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Meanings of vigilante violence in

post-Apartheid South Africa


Devi Pillay for Violence, Trauma and Memory, Fall 2013

Vigilantism is a problem of particular relevance to South Africa. It has undergone


a transformation on meaning in the last few decades, moving from a uniquely
political understanding to a more complex and ambiguous interpretation. I will
argue that the two different understandings of vigilantism share an underlying
logic, which I have grouped into four areas:
a.
b.
c.
d.

Everyday policing
Tradition
Normalisation of violence
Social control

I will analyse vigilantism across these four dimensions, with the aim of
constructing a clear idea of why these episodes of vigilante justice take place. I
will focus on how the base logic of iviglatnism remains the same even as it
undergoes a vast change of meaning/understanding. Finally, I will apply these
four dimensions of understanding to the particular case of necklacing in South
Africa.

What is vigilantism?
Vigilantism also takes many forms. The most common is an act of spontaneous
mob justice. Other forms of vigilantism include organised vigilante groups such
as PAGAD (People Against Gangsterism And Drugs), peoples courts, gang-run
community policing efforts, and even incidents where people demand the

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handover of violent criminals from police custody to the community for mob
justice, such as in Diepsloot in October this year.
Harris (2001) in a report on vigilante violence between 1980 and 2000, based on
interview and media material, concludes the following:
This study finds that vigilante methods across the two-decade period have remained
fairly stable and that they generally share the following qualities:

They are public in nature;


Violence, or the threat of violence, is pervasive;
They serve a warning as well as punishing function;
They generate fear and control through repression;
They are premised on a model of instant, retributive justice;
Vigilante methods are motivated or caused by various reasons (which have
changed across the time period).

History of vigilantism
The history of vigilantism can be traced back to early colonialism, when local
methods of justice and the new, imposed paradigm of colonial law and order
came into conflict. Vigilantism in South Africa only gained special significance
during the political violence of the 1980s. Martin explains (emphasis mine):
During that period, deep and fatal divisions emerged within the black community
between those attempting to undermine the apartheid regime and those opposed
to political change. The latter group consisted of those groups within black society
that directly benefited from white rule and who were complicit with the ruling
Afrikaner National Party. These elements were usually characterised as the older,
male patriarchy (i.e. the chiefs or elders with land and property). With political
strife fomenting across the country, these conservatives began to perceive the
younger more politically active youth as a serious threat to their property, status
and relatively privileged position within the social hierarchy. With the covert

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support of the apartheid government they began terrorising leaders of black


resistance.

This practice the terrorising, assault and murder of black

resistance leaders and their supporters became known as vigilantism.


It was explicitly conservative in nature, and the term in South Africa at that time
became exclusively associated with this practice. (Martin, 2009, p. 143)

It was a period of widespread, brutal violence. It is important to note that this


form of vigilante violence was often supported and even instigated by the
Apartheid government. It is also important to note that although vigilantism
and the above became synonymous, we also saw occurrences of what is more
commonly understood by that name: mob justice aimed at violent criminals or
traitors. For example, necklacing (which is discussed in more detail below),
arose as a method of mob justice against izimpimi, those who collaborated with
the Apartheid government (Ball, 1994).
In post-Apartheid South Africa, vigilantism once again significantly changed in
meaning. It lost its political connotation almost entirely, and became about the
conflict between communities, criminals and the justice system. Vigilante
violence was no longer political, but about a response to crime by a community
with no other mechanisms for redress (Harris, 2001).
I will argue that there vastly different meanings of vigilante justice share the
same logic of action, merely transplanted into two different contexts.

i.

Everyday policing

In the post-1994 period vigilantism can be explained largely in terms of high


crime levels, public perceptions that government is unable to respond, the poor

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delivery of services associated with safety and the inaccessibility of justice to


most South Africans. (Sekhonyane & Louw, 2002, p. 8)

The most common analysis of vigilante justice in South Africa is that it exists as a
replacement for an absent or mistrusted state. Crime and particularly violent
crime have become important points of public focus in post-Apartheid South
Africa; we have some of the highest violent crime rates in the world. Most of this
violence is concentrated in low-income areas (Institute for Security Studies,
2013). Furthermore, public perception studies indicate that most South Africans
feel unsafe, and there is a particular sensationalist focus of the media of
incidences of violent crime (Thomas, 2012; Sekhonyane & Louw, 2002).
Violence is a prevalent problem for the most vulnerable in society. We will later
examine the structure of violence in South Africa; what is important here is that
it is percieved as a constant and significant threat.
Many studies (Thomas, 2012; Dixon & Johns, 2001; Harris, 2001) point to the
combination of high violence and low police action as a major instigating factor
for vigilante justice. The police and the crmininal justice system are seen by the
general public as incompetent and often criminal and harmful themselves
(ranging from corruption to police brutality to the involvement of police officers
in a wide range of criminal activity). There are high levels of public distrust in the
police and many citizens would not even report a violent crime to the police.
(Harris, 2001, pp. 27-29; Thomas, 2012, pp.20).
Fieldwork based research such as Harris (2001) and multiple other CSVR reports
show that vigilante justice arises as a means to fill the policing gap left by what
is considered an incompetent and illegitimate police force. Moreover, it is not just

