Murderers, thieves and rapists who have increasingly terrorised South Africa’s cities are now themselves the hunted. Dozens have been killed or maimed by impromptu lynch mobs in recent months as fed-up communities take the law into their own hands.
A typical lynch victim is Popozi Motaung, a young man accused of running with a Soweto street gang that terrorised the Protea South neighbourhood of the sprawling black township south of Johannesburg. This week he lay in intensive care fighting for his life after surgeons stitched his face back together and attended his other wounds.
Motaung and two cronies were already in custody at a local community police forum office, when word of their detention spread around the neighbourhood.
The trio were dragged out into the street, kicked, hacked with knives and beaten. Police reinforcements arrived in time to save Motaung, but not his friends. Both died from their wounds.
Almost daily South African newspapers report similar incidents. The victims are usually young men accused of rape, murder, and robbery. Their attackers range from local businessmen to grandmothers, briefly united in a frenzied outburst of violence that usually ends with a smouldering corpse and a jubilant crowd dancing in the streets.
A study released last month shows deaths in vigilante attacks have increased 184 per cent in the past year. The Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD), a statutory body set up to monitor the police, said the attacks were increasing at an “alarming rate”.
“Communities are less tolerant of criminals in their midst,” said ICD spokesman Steven Mabona.
Mr Mabona says poor police response to complaints, and a lack of communication between law enforcement and communities is to blame. He said 71 deaths had been recorded in the past year, and many more people had been maimed.
These figures do not include people killed for crimes such as witchcraft. In many poor communities, any local disaster—a drought, the death of a child, is ascribed to black magic and the blame usually falls on anyone whose behaviour is deemed strange.
Last week a traditional healer named (Mrs) Fikile Mkhize was shot dead in her home. Police said the woman had been accused of witchcraft and her local community decided she had to die.
Still, most of those who end up being lynched are accused of being criminals. This week, police arrested eight villagers in a settlement near Polokwane in the northwest for allegedly killing a suspected murderer. Their victim had allegedly murdered a fellow villager for his mobile phone. A posse was set up and the man was caught and beaten to death.
Arrests for lynching rarely result in conviction. Few witnesses come forward and the sympathies are usually overwhelmingly with the accused.
Not all vigilante organisations are unorganised mobs.
One group that has sprung to prominence is the predominantly Muslim outfit called People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (Pagad). Pagad spectacularly burned a leading Cape Town gang leader named Rashaad Staggie, in front of television cameras in 1996.
Last month a senior Pagad leader announced that it would resume its campaign against local drug dealers. Salie Abader, Pagad’s regional safety co-ordinator, said at the organisations relaunch: “People everywhere are crying and dying and when the Government doesn’t assist them, Pagad is the next best thing.”