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30 March 2017 04:38 (South Africa)
Opinionista Rian Malan

Self-protection and Vigilantism: As rule of law weakens, South Africans adopt a DIY approach

  • Rian Malan
    Rian-Malan.jpg
    Rian Malan

    See Rian Malan's Wikipedia profile here. Photo of Rian Malan by Victor Dlamini.

In the hue and cry surrounding South Africa’s recent local government elections, few noticed that Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) are developing a do-it-yourself civilian crime-fighting strategy.

As Julius Malema’s manifesto phrased it, “The EFF will employ and sustain all members of the community safety workers to ensure they have adequate capacity to stop all forms of crime in the municipality.”

Sounds like a muscular variant of your typical suburban neighbourhood watch, with funds set aside to encourage volunteers in their anti-crime efforts.

This makes Malema the latest in a long line of South Africans who have lost faith in the state’s ability to uphold the rule of law and made their own security arrangements.

White suburbanites led the procession, turning to private security firms to patrol their streets and respond to their burglar alarms. Big Business followed suit, with companies such as British American Tobacco setting up a R50-million-a-year private intelligence service to combat cigarette smugglers, while gold mines created private armies to check an “alarming” surge in illegal mining.

By 2015, private security was SA’s largest employer, with some 700,000 guards in uniform and countless private eyes doing the police’s work for them. As Judge NA Cassim observed last year, “The reality is that to obtain a successful prosecution, it is useful if not necessary to obtain the services of private criminal investigators to prepare the docket for the police.

Judge Cassim went on to note that this is brutally unfair to those too poor to afford private security, which is most of us; according to Stats SA, 40% of white households and 92% of black ones survive on less than R10,000 a month, which renders private security an unaffordable luxury. These people must rely on a police service whose reputation is in tatters.

Again, according to Stats SA, huge numbers of South Africans now believe the SAPS is corrupt (48%), lazy (59%) under-resourced (34%), co-operates with criminals (39%), and doesn’t respond on time (80%).  

With murders on an upward trend and robbery rates soaring, how are the poor to defend themselves?

Clamouring for police reform might be a good place to start, but the Institute of Race Relations’ research shows that the outcome is unlikely to be successful. In the last decade, the SAPS has launched two major turnaround plans, neither of which succeeded. Reforms laid out in the National Development Plan (NDP) have yet to be implemented. The proportion of police concerned about corruption in the ranks rose to 89% in 2009, and the situation seemed if anything to have worsened by the time the Khayelitsha Commission began its hearings in 2013.

Residents of this Cape Flats township told the commission they seldom bothered to report crime because “we need to be friends with the police officer and be able to provide him or her with something in order to act”.

Discipline was weak, absenteeism rampant and understaffing had led to a situation in which many crimes were not properly investigated, if at all.

This led, in turn, to vigilantism.

The institute found that South African society is curiously reluctant to face up to the phenomenon popularly known as mob justice. Police keep no record of vigilante attacks. Stats SA asks no questions about it. Academics generally look the other way, and media coverage is patchy, even in a tabloid like the Daily Sun, one of the few South African titles that gives voice to underclass complaints about crime.

As for mob justice statistics, there are none, which is why Capetonians were dumbfounded to learn, courtesy of the Khaylelitsha Commission, that 78 criminal suspects had been burned or beaten to death in public in just one part of their city in the 15 months leading up to June 2012. If there are five vigilante killings (plus scores of beatings) in Khayelitsha every month, how many such incidents take place nationwide?

Absent of any answer, the institute took a closer look at the forces that turned vigilante leader Lubabalo Vellem into a local hero last year. His township – Masiphumulele, Western Cape – was a South African everyplace, riddled with unemployment, crime and nyaope addiction. In just four years, the number of murders recorded at the nearest police station had risen by 62%, robberies by 172%. Calls for the establishment of a satellite police station went unheeded, and frustration began to build towards dangerous levels.

When yet another murder took place last November, Masiphumulele erupted in an explosion of vigilantism that claimed the lives of at least two criminal suspects and eventually landed Vellem behind bars on a charge of murder. His arrest worsened the situation, sparking rioting so intense that terrified whites in neighbouring suburbs offered to pay Vellem’s bail in the hope of restoring calm.

On the day of his release, 2,000 Masiphumelele residents gathered outside court to hoist Vellem on their shoulders while tributes blossomed on the township’s Facebook page.

Well done,” said one such. “Don’t turn back now.”

Another said, “It is a good thing you are doing. Africa will return.”

A good thing? Only from a point of view of utter desperation. Mob justice is blind in all the wrong ways, its victims often innocent, its methods cruel and arbitrary. As Unisa criminologist Anthony Minnaar says, “Its very existence is a brutal indictment of the whole criminal justice system.” But the only thing that can stop it is effective policing, and that’s something that the South African state is struggling to provide.

To be fair, the jury is still out on acting national police commissioner Khomotso Phahlane, who took charge of the SAPS a year ago, promising major changes. Criminologists laud his “back to basics” approach, but a note of doubt crept in last week when the Western Cape’s provincial government slated Phahlane and police minister Nathi Mthetwa for dragging their feet on reforms advocated by the Khyalelitsha Commission in 2014.

Against this backdrop, the Institute of Race Relations forecasts a bright future for civilian anti-crime movements such as those envisaged by Malema. The EFF’s private police force has yet to materialise, but the Afrikaans civil rights organisation AfriForum is already rolling out a nationwide system of buurtwagte based on the American neighbourhood watch idea.

Johannesburg suburbanites are implementing novel schemes in which civilian volunteers act as backup for private security professionals whose firms are community-controlled.

Township vigilantism can be expected to rise in tandem with the murder rate, up 5% in 2015.

In the institute’s view, these developments are a symptom of the South African state’s growing weakness. We’re already on Forbes magazine’s failed state watch list. Recent attacks on the independence of the Reserve Bank and Treasury have further shaken confidence, and political interference in the police and prosecutorial services continues unabated.

As anxiety mounts, more and more South Africans are looking to each other, rather than the state, for security. Let us pray that this doesn’t lead to a descent into Thomas Hobbes’ murderous state of nature. DM

  • Rian Malan
    Rian-Malan.jpg
    Rian Malan

    See Rian Malan's Wikipedia profile here. Photo of Rian Malan by Victor Dlamini.

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