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the police force that has low buy-in from the citizenry. The criminal justice is
notoriously inefficient, corrupt and slow (Sekhonyane & Louw, 2002). It is also
largely inaccesible for those in rural areas and low income urban townships.
Legal fees are signifcant barriers for most, and the geographic spread of South
Africa makes if difficult for many to even go to a courthouse. The bureaucracy
and processes involved are also often poorly understood and difficult to engage
with (Harris, 2001).
Vigilantes are commonly described as taking the law into their own hands and
administering justice where the state does not provide. Most vigilante incidents
are triggered by specific events, although the more oganised groups such as
PAGAD dont fit that pattern quite so neatly.
However the lack of state security is not enough of an answer to our research
question. There is an important need safety and justice that society requires,
but that does not necessitate the particular outcome of violent vigilantism. We
need to further investigate the structure of violence that South Africans exist in,
and how that gives way to vigilante justice.

ii.

Tradition

A rarely discussed perspective is that of cultural tradition. From Harris (2001):


Various respondents contest South Africa's human rights framework on the basis
of 'culture' and 'custom'. They present corporal punishment as an 'indigenous'
and fundamentally 'African' practice of justice. Here, 'tradition' is set up in
opposition to a 'western' system, resulting in an 'old' way of life gaining privilege
and authentication over the 'new' way.

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This refers to traditions of peer justice and corporal punishment prevalent in all
tribes in South Africa. These traditions which give agency to the community
and do not share the same frustrations of the formalised criminal justice
systems, such as long waiting times, bureaucracy, inefficiency etc. are
frequently held as they only way communities can achieve meaningful recourse.
Certain vigilante groups expressly draw on this cultural aspect to justify their
action:
'This is the African way of stopping crime. The criminal must lie on the ground,
and we must work on his buttocks and put him right' Monhle Magolego,
president of the vigilante group Mapogo a Mathamaga. (Mail & Guardian, 23
December 1999).

Certainly, there is a cultural logic to incidents of violent justice, according to Ball


(1994). Community justice is an important ideal in most Southern African tribes.
In another example, necklacing (which is further discussed below) has very
specific ties to ancient witch-burning practices. However, this is certainly not a
concrete understanding of African justice, which is dynamic and diversely
understood. Vigilantism certainly does not occur in all African societies.

iii.

Structural violence

South Africa has been long enmeshed in social violence and disruptions to the
social order. Non-white South Africans, since colonisation but particularly since
the advent of Apartheid in 1948, were violently and systematically oppressed by
the white minority government. They were forcibly moved, subject to unequal
and harmful laws, and were rarely afforded justice. Various resistance groups

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engaged in armed struggle against the state, most notably Umkhonto weSizwe,
the armed wing of the ANC.
The 80s and 90s saw a bubbling over of social unrest into civil society, with
large scale, widespread violent protests and riots. The call to make the country
ungovernable was one that reached all corners of the country, but was
particularly realised in large, poor black urban areas townships such as Soweto
and Alexandra, which happen to be some of the major sites of vigilante justice
today.
South Africa is often characterised as having a culture of violence. The
normalisation of violence is far from a clich. South Africa has very high levels of
acquaintance violence and other violent interactions in otherwise non-violent
situations. The CSVR was contracted in 2007 to investigate the causes of
structural justice in South Africa. The CSVR defines normalisation as a cultural
situation where violence is regarded as a viable and legitimate way of resolving
problems and asserting or protecting ones interests (Centre for the Study of
Violence and Reconciliation, 2008).
The high levels of violence may also be said to contribute to a type of collective
cumulative trauma. Many people have been exposed to violence in their domestic
or community environments, have been victims of violence, or themselves have
been involved in perpetrating acts of violence. The overall impact of this is that
people feel overwhelmed by violence, and resigned to its inevitability, and find it
difficult to remember or imagine a state of being that is not characterised by fear
and violence. (Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, 2008, p. 171)
For instance, children who grow up in families characterised by violence not only
internalise the acceptability of violence, but are likely to internalise the verbal

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and emotional style of interaction that characterises these families. (Centre for
the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, 2008, p. 188)

