Johannesburg - Gory images of the remains of eight men lying with their hands tied behind their backs with rope while their bodies are charred beyond recognition have once more highlighted the horrors of vigilantism or mob justice in some townships and informal settlements.
The eight victims found in an open field in Honeydew informal settlement, known as Zandspruit, Joburg this week will drastically increase the 903 number of people already murdered as a result of vigilantism in the last year in South Africa, according to the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) figures supplied by the head of justice and violence Gareth Newham.
Witnesses have alleged that some members of the community rounded up suspects by beating one after another and forcing them to point out their fellow gang members. The men were then frogmarched to the open field where one resident described a heart-wrenching scene where they were beaten up with everything at the hands of the mob, including stones, sjamboks and hacked with axes and other dangerous objects while they were lying on the ground.
“It was horrible. They were bleeding and screaming for help while being dragged to the soccer field. The group was actually looking for 12 boys, three of whom managed to escape,” said a man who seemed unaffected by what he saw.
In the aftermath of the rage and mob justice, eight men succumbed to the injuries – four at the scene while another four died in hospital. The survivor is alleged to have been saved after pleading for his hands to be cut rather, is fighting for his life after he suffered burns on both arms.
On Friday, when the Sunday Independent arrived at the scene where four of the victims are said to have died, we found a pair of burnt boots and a blanket – reminders of the gruesome killings earlier.
Flies were buzzing on top of what was left of human waste, burnt and formed into a crust on the ground next to the burnt boots and pieces of clothing.
One of the resident at the scene, Sphamandla Dludlu, said although he doesn’t condone what happened, these boys were very problematic. “This has been going on for a while now. There are lots of these boys, from different groups. These boys terrorised the community. My friend was killed by one of these groups called “Tripple O” in 2019,” he said.
He said one of the reasons that led to the community taking the law into their hands was the police’s lack of response to crimes.
“We report criminal activities to the police, but they sometimes tell us that there are no vehicles to attend to our complaints. Even those who killed my friend are out there enjoying their lives. We were told that an investigator who was dealing with the case has been transferred to Mpumalanga and that the dockets were missing. Now the community is fed up and opted to deal with these boys on their own,” he said.
His sentiments were echoed by Sandile Ntshingila, another resident who said the incident was caused by the failure of the police to do their job.
“Crime is rife in this area, and when we report to the police they don’t come. You can’t walk around at night and in the early hours of the morning. A week ago, a woman was robbed of her belongings on her way to the taxi rank. The police and the government have failed to deal with crime and people are now tired.”
But a man named Sylvester said the incident could have been avoided if police were responsible.
“Although I don’t promote acts of vigilantism, I think people are fed up with crime now. They felt enough was enough and that they needed to stop these boys. They found a solution to this, but a wrong one. Maybe they thought it was a good thing at that time. This wouldn’t happen if the police responded to complaints”.
However, Makitlane Lebina was outraged and said the incident should be condemned.
‘What happened on Wednesday is disgusting and should be condemned. No one deserves such brutal and horrible death,” he said.
The mother of one of the victims Jeminah Tshabalala said it was painful that her son, Lucky (32), was killed in such a gruesome manner.
“I received a call that my son has been attacked by a mob. When I got there, I was told that my son was dead at the scene. I was hurt. This is very painful. Although he was addicted to drugs, my son was a very good person and wanted to take care of his family. I never thought he would die like this. At least they should have called the parents and police. I am still asking myself why my son was killed,” said the 55-year-old.
“Seeing my brother (Abel Seape) at the morgue was painful. I know his friends were into drugs, but I was not aware if he was also addicted,” said another victim’s sibling.
On Friday, Gauteng police spokesperson Kay Makhubele said three more suspects were arrested for the murders, bringing the number to six.
Yesterday, Police Minister Bheki Cele addressed the community, where he admitted that the police in the area were not doing their jobs properly.
Cele admitted to those gathered at scene of the crime – the soccer field - to listen to him that there were about 500 reported cases of robberies, theft, rape and drug-dealing in the area that the police have failed to solve.
He also promised the residents that he will be dealing with police corruption first and may remove some police in the process while urging them to come forward in a week or so to re-open the charges.
According to Newham, the scourge of vigilantism occurs where there are ambitious local leaders who need to assert their authority in the community. He said these leaders believe that this can be achieved through dealing with those seen as responsible for local crime problems through vigilante action.
“Often in these communities, there are low levels of trust in the police and a sense the police do not effectively serve their safety needs. This can be because the local police are under-resourced and cannot adequately respond to the local crime challenges.
“Or there may be corrupt police officials who take bribes from criminal elements, particularly those involved in illicit activities such illegal gambling, sale of alcohol or drugs. Or, the police may be seen as disinterested in servicing the community when they report crimes”.