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Setback for safety

Tuesday, April 3rd 2012

According to 2011 police statistics, of the 46 daily murders in South Africa 5% are the result of vigilante killings.  While there are many more structures in place to deal with community safety, explains GreaterCapital evaluator, Mandisa Banjwa, crime remains a significant problem. So much so that communities are increasingly turning to mob justice, with devastating consequences.

Safety and security in townships was for a long time mostly ignored by the state. In post-apartheid South Africa, it has developed into a concoction of state intervention and civic involvement. Structures such as neighbourhood watches, street committees and Community Police Forums have been established to make people safer[1].But even with these structures in place, crime remains a problem. A high unemployment rate, lack of confidence in police and an inefficient justice system contributes to citizens feeling vulnerable to criminals and desperate to make their neighbourhoods secure by themselves.

Acquiring justice
The haves employ the services of private security while the have-nots use other means of “protecting” themselves from crime and “acquiring justice”, the most extreme form of this being mob justice[2]. This phenomenon has recently been on the rise in townships across the country, with vigilante groups using violent methods (which almost always result in fatalities) to punish those who have been found guilty in kangaroo courts[3]. According to 2011 police statistics, of the 46 daily murders in South Africa 5% are the result of vigilante killings[4].

The victims of mob justice are commonly male youths who have been accused of housebreaking, theft and robbery. Recently in Khayelitsha three young men, after being severely beaten, were necklaced with rubber tyres and set alight. These young men were found guilty in a kangaroo court of stealing a generator[5].

The alarming reality is that many township dwellers, including those that do not physically partake in mob justice, are supportive of the vigilante behaviour. One of the residents in the Khayelitsha incident expressed that “Any criminal the community gets its hands on will pay. We won’t sit around while the law does nothing”[6].

Statements such as the one quoted above show people’s frustration and the feeling of being failed by the justice system. These feelings are not unfounded. The South Africa’s Police Services 2010/2011 annual report showed that the percentage of court ready case dockets was 30%. This means that 70% of cases were not referred to court and there are still many criminals walking the streets.

People’s perception of the South African Police Service is also a worry. Although most people say they are satisfied with police services in their area, 35% are not. Of those unsatisfied with the SAPS, their leading reason was that police did not respond in time (68%) followed by the perception that police officers are lazy (56%). Other reasons for the lack of faith in the SAPS were the perception that they are corrupt (46%) and that they release criminals early (41%)[7].

Conviction rates
Another cause for concern is detection and conviction rates. Crime statistics show that robbery with aggravating circumstances, burglary at residential premises and theft are among the top five most common crimes in townships[8]. The 2010/2011 SAPS annual reportindicates that detection rates for aggravated robbery are at 16% and the conviction rate at 11%. Burglary at residential premises detection rate is at 19% and the theft detection rate at 31%. These lowly rates demonstrate the urgent need for improvements in the collection and analysis of evidence by the SAPS.

Not tough enough
According to a survey conducted by StatsSA in 2010, South Africans feel that the country’s laws and sentencing are not tough enough on perpetrators. In all but two provinces, people felt that the way in which the courts generally dealt with perpetrators was too lenient[9].

It is never justifiable for any citizen to take the law into their own hands but it is obvious that when the marginalised perceive the courts and police to be unsuccessful in ensuring their safety, they tend to employ people’s justice.

Respect for law
However, enforcers of mob justice fail to appreciate that in the eyes of the law they too are not all that different from the criminals they punish, as both parties fail to respect the law. The sad reality is that in their search for safety and security, formerly law-abiding citizens engage in vigilante activity becoming as ruthless as the thieves and murders that they seek to punish.


“Non-State Justice in the Post Apartheid South Africa- A Scan of Khayelitsha” by Boyane Tshehla, 2002

[2]Violent Justice; Vigilantism and the State's Response by Makubetse Sekhonyane & Antoinette Louw 2002

[3]Violent Justice; Vigilantism and the State's Response by Makubetse Sekhonyane & Antoinette Louw 2002

[5]“Angry residents support killings” available online  at

[6]“Angry residents support killings” available online  at

[7]“Victims of crime survey 2011” by Statistics South Africa

[8]Crime Stats April 2010 - March 2011 available online at

[9]“Victims of crime survey 2011” by Statistics South Africa