Vigilante violence: It has always been around

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Mr Mphumeleli Ngidi
Mr Mphumeleli Ngidi

On 19May South Africa woke up to the news of brutal killings at the hands of residents of Zandspruit, Johannesburg. Eight people were reported dead from the vigilante-fuelled attacks. Although South Africa experiences murder cases on a daily basis, gruesome deeds by people who take the law into their own hands, so-called vigilante groups or ‘mob justice’ as it is known on the street corners of local communities, have also become common. South Africa’s history also bears witness to such cases.

Two months before the Zandspruit killings, on 26 March, a video of a woman dressed in sangoma regalia begging her attackers to spare her life circulated around the country. The woman, Jostina Sangweni, was attacked by community members in Mapetla, Soweto, who suspected her of witchcraft. The 59-year old mentally-ill woman who had been diagnosed with Schizophrenia died in hospital of her wounds. This attack was preceded by an incident of a similar nature in Nkomazi, Mpumalanga, on 9 January where an 80-year old woman, also suspected of witchcraft, was burnt to death by community members. In March 2020, an 80-year old woman suspected of practicing witchcraft was set alight by a mob in Majuba village in Sterkspruit, Eastern Cape. She succumbed to her wounds, while her grandchild survived by the skin of her teeth by running away from the mob that doused her with paraffin. In Mtunzini, KwaZulu-Natal, a woman was hacked to death by a panga-wielding mob in September 2020. Arrests were made in all these cases.

History tells us that the police have also been subjected to vigilante attacks.  One of the most talked about incidents occurred in Durban’s Cato Manor, known as Mkhumbane to local Africans. The volatile atmosphere in the area from 1959 culminated in the killing of nine policemen who were carrying out a raid in an Emergency Camp on 24 January 1960. Infuriated by the news of forced removals and continued police raids which threatened the livelihoods of women who ‘manufactured’ home-brewed sorghum, or isishimeyane, the community gathered and killed them in broad daylight. Ten people were sentenced to death, one of whom successfully appealed. The Cato Manor 9 were hanged on 5 September 1961, and their families were not allowed to bury them. There were numerous vigilante attacks during apartheid rule, which space does not allow us to discuss.

Vigilante groups have also carried out xenophobic attacks. Congolese and Mozambican nationals who were forced to flee their countries due to unrest in the 1980s and ‘90s sought refuge in the then apartheid Bantustans of Lebowa and Gazankulu.   There were numerous vigilante attacks on foreign nationals between the late 1990s and early 2000s, some of which were reported in the mainstream media while others remained undocumented.

These tensions would later come into the fore in May 2008 when 62 people, both foreign nationals and local people, died during the widely reported xenophobic attacks orchestrated by vigilante groups against foreign nationals in Alexandra, Johannesburg. South Africa witnessed an upsurge in vigilante attacks and xenophobic related violence against foreign nationals between 2009 and 2019. In April and October 2015, there were brutal attacks in Durban and Grahamstown, respectively. The violence eventually spread throughout the country until it was halted by the government’s intervention, including the redeployment of the army which had last been called into duty in 2008. The City of Johannesburg also experienced mob xenophobic attacks between 1 and 5 September 2019.

Vigilante groups act in the name of ‘protecting’ their communities from crime or criminal activities. Perhaps the most popular of these groups was People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (PAGAD). Formed in 1996 against the backdrop of the heightened drug network in Cape Town townships the group became famous for its modus operandi of killing gangsters, sometimes in broad daylight. The brutal killing of Rashaad Staggie, a gang leader, perhaps brought it to prominence. For prima facie reasons, the police did not regard PAGAD as their ally but as a terrorist organisation. Another group known as the Isikebhe Community Forum in KwaZulu-Natal aims to fight crime in the province, but its vigilante-like tactics have been widely questioned by the community. Isikebhe has been accused of using intimidation, beatings, punishment and brutality to combat crime. In May 2015 the group was suspected of having been involved in the gruesome murder of five suspected robbers in separate incidents during the space of a week. In a scene similar to the Zandspruit killings, two people were stoned to death at KwaMaqhwakazi sport field in Eshowe.

The list of vigilante killings in South Africa is too long to cover and it is clear that this is a common occurrence in the democratic South Africa. Criminals commit crimes and community members commit more by taking the law into their own hands.

Those that engage in mob justice justify their action with a variety of reasons. Crime is rife in South Africa and people fear for their safety. The increase in vigilante-related activities could suggest that people are tired of police inaction and failure to combat criminal activities. Mob justice is proof that communities do not have faith in the justice system. Many cases remain unsolved and reporting criminal activity poses a risk as one might see the alleged perpetrator the next day and some criminals are ‘friends’ with the system. There is a lot at stake. The solutions are complex; as crime continues to soar across the country, people will continue to be ‘surprised’ by mob attacks. Necklacing, flogging and stoning suspected criminals to death has become common. While such activities are a throwback to apartheid South Africa, there is no sign that they will abate on the future.

Mr Mphumeleli Ngidi

History Lecturer, University of KwaZulu-Natal