2019-03-04 16:55
Copesville Community Members protest outside the Pietermaritzburg court yesterday. 15 people from the community were arrested for the recent mob killings.

Copesville Community Members protest outside the Pietermaritzburg court yesterday. 15 people from the community were arrested for the recent mob killings. (Jonathan Burton)

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Many South Africans feel enacting mob justice on a suspected criminal is their first course of action due to a general lack of faith in the police and the criminal justice system.

Vigilantism is not a new phenomenon and has been part of the South African landscape for centuries.

University of KwaZulu-Natal Criminology and Forensic Studies Professor Nirmala Gopal said vigilantism is where law enforcement is undertaken without any legal authority by a self-appointed group of people.

“In South Africa vigilantism was politically orientated before 1994 but has now evolved to focus on crime and disorder largely because of a lack of trust in police to protect communities,” said Gopal.

Although there are few statistics and studies on vigilantism in the country, Gopal said she feels that “vigilantism has increased and will continue to increase as long as communities feel vulnerable but also believe they have the capacity to protect themselves”.

“The violence associated with it cannot be condoned, but it is evidently understandable why people would feel the need to do so.” she said. “People join these groups out of frustration with the lack of service delivery from police, especially in areas where crime and violence rates are high and police are either afraid or may even be bribed not to reduce crime and violence.

“Although historically vigilantism was largely confined to rural areas this is no longer the case.

“Citizens don’t feel safe because our democratic policing system is not working for ordinary citizens. Wherever there is a need to protect themselves, these groups will form and violate laws to keep their families and communities safe.”

Gopal said mob mentality induces irrationality and if that means using extreme violence on an accused, then that will happen. “Mob members will follow each other so if one seems keen on death then that’s what the perpetrator will get,” she said, adding that the punishment does not always fit the crime.

“There may be innocent individuals whose lives are compromised because of incorrect intelligence or ‘detective’ work. This is really dangerous and can lead to complete chaos.

“Many South Africans already feel vulnerable and the existence of vigilante groups will probably increase citizens’ vulnerability,” she said.

Gopal emphasised that mob justice is completely illegal and perpetrators will be charged and punished.

“Killing or punishing innocent lives is likely during mob justice and this can never be reversed. [Mob justice] cannot exist and police must eradicate it wherever it occurs,” she said.

Provincial police spokesperson Colonel Thembeka Mbele said police monitor any act of vigilantism so anyone involved can face the full might of the law.

“Vigilantism is illegal and punishable by law. Community members tend to take the law into their own hands if they are aware of the criminals who are terrorising them within their area, instead of reporting such criminals to the police.

“Police are not threatened by mobs when executing their duties,” she said.

The court of public opinion

A senior police official, who asked not to be named, said “it is really sad when we, as the police, realise the victim [of the vigilante attack] is not always guilty of the crime they are accused of by the community.

“[These attacks] often lead to the accused’s death and by then it is too late because ‘justice has already been served’.

“It is worse when this act continues between affected families or parties and then there are sometimes revenge attacks in the aftermath.

“Often religious and political leaders are brought in to negotiate and restore calm. This should be considered at the outset of a dispute to prevent a bloodbath,” said the officer.

Another senior policeman said the aftermath of a vigilante attack was that the accused will be lying, often beaten to death, in the middle of the street while the rest of the community go about their day as usual.

“After it is done, they do not care. Even if that person was innocent, it does not matter. The people want someone, anyone to pay.

“As police we try our best but people have to consider there are problems with the justice system.

“Often a person is arrested and the matter is thrown out of court, or not enrolled.”

People stretched to the end of their tether

Expert at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Lizette Lancaster said that when police released their crime stats for 2017/2018, it was revealed that there were 849 murders associated with “mob justice” out of the 20 366 murders recorded by police during that period.

“These are only in cases where the motive could be established so there are likely more (vigilante-related murders),” she noted.

Lancaster said crime statistics suggest that many communities experience high levels of violence and crime on a daily basis. “Any incident could be ‘the last straw’ and could lead to an outburst of emotions and frustration where ordinary people engage in vigilante activities,” she said.

Lancaster said research shows young men are most at risk to become both the victims and perpetrators of crime. It is therefore likely that they are also the most likely to become the victims of mob justice.

In most instances, suspected offenders are caught and handed over to the police but problems arise when suspects are caught and punished.

“The cases that usually make it into the media are where suspects are killed. This usually happens through beatings or stoning, but the most notorious method is through the apartheid-style ‘necklacing’ practice. These cases are usually in the minority but do occur,” she said.

Lancaster added that people will report crimes if they feel the police will solve these cases and arrest the perpetrators. If, however, they feel police are unable to do so, and emotions run high, then they are more likely to resort to mob justice.

“Because there is no objective formal justice process available at the time, innocent persons who happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time are targeted,” she said.

“The criminal justice system is designed to be fair, impartial and objective with separate law enforcement and court functions and clear rules to ensure a fair trial.

“Even during these legal processes refined over centuries, mistakes occur. More so when an emotional crowd takes the law into their hands.

“In these cases, ordinary citizens become criminals themselves and can be arrested and convicted of a crime such as murder or assault.”

Inside a mob justice attack

A former private investigator who asked not to be named said he had witnessed three mob justice attacks in his life, the worst being an incident in Estcourt that occurred a few years ago.

“A man had been accused of rape and the community came to him because they said police were not doing anything. It was a group of between 15 and 20 people and they beat this man with stones and rocks and bricks.

“The man was screaming and crying out, asking people to stop and shouting for help but they just carried on. If we had tried to step in and stop them the crowd would have definitely turned on us,” he said.

