|www.corpun.com : Archive : 2006 : ZA Judicial Dec 2006|
Judicial CP - December 2006
Sunday Times, Johannesburg, 17 December 2006
Crime lends lustre to kangaroo justice
Neighbourhood policing at its best brings crime down.
But some of South Africa's neighbourhood anti-crime groups can only be described as vigilantes -- even if they enjoy the support of residents, writes Janine Stephen.
A battered shipping container stands on a corner of the Site C taxi rank in Khayelitsha, Cape Town. Inside are a few pieces of furniture and a well-built young man who named himself only as Alex, who says he is chairman of the Peninsula Anti-Crime Agency (Peaca).
"Here we help residents who are affected by crime," Alex explains. "Eyewitnesses often give the victim information, and they report this to Peaca. We then go and apprehend the suspect.
"Sometimes we will sjambok or slap him until he tells the truth. He will point out the stolen belongings, and we return these to the victim."
Peaca, formed by former members of Umkhonto weSizwe and the Azanian People's Liberation Army in 1998, was said to solve crimes as far afield as Saldanha and George when it was at its peak (around 2000). Although not as large these days, it has been operating in full view of the police for eight years -- and using force to extract confessions.
"The police give us support," says Alex. "When it becomes difficult for us to deal with a case, we hand over suspects. The person won't show physical scars or injuries from our work; we just beat them lightly. If we do it this way, the police don't have a problem."
South Africa has a long and complex history of corporal punishment, from village courts overseen by chiefs and elders to the colonial and apartheid justice systems. Whipping juveniles as judicial punishment was only abolished in 1995.
In the 1980s, self-defence units (SDUs), street committees and "people's courts" all wrested control from the state and put responsibility for law and order in township residents' own hands.
"We were being attacked by the government. They could ... bomb the houses, arrest you, hit you, torture you," remembers a man named only as Simon, from Mamelodi East near Pretoria. "So we thought, how can we defend ourselves? That was the main question."
Simon helped gather information for the SDUs operating in the Pretoria townships at the time. He worked mainly at identifying apartheid spies or askaris -- who were often killed as a result. The Pretoria SDUs were also part of heavy fighting against Inkatha in the early 1990s but, by 1994, the units were disbanded.
Yet Simon was not prepared to stop fighting for his community. Although democracy was won, "our comrades were still being attacked" -- this time by criminals. He launched a kangaroo court in Attridgeville in about 1996; patrols of between 20 and 30 community members would demand that parents either hand over their wayward sons to be beaten, or leave the community.
"It was cruel, actually," Simon remembers. "Those youngsters, we were beating them using malamolela: picks."
One such incident put a boy in hospital for 18 months. His family complained to the police; a case was opened but withdrawn after the family was threatened. Simon left the area -- only to find "more crime" in Mamelodi.
Within a short time, a crime-busting group of parents began meeting daily. They were responsible for "hunting" down a gang called Tupac; taxi drivers lent them cars and funds. Their influence stretched across the area -- until they became too famous. Questions were raised in Parliament; arrests were made.
"I am proud of what we did," says Simon defiantly. "Let me tell you, at that time, you could walk in Mamelodi at all hours. The police were no good, we had no trust in them."
The perception that the criminal justice system was ineffective also stoked the growth of South Africa's largest vigilante group, Mapogo A Mathamaga. Initially confined to Limpopo, by 2001 the group was said to have between 50000 and 70000 paying members and was notorious for harsh corporal punishment. Its website still states that criminals are dealt with "the real African way".
Police and prosecutors tried to crack down on Mapogo's activities, but in-fighting probably contributed more to its decline. Mapogo president Monhle John Magolego says most of the 70 branches have closed (although he plans to expand again).
It is clear that residents sometimes approve of the violence meted out by vigilantes. Told about a case in which a 14-year-old was beaten to death after robbing some girls, 59-year-old Julia Tela, of Nyanga East, Cape Town, says: "I don't find it strange that the boy had to die. If he was doing bad things to the community, then he had a right to be killed. We will support people who try to stop crime."
Henrietta Busakwe, 39, also from Nyanga East, is nostalgic for the days when groups of taxi drivers punished thieves.
"When the local taxi drivers used to target youngsters, things were much better because they didn't beat them in order to kill them," Busakwe says. "They only punished them. And they were not afraid of the youth.
"The taxi drivers were very, very good at what they did. They outnumbered the police, and they could go anywhere. They were also quick, while you wait forever for the police."
Although township residents do complain about police service, these days the SAPS is rarely seen as the enemy. In some areas, residents -- including members of old street committees and SDUs -- work closely with the police in community policing forums (CPFs) and sector crime forums (SCFs).
Bafana Dlamini, 48, is the chairman of the Tembisa CPF, which has 55 members who patrol the township with police. They have an office in the heart of the police station, a busy room with an interminable queue outside.
Every day, letters are sent to community members who have been accused of anything from not paying rent to misuse of burial society funds. The letters are far from threatening. Each begins with the words: "You are kindly requested to report to the Tembisa."
"If we get [an accused person] here, it's not so easy for him to get out!" laughs Dlamini. "We tell him if he does not co-operate, we'll send the case to the police and he could go to jail. If he does not come to the appointment, we send a police van to fetch him."
The CPF resolves disputes over love affairs or family quarrels through patient negotiation with those involved. Members speak to schools about drugs and guns, and educate the community about the consequences of taking the law into their own hands. As a result, Dlamini says there are no organised vigilante groups in the area.
The Tembisa CPF also retrieves stolen property and deals with teenagers who are causing their families problems or playing truant. The forum always investigates allegations before bringing a suspect to the office -- something that can't be done unless a complaint has been laid. But it seems the veneer of politeness can crack.
"Sometimes parents bring their children here," says Dlamini. "We give him a good lesson and make sure that when the child comes out, the parents will be satisfied ... If a youth is rude, we will discipline him."
Yet Dlamini says the CPF cannot use force. "We persuade people to tell the truth. We don't talk politely, saying, "Please sir, show me the gun, I'll pray for you.' We say: "We will beat you! Where's that gun, you bastard!' Some give us the thing we need."
For all their enthusiasm, CPFs are staffed by volunteers and have limited resources. They must often patrol with police, as they have no vehicles and no weapons. "The SCF/CPF members are not paid, so sometimes they are lazy to go out to patrol and other times they are scared," says a Tembisa resident. "They're not armed. How can you [confront] a gunman without a gun?"
Until crime is better controlled, some residents will remain sympathetic to those who take the law into their own hands.
The scale of the problem is obvious from a remark by an elderly Tembisa resident. "During the day it is safe here," she says. "But we don't come out at night. Why? We'll be killed."
This article, the last in a series of three, was made possible by a two-month media fellowship granted by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa.
THE ARCHIVE index
www.corpun.com Main menu page
Copyright © C. Farrell 2007
Page created May 2007