South Africans Are Taking the Law Into Their Own Hands
In a country where no one trusts the police, vigilante groups promising to stop gang violence were initially welcomed. Now, with extralegal justice on the rise, some citizens have had enough.
CAPE TOWN, South Africa—On a sunny afternoon in late September, a solemn crowd of about 40 people gathered outside a small brick house in the suburban Cape Town neighborhood of Valhalla Park. They’d come for the Salat al-Janazah—an Islamic funeral ritual—of Tashrieq Johnson, a soft-spoken 25-year-old who had been burned to death in a brutal gasoline attack a few days earlier.
In the living room, an imam began to wrap three pieces of white cloth around Johnson’s body, which remained zipped inside a white mortuary bag so those assembled wouldn’t have to witness the extent of his injuries. “He was burnt beyond recognition from the waist up,” Johnson’s father, Adil Masoet, said solemnly.
Once the imam had finished shrouding the body, the men filed into the room, formed a circle, and began to pray. Johnson’s mother, Titi Lama, waited outside with the other women. She preferred not to see the body; she wanted to remember her son the way he was when she last saw him alive, before he was taken from his home by a roving group of vigilantes who claimed he was gang-affiliated and subjected him to a brutal form of mob justice.
Johnson had lived nearby with his girlfriend in a cramped shack in the sand-swept and destitute corrugated zinc settlement of Symphony Way Temporary Relocation Area, which locals refer to by the more appropriate moniker of Blikkiesdorp, meaning “Tin Can Town” in Afrikaans.
Blikkiesdorp lies at the heart of the Cape Flats, a sprawling expanse of working-class suburbs and townships southeast of Cape Town’s scenic city center—which is home to South Africa’s Parliament and, with its views of mountains and the sea, a magnet for tourists. The Cape Flats has often been called “apartheid’s dumping ground” for people designated nonwhite and pushed out of the city during the forced removals of the 1960s and 1970s. This included a substantial Muslim population whose mixed racial heritage traces back to slaves brought to the Cape from the Dutch East Indies in the 17th and 18th centuries.
On the edge of Blikkiesdorp, which is largely comprised of more recent evictees from a rapidly gentrifying city, a ramshackle mosque issues daily calls to prayer through a distorting loudspeaker. About five people have been killed here in mob justice attacks since the beginning of September. “Initially, these guys were only going after criminals and gangsters,” Masoet told Foreign Policy, “But now they’re killing just for fun. Tashrieq didn’t do anything wrong. He wouldn’t harm a fly. Things can’t go on like this.”
In recent years, with violent crime spiraling across South Africa, mob justice attacks have become increasingly commonplace in neglected communities like Blikkiesdorp, as ragtag vigilante groups fill the void left by a chronically under-resourced police force. (In September, National Police Commissioner Lt. Gen. Khehla Sitole told South African members of Parliament that there is a deficit of 62,000 police officers across the country.)
Like Johnson, many of the victims are burned to death, a grisly throwback to the political violence that engulfed South African townships in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when suspected apartheid collaborators and police informants regularly met the same fate. In a process known as “necklacing,” angry crowds would force a tire doused in petrol over a victim’s chest and arms and set it alight.
According to the latest national crime statistics released in mid-September, 849 people were killed in cases the police classify as mob justice in the 12-month period from April 2017 to March 2018. In the densely populated province of Gauteng surrounding Johannesburg, mob justice killings have more than doubled from the previous year. Since 2012, similar increases have been seen in the Western Cape province, which encompasses Cape Town.
This is a stark reflection of the steady erosion of public faith in police departments that have been ravaged by corruption and mismanagement, particularly during the disastrous tenure of former President Jacob Zuma, who was ousted in February. Unsurprisingly, the fallout has been most pronounced and most dangerous in the impoverished townships surrounding South Africa’s large cities to which blacks were confined under apartheid and where many still live today.
According to Chumile Sali, a project officer with the African Policing Civilian Oversight Forum, a nongovernmental organization that focuses on issues of police accountability and governance in Africa, “Vigilantism has become normal in poor black communities where people feel they are not being serviced appropriately by the police. The rate of violence will continue to rise unless we change how we police these communities.”
Sali added that in the Cape Town township of Nyanga, which has the undesirable title of South Africa’s murder capital and where a single police station services as many as 200,000 residents, more than 50 percent of recorded murders are connected to vigilante groups. Like the Cape Flats, Nyanga, formerly a black labor camp, is the product of South Africa’s history of racial segregation and a clear illustration of how the country has failed many poor black citizens in the post-apartheid era. While Nyanga has approximately 161 police officers per 100,000 residents, less than a 20-minute drive away, the predominantly white suburb of Rondebosch has 556, despite not registering a single murder in the 12-month period covered by the latest crime statistics.
“I think that it’s clear that [poor] communities, not just in Cape Town but across the country, are getting to boiling point with regards to crime,” said J.P. Smith, the Democratic Alliance’s Mayoral Committee member for safety and security in Cape Town. “The consequence is that eventually the most horrific happens and they take the law into their own hands.”
