come back. If you take them back, they take them out again, you know, [your] belongings.” This is how Milton Tlokoa describes the methodology of  property hijacking. Dudula will keep nettling you, “until you give up and you will go”.

Mam Neni was in a tearful panic, trying to collect her things. She was somehow hurt in the process. Samuel and Milton can’t explain how exactly, whether it was a mental breakdown or physical injury, but it was bad enough for her to go to the clinic. Dudula relented after that. They’d made their point, and they’d be back if the gogo didn’t vacate as instructed and hand over the house to deserving South Africans.

Dube Daka recalls attending the scene after Mam Neni had left for hospital. He’d woken late that day, as the unemployed are able to do, and decided to take a stroll for no reason he can now recall. He saw “room dividers” and “Tupperwares” everywhere. At that stage he thought that perhaps a renter had been evicted for failing to make rent. “I know a lot of magogos have renters, you see.” He got the real story from the granny of one his mates, one of a group of magogos convened amid the fallout.

The recollections of that day are a jumble, the facts faded into lore as the story has developed. This trigger event was merely the beginning of an ominous storm that would envelop Last Gate for the rest of the year, and dictate to all how they would go about their daily existence.

“On that day when the cops came — we called them! We called them. The moment they started breaking that house, we called them!” Samuel swears this, and with the fullness of time it would become apparent just how great the need was for the Last Gate boys to make clear, in justifying their subsequent vigilante behaviour, how useless the cops were. 

“They were standing there at the gate, looking at the people throwing things out of the yard. We could see these cops are threatened by these people. Cos they were just standing there looking at these people taking things and throwing them outside.”

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A clash with foreigners in Alexandra, Johannesburg. Karl Kemp examines what happens when people take the law into their own hands in his new book Why We Kill. (Leon Sadiki/Getty Images)

Samuel was shocked. How could a cop not arrest men carrying guns and evicting gogos from their homes? “I don’t think we still have cops,” he’d later say. “Our cops are people that receive payroll. They get paid month-end, they live their lives. When it’s time to do their jobs, they don’t do it. Instead of doing their jobs, we are the ones who are doing their jobs.”

Dube echoes his sentiments. “Even when Dudula was there, they called police,” he says, referring to his neighbours. “There were things that happened where the police didn’t do nothing. Police came and say to us, ‘Eh, you know Dudula movement. We can be here, but there is nothing we can do.’ 

“They didn’t stop them at all. Throughout the day, police were being called. They took out the things violently in front of police.”

There are other opinions, slightly more nuanced, of how the cops handled the three or so incidents in Tsutsumani over the course of the morning. One of them is voiced by Milton, the man who’d call the cops to save his friends from themselves on the day that Busisiwe was caught. He intimates that Dudula was operating far more slickly and intelligently than they got credit for. They knew exactly how to play the cops. Dudula is not like a group of young tsotsis. They are a “terror” movement.

“When they appear, you must be terrified. All inside Tsutsumani. Like, they’ll go to Last Gate to terrorise. They go to First Park – they terrorise. They go up there by Zimbabwe, they terrorise.” In other words, the operation was fluid across Tsutsumani, waxing and waning as necessary in response to the authorities.

Milton, like Andries, is a community leader. He is a young man, a peer of Samuel and Dube, grown and schooled in Alex since ’88. But he no longer lives in Last Gate. He has his own place, bought from the proceeds of a small construction company he runs. But he visits family and friends in Last Gate regularly, and is held in some regard by its inhabitants. Milton is an aspirant politician, the type of guy who liaises with the SAPS in good faith. He is chair of the Community Policing Forum (CPF) youth desk in Alex, and their office is at the SAPS station.

According to Milton, the truth is that the cops were spread thinly that day, trying to calm the various evictions-in-progress throughout Tsutsumani. Dube admits that he heard of Dudula arrests in other parts of the Far East Bank, specifically in First Park, but maintains that those who were arrested were low-hanging fruit, unarmed and benign compared to the terrorists who descended on Last Gate.

The cops were equipped with only live rounds, says Milton, and public order policing units were unavailable for some reason. Who could expect the police to use live ammo to contain something as innocuous as an old lady being thrown out of her house?

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But Milton’s account does reaffirm Dube’s and Samuel’s in some respects, chiefly in the complaint that the cops simply didn’t make arrests despite the evidence in front of them — beatings, assaults, intimidation: “Arrest them now. Why can’t you arrest them now? You can see that these persons are assaulting an old lady.” And when Milton asked the cops why they did not make arrests, they reportedly told him that they “didn’t have capacity”.

The broad sketch goes something like this: the cops would be called out to one house, but by the time they got there, violence had flared at another, and things had calmed at the original scene. They couldn’t make arrests because they kept arriving in the aftermath — or something to that effect. It’s not particularly convincing, but it’s about as much as can be made out. 

In essence, the cops were being called out not to the scene of a robbery, or a murder, but to a scene of social unrest. For all they knew, it could have been a rental dispute, as Dube had initially thought. This is complex policing, more like domestic violence than murder. Perhaps Dudula knew this, and took advantage of a clumsy, by-the-book police service.

It is important to put a pin here, in this moment, regardless of how we judge or try to make sense of the police and their conduct. Their actions on this day are what informed the entirety of Last Gate’s actions for the rest of the year, during which the South African Police Service (SAPS) were simply brushed aside and ignored. Let us presume, for a moment, that what the people of Last Gate say about the SAPS is true. Imagine the harm that such timidity, disorganisation and lack of compassion must do to the image of the cops in the mind of the community: that they could not stop thugs from throwing a granny out into the street.

Whatever truly happened, the scene eventually calmed. There had been beatings and whippings and attempted evictions — but zero arrests, as far as can be discerned. The debris lay about the streets, and both the cops and Dudula had departed. 

Mam Neni did not return from the clinic.

Why We Kill: Mob Justice and the New Vigilantism in South Africa is published by Penguin.