Monograph 72: Violent Justice, Vigilantism and the State`s Response, Makubetse Sekhonyane and Antoinette Louw


South Africa`s high crime rate and inefficient criminal justice system cause many people to feel at best, insecure, and at worst held to ransom by both criminals and the government. As a result, public confidence in the police and the courts has decreased in the last few years. Many people have turned to self-help safety measures or have sought assistance outside government for protection against crime. The most obvious example is the private security industry which continues to grow in South Africa. But for those who cannot afford to buy these services, vigilantism has become a viable option.

Crime and vigilantism are not uniquely South African experiences. In Nigeria for example, a weak and poorly resourced criminal justice system has led to a situation in which members of vigilante groups now outnumber police officers. These groups are just as violent as those in South Africa. In South America, and particularly in Brazil, lynch mobs have at times taken to the streets after ordinary people felt that corruption in government and victimisation by drug gangs were terrorising their communities.

The concern is that vigilante groups take on policing and justice functions, often using violent means to illicit confessions and mete out punishment. As such, they function in opposition to the formal criminal justice system and threaten the rule of law—the foundation of any democracy. Moreover, instead of reducing crime, vigilante activities add to the workload of the police and courts.

One of the better-known vigilante groups in South Africa is Mapogo-a-Mathamaga, based in the Northern Province. Mapogo is the focus of this monograph not only because it is the largest group in the country, but also because it is unique in that it has support across race and class lines in both urban and rural areas. This support is based on the belief that Mapogo will deliver swift and harsh punishment and thus deter crime. Equally important, Mapogo`s leader is charismatic and brave, and evokes sentiments held by many about crime in the country. In essence, Mapogo presents an affordable and appealing alternative to the ailing criminal justice system and the continued high levels of crime.

There is evidence that government has acknowledged the problems facing the criminal justice system and is taking action. Many new pieces of legislation, policies and strategies have been developed since 1994. Five types of initiatives that could assist in reducing vigilantism are:

  • Improving the functioning of the criminal justice system as a whole
  • Improving the conviction rate
  • Improving service delivery to the public
  • Enacting laws that are `tough on offenders`
  • Assisting the police and courts through crime prevention partnerships.

While most of these initiatives are appropriate and necessary, certain factors will limit their impact on vigilantism. These factors are discussed in the context of four recommendations:

Publicise, on an ongoing basis, the convictions of perpetrators of serious and violent crimes, and corruption

The main factor limiting the impact of the current initiatives on vigilantism is that many are likely to show positive results only in the medium to long term. To offset this, communication strategies should be developed that publicise the successes of criminal justice initiatives. In particular, the public should be notified when perpetrators of serious offences, violent crime and corruption are convicted.

Prosecute those guilty of vigilante activity

Another limiting factor is that despite several efforts by the police to investigate vigilantism, government has yet to send out an unequivocal message that these activities will not be tolerated. A targeted and visible approach that focuses on prosecuting those who commit vigilante acts, and the public condemnation of vigilantism by safety and security leaders, is required.

Improve information provision as outlined in the White Paper on Transforming Public Service Delivery

Although some aspects of service delivery are improving, the key weakness remains the provision of information to the public about the way the criminal justice process works. One of the reasons why people support vigilantism is the lack of information about proceedings in the criminal justice system. More attention should be paid to the White Paper on Transforming Public Service Delivery (Batho Pele) which stipulates that government departments should not only deal with complaints and cases brought by the public, but also provide information about how each service works, and what people can expect from the service provider. By doing so, officials in the police and courts could, in the process of their day to day activities, quite easily meet the frequently cited need for public education on the functioning of the criminal justice system.

Encourage community crime prevention partnerships

Despite policy on community policing and high level political support, functional partnerships between members of the public and agencies of the criminal justice system remain limited. Effective community-police partnerships can reduce the likelihood that people will resort to vigilantism and provide an avenue for constructive and legal participation in crime fighting efforts. Such focused partnerships, where roles and responsibilities are clear, should be encouraged to help reduce vigilantism. Partnerships should also be extended to court and prison processes in order to, for example, encourage people to testify in court, participate in community corrections, parole decisions and supervision and support of offenders released on parole.

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