Many Blikkiesdorp residents said they initially supported the vigilantes. Their first targets were all leading figures in a ruthless local gang called the Young Gifted Bastards (YGB). The gang had terrorized the community with impunity for years, carrying out daily and sometimes deadly muggings, burglaries, and drug deals—predominantly just to fund their own drug habits. Thanks to the vigilantes, many of the YGB’s leaders were either killed, hospitalized, or went into hiding.
But several residents now claim that the same dearth of police resources that so often serves as the catalyst for vigilantism had allowed the vigilante group to supplant the YGB and begin conducting its own reign of terror, allegedly extorting, robbing, and threatening residents, burning down shacks of gang members’ families, and violently enforcing a 7 p.m. curfew.
“When they got rid of the gangsters that was a good thing,” said Russell Donavan, who works as a security guard outside a local evangelical church in Blikkiesdorp. “But then things got out of hand. It’s indiscriminate now. We’d rather have the gangsters back.”
According to Mary Nel, a Stellenbosch University Faculty of Law lecturer who wrote her thesis on South African vigilantism: “Vigilante groups by their very nature are sort of in that gray area between the law and crime and so it’s very easy to overstep that mark. These groups often start with good intentions, then they get a bit of power and that power corrupts or is co-opted.”
Ultimately, they can become full-blown criminal enterprises. Such was the case with People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (PAGAD), a Muslim vigilante organization that rose to prominence in the Cape Flats in 1996 after killing an infamous local gang boss named Rashaad Staggie. By the early 2000s, more than 40 PAGAD members had been charged with crimes including murder, terrorism, extortion, robbery, and illegal possession of firearms.
But contrary to the ambivalence in Blikkiesdorp, many vigilante groups are lionized within the communities where they originate. In certain cases, their services are even sought much further afield. Mapogo A Mathamaga—a notoriously violent vigilante group that emerged in the poor, rural province of Limpopo, near the Zimbabwean border, around the same time as PAGAD—is a particularly unsettling example. The group’s name derives from a Sotho proverb translating loosely as “the leopard changes its colors when provoked.” Despite its members facing more than 300 criminal charges between 1996 and 2001, more than two dozen of which for murder or attempted murder, the group boasted tens of thousands of members and scores of branches nationwide within a few years of its founding.
There were repeated failed attempts by both local and national government to integrate Mapogo A Mathamaga into South Africa’s so-called Community Policing Forum framework, an often toothless and ill-defined collaboration between the police, local government, and community organizations, including neighborhood watch groups. “But the stumbling block was always their insistence on the use of force,” said Nel.
In 2001, Mapogo A Mathamaga instead made an unlikely move into the private sector, becoming a registered private security company with branches across South Africa operating as independent franchises but all profiting from the fear factor associated with the brand name. Fueled by the extent of violent crime and the lack of faith in police, South Africa’s private security industry is today worth more than $3.5 billion, but is largely the preserve of wealthy and predominantly white sections of society. Mapogo A Mathamaga gradually migrated in the same direction, leaving behind the poor black communities it had initially claimed to serve.
At the grassroots level, a young and highly organized group called Operation Wanya Tsotsi has recently taken up Mapogo A Mathamaga’s former mantle. The group, whose name means, roughly, “criminals will run for the toilet” in township slang, was formed in March 2015 in response to a spate of gang violence that claimed 17 lives in a matter of weeks in a township called Galeshewe in the diamond-producing city of Kimberley in the Northern Cape province.
With an approach primarily premised on caning suspected criminals and publicly shaming them by posting their mugshots on social media, Operation Wanya Tsotsi is markedly more moderate than its predecessor, but has experienced a similarly meteoric rise. The group already has five branches across the Northern Cape, all run by volunteers, and, following a flurry of local media articles and radio interviews in 2017, its Facebook page has amassed almost 15,000 followers. There are growing calls for the group to go national.
For Nel, the group’s obvious popularity is founded on its ability to deliver swift and visible justice in a way that the formal criminal justice system cannot. “Vigilantes often have the edge over formal justice because they can respond instantly. There’s no long, drawn-out court process, and people can often see someone being punished then and there, and not just in some abstract sense, but physically punished,” she told FP.
A cursory glance at Galeshewe’s crime statistics suggests Operation Wanya Tsotsi’s controversial methods are working. In its first year of operations, robbery with aggravating circumstances dropped to its lowest level in more than a decade and was reduced by about 40 percent from the previous year; there were similarly significant reductions in murder rates. This makes Galeshewe a compelling anomaly when viewed alongside national crime trends.
According to the local journalist Murray Swart, who has written articles about Operation Wanya Tsotsi for the Diamond Fields Advertiser, a Kimberley daily newspaper, the group has “undoubtedly had a significant impact” on crime in Galeshewe.
The response from Kimberley police officials has been ambivalent. A number of Operation Wanya Tsotsi’s leaders have been arrested on multiple occasions on charges of assault and kidnapping, though all have so far escaped criminal conviction. A local constable who spoke to FP on condition of anonymity said that while he “understood the frustrations” that drove vigilantism and supported Operation Wanya Tsotsi’s crime fighting efforts in principle, the police “cannot promote assault.”
