Experts believe a lack of trust contributes to at least two people a day dying as a result of mob justice attacks in South Africa.
Mob justice attack incidents in South Africa have found their way into the spotlight again following the deaths of five people who were assaulted, then set alight by community members of Zandspruit in Johannesburg on Wednesday.
The incident has raised a number of questions about the underlying issues that lead to these violent acts, despite the police arresting three suspects in connection to the murders.
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At least two people a day die as a result of mob justice attacks or acts of vigilantism in South Africa, according to research conducted by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) – with communities often feeling neglected by the police and alone in protecting their families and homes.
The South African Police Service (Saps) reported 903 murders occurred as a result of vigilantism from 2020 to 2021 so far.
ISS head of justice and violence prevention Gareth Newham told The Citizen on Thursday that there were other contributing factors to mob justice attacks – including police stations being under-resourced.
“Yes, there are communities across the country that do not feel that the police effectively serve their safety needs. This is due to a combination of various factors. Sometimes, the local police stations are under-resourced and cannot adequately respond to the local crime challenge.
“I think that the police are also not trusted as they are seen to be corrupt or disinterested in servicing the community. So in such situations, local community leaders may decide to assert their authority through vigilante action against those who are seen or are known to commit criminal acts against members of the community.
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“Often, there will be a history of such community violence, sometimes going back into the apartheid era where people formed self-defence or protection units, or were actively involved in resisting the apartheid state,” Newham said.
This can be backed up by Statistics SA’s 2018 National Victims of Crime Survey, which revealed that 3.5% of households across the country are part of organised local groups or attended self-defence classes. It is believed that many of these communities are tired of robberies, among other crimes, occurring in their area.
South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) commissioner Jonas Sibanyoni also told The Citizen that fear by witnesses to give evidence against perpetrators of crime also contributed to communities engaging in acts of violence.
“In this instance, it usually results in the withdrawal of cases against accused persons. Furthermore, the lack of knowledge by witnesses that if they fear victimisation by perpetrators or by people acting on behalf of perpetrators, that they witnesses may request to be placed under witness protection program for the duration of the trial,” Sibanyoni said.
Meanwhile, Newham further spoke of whether DNA backlog played a role in “justice” being delayed for victims of vigilantism, to which he said would only make the matter worse if the backlog kept on piling up.
“The substantial increase in the forensic analysis backlog will serve to exacerbate this situation. However, it is unlikely to be the cause.
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“In many of the communities where vigilante activity is a relatively regular phenomenon, the police are typically unsuccessful in solving most murders, rapes and robberies.
“What the backlog may do is undermine attempts of the local police to demonstrate that they are able to take action against perpetrators as part of any effort to build trust in the Saps [South African Police Service].”
Asked if poverty alleviation would mean less mob attacks, Newham said poverty was not the primary cause of criminality.
“Many countries that are far poorer than South Africa have lower rates of criminality, and most poor people in South Africa do not commit crime.
“Even if poverty is reduced in some communities with a history of vigilantism, if there continues to be mistrust in the state and policing remains inadequate, vigilantism would probably continue,” he added.
Commenting on whether mob justice attacks were also a result of prejudice or if cultural beliefs played a role, Gabriel Crouse, head of campaigns at the Institute Of Race Relations (IRR), said: “Mob justice is everywhere the result of broken trust in the rule of law.
“Independent surveys show that a supermajority of South Africans do not trust the police. This is sadly the result of recent lived experience, countless occasions of criminals looting and ravaging with impunity, sometimes even in cahoots with top cops.
“One of the most wicked things about mob justice is that it does not attack on the most powerful, but instead preys on the weakest, most vulnerable members of society, like elder ladies branded as ‘witches’.”
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Newham pointed out that xenophobic violence was more related to prejudice. However, he said, this was a different phenomenon to vigilantism even though many of the factors associated with vigilantism were found in areas that record xenophobic violence.
Meanwhile, Sibanyoni said he believed that cultural beliefs and prejudice played a role in attacking and even killing people who are believed to be practicing witchcraft.
“The victims are the elderly who suffer loss of memory or mental illness. Mostly those elderly people who don’t have people to look after them,” he said.