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The root causes of mob justice

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Picture: Timothy Bernard / African News Agency (ANA) /Taken June 20, 2023 – Diepsloot residents have frequently taken to the streets to protest over crime and killings in their community. Those whose fear, anger and frustration drive them to maim and kill alleged criminals are people living in poor black communities, the writer says.

By Trevor Ngwane

Last week, seven young black men were killed and burnt to death in Diepsloot, a black working-class township in Johannesburg. Mob justice against criminals operating in the area was apparently the motive for the multiple murders.

The self-appointment of community members as complainants, arresters, detectives, judges and executioners in a country that prides itself as a defender of human rights and where the death penalty is banned has left many people wondering what has gone wrong with our society.

The residents of Diepsloot say they are under siege by criminals. They complain of rising criminal activities in the area which is putting their lives at risk daily, with no solution in sight. The police are useless, they say.

In June this year, Diepsloot residents marched to the Union Buildings demanding that President Cyril Ramaphosa do something about the rampant violent crime.

“This (mob justice) could have been avoided,” said a community leader, Reverend Thokwane Dithuge, blaming the inadequate response of the authorities for the killings.

It might seem churlish to state that mob justice and vigilantism are nothing new in South Africa, including multiple killings and burning of people accused of committing crimes.

In 2019, some residents of Zandspruit, a Johannesburg informal settlement, stripped naked nine young men, gave them the beating of their lives, put tyres around their necks, doused them in petrol and set them alight. Five of them died.

“They always burn one person, not two, not three and not nine, like it happened today. I’ve never seen this happen before in 27 years of living in Zandspruit,” said community policing forum member Kenneth Lekalakala, expressing the shock felt by those who witnessed or heard about the brutal and traumatic event in their community.

Extra-judicial killings are illegal and immoral. But a closer look at why they happen, where they happen and who are the perpetrators and victims might be necessary in order to understand the problem in its full and proper context.

Crime levels are abnormally high in South Africa, and it is the working-class communities who bear the brunt of the scourge due to poor socio-economic conditions and inadequate police services.

In 2019/20 crime statistics showed that at least 1,202 of the 21,325 murders were linked to mob justice. The communities of uMlazi, Inanda, Harare and Delft, all in black working-class areas, were some of the police stations with the highest murder rates between January and March 2022.

In the second quarter of this year, South Africa recorded an average of 68 murders a day. Violent crimes often occur in townships on the outskirts of major cities or in isolated areas. Townships, villages and informal settlements suffer from shortages of staff and resources in policing and other public services.

Police respond phlegmatically to crimes reported in the areas, investigations are poorly conducted and conviction rates are criminally low.

Residents of the richer upper middle-class suburbs receive better services from the state. This is topped up with their own resources because they can afford it. The private security industry is the largest in the world, employing more personnel than the SAPS and SANDF combined. There is a large-scale privatisation of safety and security in South Africa.

The proliferation of gated communities and enclosed neighbourhoods is the response of the rich to rising crime levels. People who live in Dainfern, a millionaire’s acre that is a stone’s throw from Diepsloot, enjoy lifestyles characterised by luxury, exclusivity and status because, basically, they are living in a security village in one of the most unequal societies in the world.

Mob justice and its violence are racialised, gender-based and classed. Those whose fear, anger and frustration drive them to maim and kill alleged criminals are people living in poor black communities. Those who are killed are often young black men who are driven to or associated with crime because of unemployment, poverty and inequality.

Moral indignation is an appropriate response to mob justice. But moralising about it without talking about and understanding its historical and material origins in racial capitalism and its inequities is foolhardy denialism. To effectively combat crime it is necessary to address its incidental symptoms and its structural causes.

Under apartheid, the job of the police was to enforce law and order in a country founded on racialised exploitation and oppression.

Under the post-apartheid regime, the job of the police is to safeguard a society founded on unemployment, poverty and inequality. For working-class people and the poor, there is a continuation of the mercilessly harsh and unforgiving life of hardship and suffering of the past. When they complain to the state, they are ignored and if they keep insisting, the police are sent to quell their protests.

There can be no peace without justice. The continuation of capitalist exploitation and its iniquities cannot build a peaceful and just society.

Mob justice continues in South Africa because what has gone wrong is that the legacy of the injustices of the past has not been eradicated.

As Rosa Luxemburg, the German revolutionary once said: “The future is socialism or barbarism.”

Trevor Ngwane is Director of the Centre for Sociological Research and Practice at the University of Johannesburg