Soweto: ‘If I find a criminal in my yard, I don’t call the police; I take the law into my own hands’
Soweto, South Africa’s largest township, has long been a hotbed of violence and criminality. In the absence of effective policing, residents have more than once resorted to mob justice in the hope of making the streets safer. Soweto resident Tshabalira Lebakeng spoke to locals about the predicament.
Maverick Citizen recently reported on an increase in mob violence in South Africa and its impact on the public health system. We reported how it is linked to the collapse of policing in many poor communities and how a combination of socioeconomic factors are causing an explosion of interpersonal and intergroup violence.
Many South Africans seem not to know the difference between right and wrong. When they take the law into their own hands – a crime in itself – they call it mob justice.
Mr Mogorosi (69) is a street vendor who lives in Orlando, Soweto. He is in favour of vigilantism.
“These boys [the nyaopes] don’t have peace at all. I support mob justice because after a few days, the criminals are running free in the streets as if they were never arrested.
“I am selling my stuff here every day from Monday to Sunday. I am not free at all. I have to be alert at all times because someone’s child will run away with my stuff. You can see I can’t run any more.
“When I go to the police to report the crime, they say they can’t help me. They say, ‘Hawu madala, ungazo vula icala lomuntu obaleke ngephakethe likasikilidi nemfalakahlana yemali’ [Old man, you came to open a case against someone who ran away with a packet of cigarettes and small change].
“But it’s my money, no matter how little it is. So, if I find a criminal in my yard or at my shop, I don’t call the police any more. I take the law into my own hands. The police will come after.”
Lessons in respect
S’fundo Xaba is a Grade 12 student from Orlando. He says, “Timer [youngsters in the community call you Timer if you are old], let me tell you something. I personally like and do not like mob justice. I am literally stuck in between.
“Early this year, we ran after a criminal … We were told he mugged a woman by the freeway. We found him and we hit him, and we took him back to the community. But it was the wrong person.”
I asked him what should be done if the community finds a criminal.
“Timer, I think if we find a criminal we should call the police, but before the police come, we must teach him a small lesson. Not to kill him, but just to teach him to respect the community because, otherwise, after a day or two, the criminal will be back again.
“Maybe the crime rate will decrease if people can find jobs,” he added.
John Maluleke (not his real name) is a 25-year-old street tailor who can fix anything that needs stitching. He is a friendly man and known in the community. I asked him how he felt about mob justice.
“I don’t like the beating up of people. Where I come from, Maputo, I have seen many scary things. Here in South Africa, I just wish to live in peace. I once saw a young man killed with a burning tyre. I didn’t eat for a week – I will never forget that smell of burning human flesh.
“As people, we need to sit down and help each other, not kill each other … Maybe that man was forced into crime by circumstances.”
I asked what he would do if a criminal stole his sewing machine.
“My brother, I will hit him hard. This is the only machine I have. I am sending money home … but I will not kill him or her. I will hit him and then call the police. If they release him, there is nothing I can do … but killing or burning people is not a good idea for me.”
Paolosi Mokoena is a 49-year-old man from Orlando. He owns a small business washing shoes and carpets. I asked him if he had ever been involved in vigilantism.
“As a member of the community, I witness many incidents of mob justice. I don’t feel sorry for the criminals at all. When our brothers and sisters go to work in the morning, they get robbed of their valuables.
“It is winter and people are starting to be stressed about going to work in the dark because these criminals are waiting for them in the morning and in the afternoon.
“We can’t work hard and people come and take your stuff. Like now, I lost someone’s shoes here – someone stole them. How am I going to repay the customer for the shoes?
“Our government is on the side of the criminals and is not protecting us. When last did I walk free in the streets? Every day we hear stories about people who got killed in their homes, stolen cars, missing women and children. Who is killing kids and women? No man. This must stop. If we don’t stop it, no one will.
“Every day on our televisions and radios, we see and hear horrible news. You know, my brother, it is stressful and depressing when it is time for the news.”
I asked him what should be done to prevent crime.
“If the government can clean the corrupt police, things will get better … Every day I see police visiting people who are selling drugs, but there are no arrests. If the police are corrupt, who will protect us from the criminals?
“When you go to the police station to report a crime or report a corrupt police officer, the police officer you are going to report is standing there at the counter! So, the only thing you can do is to go back home and mind your own business.
“Sometimes, the person who is selling drugs has a cousin in the police. Criminals tell us to our faces that they have relatives working at the police stations.
“I think mob justice is the only way to bring down crime. We are living in a difficult time … even praying won’t help us,” said Mokoena. DM/MC
Tshaba’s Eye is a regular column in Maverick Citizen and your window into what the less privileged are thinking and saying. Read more of our grassroots observations from homeless writer Tshabalira Lebakeng below.
On the Social Relief of Distress grant: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2022-05-24-social-relief-of-distress-grant-citizens-confused-and-suspicious/
On access to early childhood development in poor communities: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2022-04-22-the-ecd-development-in-poor-areas-and-the-children-left-on-the-back-foot/
On Soweto’s ravaged train system: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2022-05-05-sowetos-once-bustling-train-stations-lie-in-ruin-its-as-if-they-were-bombed-in-a-war/