Mob Justice in South Africa: An expression of a failed Criminal Justice System

Dr Sazelo Mkhize, Ms Khanyisile Majola, Dr Samuel Fikiri Cinini
Dr Sazelo Mkhize, Ms Khanyisile Majola, Dr Samuel Fikiri Cinini

Mob justice has been observed in diverse cultural and historical settings. It takes hold when the population deems local government and law enforcement ineffective and untrustworthy (Traynor Jr et al., 2020). This phenomenon emerged in many modern post-conflict states such as the post-Civil War United States, post-World War II Eastern Europe, and Northern Ireland (Pfeifer, 2010).

South Africa became a democratic country in 1994, marking the end of the harsh, protracted apartheid regime (Monaghan, 2008, p. 1792). Over many decades, institutionalised racial segregation and state-sanctioned violence eroded trust between communities and law enforcement; and the relationship was characterised by extreme antagonism(Traynor Jr et al., 2020). Despite efforts to police society more inclusively, high levels of inequality, as well as crime and interpersonal violence (IPV), persist.

According to  Williams (2012), the word ‘crime’ generally evokes images of murder, rape, drug abuse, drug trafficking, terrorism, aggravated assault, aggravated burglary, armed robbery, arson, theft, or similar dramatic acts. Anyone committing one or more of these crimes is subject to mob justice where law enforcement fails to attend to the matter urgently.

For community members, mob violence is swift solution that does not consider the criminality of their actions in their bid to resolve an issue. However, gruesome killings and casual use of murder to solve an issue challenge the notions of Ubuntu and equality as well as the Bill of Rights that grants everyone the constitutional right to life. Law abiding citizens are turning themselves into criminals by taking the law into their own hands, making them liable to answer to the justice system. The law states that “the essence of justice is that everyone in society is equally subjected to the law,” making it clear that no circumstances or person should be placed above the law. Perpetrators of mob justice believe that they are solving the problem by eliminating the criminal. However, vigilantism leaves much to be desired in terms of communities’ peace and safety.

A study by Mpuru (2020) found that, in most communities, mob justice is fueled by emotions, frustration, and the need to ensure what they assume to be safety. Residents want to regain the peace and combat high crime rates. However, this form of justice calls for introspection on societal relations within the communities. The fight may be against crime, but in some instances it may be driven by hearsay with no solid evidence.

On the one hand, mob justice represents a call for the government to do more to protect citizens from criminal activities, while on the other, it is  a warning to those that engage in such activities of what will happen to them if they are caught.

If the police, the courts, and correctional services do not do their work effectively, criminals will always be in our midst. Victim communities are also aware of the leniency with which criminals are treated by the criminal justice system. Offenders who have gone through the judicial process end up being released. This has led communities to believe that criminals are protected by law enforcement or the justice system. Hence, they take matters into their own hands.

Mob justice is not acceptable as, in every organised society, only the state has the right to render justice. This practice should not be encouraged because it will lead to an endless cycle of conflict.

To end mob justice, law enforcement must improve its operations to curb criminal activities. This calls for the strengthening of local governance and the criminal justice system.

Dr Sazelo Mkhize, Ms Khanyisile Majola, Dr Samuel Fikiri Cinini are based within the School of Applied Human Sciences at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.