“It was complete mob mentality. It looked like nobody really knew what was going on around them because they were so focused on the accused. There was no regard for human life and to have to stand and watch all that was very scary. The man was helpless. Sometimes his screams and cries play back in my mind.

“You just cannot believe the collective violence and anger. There is nothing rational to it. It is like lions slaughtering a lamb, or a shark in the midst of a feeding frenzy. And once the community had finished, they walked away like nothing had happened and left the man lying in the road. He died the next day.”

The former PI said he felt these attacks happen because of a lack of faith in the police but added that police have little say in cases once a suspect is in custody.

161014. Copesville Community Members protest outsi

Copesville Community Members protest outside the Pietermaritzburg court in October 2014. 15 people from the community were arrested for several mob killings at the time. 

It takes one person to launch an attack

University of KwaZulu-Natal Criminology and Forensic Studies Professor Nirmala Gopal said vigilantism is any sort of attack on a suspected criminal by citizens, whether it be a single person or a mob.

In February this year, video footage of a man beating a suspected burglar with a sjambok surfaced. The man could also be heard threatening to shoot the suspected burglar. Although the video shows a single person beating a suspected criminal, Gopal said this is still a vigilante attack.

The Witness first reported on the incident a week before the video emerged. The Witness was told at the time that the suspect was trying to flee after being caught with stolen property. He was then hit by a car in Woodhouse Road and remained in hospital for two weeks after the incident. The current condition of the man is unknown.

Provincial police spokesperson Lieutenant-Colonel Thulani Zwane said at the time that the man had already been apprehended by the public and should have been handed over to police.

“We warned the community not to take the law into their own hands but hand over the suspect to the police,” Zwane said.

No justice in vigilantism, only sorrow

Over the past three years, Pietermaritzburg has had a number of “vigilante attacks” that have ended in the death of the accused.

In October 2017, a vagrant known only as Sandile, a suspected whoonga addict, was killed by a group of around 100 men, allegedly from the Masukwana Street Hostel.

161014. Copesville Community Members protest outsi

Mthobisi Dumakude, Njabulo Nzama, and Sipho Madondo were some of the vagrants who were attacked and chased out of the city centre, allegedly by hostel dwellers, in September 2017. 

The hostel dwellers allegedly killed Sandile after they spotted him smoking a cigarette by the river near the taxi rank in town. They beat him up and threw him in the water while he was still breathing.

A police source said the man had severe lacerations to the back of the head and it appeared as if he had been “hacked”.

In February 2018, Siphamandla Mbhense (20) was found dead by his family in Imbali Unit 14.

Mbhense and a woman were accused of stealing handbags and an engagement ring. Both were beaten but only the woman survived.

Family said Mbhense’s injuries were mostly inflicted on his face, with his upper and lower jaw broken, his forehead severely swollen, and his skull cracked open.

In another vigilante mob attack in early 2018, two men suspected of robbery were assaulted, leaving one dead and the other critically injured.

A mob of more than 50 people, armed with broomsticks, batons and even kitchen knives, apprehended the two men who allegedly robbed a flat in the CBD.

A source who was there at the time said security shouted for the mob to stop and wait for police but the mob became aggressive toward the guards.

At the time, police told The Witness that there were no reports of a break-in or robbery, but speculated that this was because people feared being implicated in the attack.

Coping with life in a ‘vicious world’

The father of murder victim Thoriso Themane (27), who was murdered in Polokwane last weekend, allegedly by a mob of teenagers, has said, given the opportunity, he would apologise to his son “for bringing him into this vicious world”.

News24 reported this week that in an interview with eNCA, Mahlapahlapana Themane described his son as a generous man who always put others before himself and who would not want to see other people hurt.

He was soft-hearted, he said. “If he had something to give to others, he would always give. His mum reprimanded him for giving too much.”

Five teenagers — one of them the son of a retired police officer — were expected to appear in the Polokwane Magistrate’s Court on Thursday following the brutal murder. Themane’s bloody body was discovered in a street in Flora Park, Polokwane. The suspects (in Grades 9 and 10) were arrested on Tuesday afternoon and face a murder charge.

According to police, the alleged mob attack took place on Saturday evening and the 27-year-old succumbed to his injuries on Sunday.

A video of Themane being carried by a group of people had been circulating on social media, with Twitter users claiming the suspects involved in the attack were pupils from Capricorn High School.

“To compound the ruthlessness of the attack on the man, not only are the suspects involved between the ages of 15 and 16 years old, but the incident was also filmed and posted on social media,” the office of national police commissioner General Khehla Sitole said in a statement on Wednesday.

Pietermaritzburg residents took to The Witness Facebook page to share their thoughts on vigilantism.

Vaughan Derek Greene posted: “When your police station has one vehicle to service an area that covers from the Duzi River in town to Ashburton and up to France what do you expect?”

Lynda Tyrer posted: “As long as the police are involved and take over and not the vigilantes. This is not the days of the wild west.”

Ash Padayachee posted: “What do you expect when the police are useless and only looking for easy arrests.”

Howick resident Zak Alli told Weekend Witness that crime in the area “is at an all time high”.

“I have seen first-hand the horror that can occur when the public take the law into their own hands,” said Alli.

“What can the public do when our police service are 20 minutes away? I am my first responder, as my life or the life I am protecting may not have the 20 minutes it takes for police to show up. A life can be lost in a second.”

He said he knew police were understaffed and had few resources and put this down to bad management, adding that people are tired of seeing thieves being arrested and then seeing the same thief walking the streets that same evening.

“This is why vigilantism is so big in SA The problem with vigilantism is that the community becomes judge, jury and executioner. I in no way support any illegal actives, such as vigilantism, but I do wish for a fair and just criminal justice system in this country.”

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  vigilantism

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