So far, Operation Wanya Tsotsi has avoided descending into the sort of mob justice killings seen elsewhere. Instead, the group has actively opposed such brutality. In 2015, it prevented an angry mob from burning down the house of a traditional healer who had allegedly abducted a young girl for a ritual killing.
“Vigilantism in the context of South Africa is something that is lawless and very brutal in its nature, and I don’t believe Operation Wanya Tsotsi is any of those things,” the group’s charismatic leader Pantsi Obusitse told me on a busy Saturday night in Galeshewe as he and other members carried out routine patrols and stop-and-frisk searches armed with Tasers and stiff cattle whips called sjamboks. “We don’t just go around and assault people. We don’t want to do things in a vigilante way. Our understanding is not to beat you up, but to extract information from you and give you a lesson that you can pass onto others.”
Obusitse preferred to refer to the movement he leads as a “community crime-fighting initiative” and said he hoped to bridge the gap between formal and informal justice networks in the Northern Cape. He added that he’d tried a number of avenues in a bid to attract support for his group both from the state and the private sector, but to no avail. Without such support, the group is increasingly struggling to sustain its activities.
Representatives from the South African Police Services and the Northern Cape Department of Transport, Safety and Liaison told FP they were open to forging a working relationship with Operation Wanya Tsotsi and encouraged dialogue toward that end. But as with Mapogo A Mathamaga before, the group’s insistence on the use of violence, albeit more tempered, has created an impasse with government institutions that believe they should have a monopoly on the use of force.
Obusitse remains defiant: “We’ve had lots of people who do not agree with our methods and who do not support us. Up until they become victims and we help them, and then they start agreeing with us,” he said as he watched some of his colleagues confiscate knives and matchboxes filled with marijuana from a group of teenagers who’d been sitting drinking on the side of the road. The boys were then told to lie down on the sidewalk where they were struck across the buttocks with sjamboks, then ordered to go home.
Experts such as Nel and Sali say there’s a disjuncture between a standardized government line that strongly condemns all forms of vigilantism and the reality in places like Galeshewe, where overstretched police officers and even local government officials will tacitly condone vigilantes and turn a blind eye to their transgressions.
This ambivalent state response is somewhat duplicitous given that groups like Operation Wanya Tsotsi are clearly a symptom of the state’s own failures to combat crime and root out rampant corruption and political interference within its own police structures.
Under former President Jacob Zuma, five different officials occupied the position of national police commissioner. All were personally appointed not for their aptitude but for their willingness to look past large-scale corruption within the upper echelons of the ruling African National Congress (ANC). The rot of the Zuma years has had an equally devastating impact on policing at provincial and local level, particularly in underserved townships like Galeshewe, where petty police corruption is an everyday occurrence.
In the major urban hubs of Johannesburg, Pretoria, and Cape Town, which account for the vast majority of mob justice incidents, the issue has been compounded by power struggles between the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), which rules all three of those metropolitan areas, and the national ANC government. Among other things, this means that a cohesive relationship between local and national police structures is sorely lacking and the allocation of national police resources is often skewed toward ANC strongholds. The Western Cape has borne the brunt of the fallout. As murder rates soar, an estimated 85 percent of police stations in the province are understaffed and there’s little sign that either the DA or the ANC has the requisite political will to fill this vacuum.
Instead, Nel said a culture of passing the buck has taken hold: “You are encouraged to look after yourself. You’re told that you are responsible for your own safety and that of your community. You can understand how that might be interpreted as ‘Do whatever you need to do to make your community safe,’ which could go beyond what the law might sanction,” Nel said.
Given South Africa’s cruel history of racial segregation and its current position as the most unequal society in the world, it is unsurprising that Nel’s point is most consistently illustrated in poor black communities that, contrary to the clamor of white right-wingers, are disproportionately affected by South Africa’s violent crime yet least likely to benefit from its state services. Residents of such communities generally cannot afford to enlist the help of the well-equipped private security companies protecting wealthy and predominantly white neighborhoods that already receive the lion’s share of police resources.
“You call the police to a white suburb and they react very fast. You call them to a black suburb and it takes forever. Our police services and even our government value some lives more than others,” the Operation Wanya Tsotsi leader Obusitse said. Bridging this gap would require a dramatic change by a floundering and factionalized government that in a quarter-century has largely failed to reverse the injustices of apartheid; the country’s new president, Cyril Ramaphosa, has pledged to fight corruption and redistribute land but has had little to say about rising vigilantism.
Back in Blikkiesdorp, residents eventually took it upon themselves to push back against the vigilantes who had begun to wreak new havoc on the already traumatized community. On a cold, wet Tuesday evening just a few days after Tashrieq Johnson’s death, a local imam gathered together scores of men who proceeded to patrol the area in a show of force. A solitary police vehicle disinterestedly monitored their movements from a distance. Some of the men covered their faces and carried illegal firearms hidden beneath their coats; others wielded field hockey sticks, sjamboks, and clubs openly.
“In seven years living here, this is the worst things have been,” said Alec Geldebloem, one member of the nameless group. “People are fed up. We are trying to operate within the law, but if we have to, we will meet these guys with violence. No one here among us is perfect.”