On the streets of Khayelitsha, criminals don’t wait for darkness to set in before they go to work, but brazenly rob residents at any time of day.
And residents, fed up of living with the burden of crime, say that even if they are arrested, many criminals resurface in the communities after a day or two.
Which is why mob justice has taken off – it is the only permanent solution, residents say.
“If someone steals something and they are arrested, they’re back on the street in two days. We don’t see any solution except for this one. If the police catch them they come back again, but if we catch them they go straight to heaven,” one resident said this week.
Another said “if we can catch one of these skollies, he can go to his or her ancestors because we will burn them to ashes”.
So far, nine people have died as a result of vigilante attacks or mob justice in Khayelitsha this year.
They were accused of attempting to steal items such as cellphones, handbags, a plasma television and a generator.
Last week, the burnt remains of Zola Msweswe were found by police in Makhaza. He had allegedly stolen a woman’s handbag and residents, woken up by the woman’s 3am screams, chased after three men.
They stoned him, covered him in plastic and paraffin and set him alight.
A second man who was also burned is believed to be in hospital and police are investigating whether he was involved in the incident.
Police spokesman Captain Frederick van Wyk said no arrests had been made. In a statement issued after the incident, police said: “Acts of vigilantism are strongly condemned by the SAPS. We will not allow the community to take the law into their own hands, and we cannot allow the public to punish suspected criminals.
“Those who are responsible for these violent crimes are criminals themselves, and will be dealt with accordingly.”
A number of the incidents have occurred in Nkanini, an area in Khayelitsha.
One resident of Makhaza said: “The people there in Nkanini don’t play around.”
Many of the residents said this week they lived in fear of crime and had already been the victims of a crime before – often more than once.
One woman who has been robbed twice said crime happened “because of poverty, unemployment, and because this place is too small for all of us”.
Her shack is one of many in a warren of tin structures that offer little in the way of security.
And a lack of infrastructure such as street lights means some areas are dark and even more unsafe at night.
Khayelitsha census data from 2001 indicated high unemployment rates of double the provincial average. In addition, over 80 percent of those who were unemployed earned less than R1 600 a month.
Another woman said there was no point in reporting robbery and theft because it was either impossible to catch the criminals after the fact or the police were unlikely to react or too slow.
All those interviewed said there was a lack of visible policing, particularly in the informal settlements, which contributed to crime.
“Sometimes they (the police) just walk around but we are still being robbed, which means they aren’t doing their jobs,” one resident said.