This understanding is that violence is mimetic and breeds more violence. The
severe exposure of South Africans to widespread and often excessive violence
could lead to a naturalisation of violent response; it becomes culturally learned.
In the struggle years, it is easy to buy that violence was a normal and instinctive
behavioural response to betrayal and corruption. Those who participated in the
political violence were themselves exposed to violence on a daily basis. They
also had no other mechanisms for recourse and problem solving: the armed
struggle had legitimated violent conflict as the only way forward in a state that
supressed all other avenues.
Why, then, does vigilantism continue so be so violent in nature after the
cessation of state-on-citizen violence and the violently oppressive regime? The
first answer is that many grew up in and lives through the unrest of the 1980s,
and violence continues to be a culturally default mode of response. The second
answer is that despite the advent of democracy, many even most people
continue to be exposed to high levels of mental, physical and symbolic violence,
and other means of recourse remain unavailable to them. The third answer is
that the violence of the past has traumatised the South African society, which is
now predisposed to violent response as a consequence.
While this certainly isnt the only element required to explain why these incidents
happen in the way they do, this does give us some insight as to why violence
appears to be a viable solution to social problems.

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iv.

Social control and necklacing

Although vigilante violence can take many forms, and often resorts to plain,
brute force, a particularly South African method of retributive violence is called
necklacing. Necklacing involves placing a petrol-filled tire over a persons neck,
pouring gasoline over the head and setting it ablaze. It was a very gruesome
method of killing, and one that is used almost exclusively as a form of extra-legal
punishment against social deviants, particularly those who are traitorous and
corrupt. It became famous during the anti-apartheid struggle as a means of mob
justice

against

izimpimpi

(informers,

government

collaborators

and

counterrevolutionaries). It certainly became political at the height of the 80s


unrest, but it was always a mechanism of social control and not necessarily
political.
Necklacing is loud, flashy, and it is a group action. Necklacing never takes place
quietly, among two angry men. It is definitively a product of mob anger and
crowds baying for blood. Necklacing doesnt require expensive or exclusionary
tools, not does it require any skill or finesse beyond brute group strength. It is
very, very publically painful, something usually exponentially expounded upon
by the media.
It is also an act of a crowd. Nomoyi and Schurink (1998) find that many are
unwilling to participate in the act for fear of reprisal, but are willing to provide
the materials and preparations necessary for the necklace.
Necklacing is a public act, one rife with symbolic meaning and one specifically
meant to send a message. Ball (1994) traces the history of necklacing and aims
to find out why necklacing as a particular method of violent justice had resurged

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in the 1970s. She traces the cultural logic of witch-burnings in ancient Bantu
cultures, and analyses the act of necklacing using the framework of ritual. She
finds that the burning element of necklacing is the dominant aspect, and that it
has significant symbolic value: burning cleanses, cleans and destroys utterly.
Ball suggests that necklacing comes from very old rituals of punishment-byburning, and operates across all time spheres as a mechanism to discipline social
deviants and enforce social control in times of rapid changes and socioeconomic
upheaval. Nomoyi and Schurink (1994) suggest that necklacing simultaneously
brought black youths together during the liberation struggle and diminished the
quality of life within their communities (through trauma, fear and suspicion). It
mobilised and united the perpetrators while harming their societies.
Balls analysis then provides a useful framework for understanding why
necklacing tends to suddenly resurge. It became popular during the worst unrest
of the anti-apartheid struggle. It then gained popularity again in the early 1990s
during South Africas transition to a democracy rife with an entirely new set of
problems. Although the victims of the necklacing changes (from traitors and
white collaborators to criminals and gangsters), the basic logic behind the act
remains the same: to violently and performatively cleanse the social community
from those who threaten its solidarity.

Discussion and conclusion


Before the advent of democracy in South Africa, vigilantism was an exclusively
political act. In the common use of the word, vigilante justice was violence aimed
at black resistance leaders who were perceived to be endangering the

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community. Even though it was not called vigilantism, we also saw the opposite:
izimpimpi, traitors, being violently killed or expelled from their communities.
Post-Apartheid, vigilantism has almost entirely shed its political connotations.
Vigilante justice now refers to the extra-legal, violent punishment of criminals.
However, the change in meaning over time has done little to shake the
foundations of vigilante action, which I argue can be analysed along four
dimensions.
Everyday policing
The most common explanation is a good one, if not universal. The areas that
experience the most vigilante action are the same areas that are the most
vulnerable to violent crime and cannot access recourse.
During the Apartheid years, the threat of violence and instability was expressly
and explicitly political, and thus the body politic was the site of violence.
Members of a community initiated violence towards those perceived as political
figures attracting conflict. Post-1994, the threat is ever present but far more
nebulous: crime, corruption, poverty, alcohol and drug addictions, HIV/AIDS and
more. This may explain the shift from a political understanding of vigilantism to a
broader interpretation that focuses on safety and justice. It can also explain why
vigilante justice post-1994 is more spontaneous, spread out and less focused.
Vigilantism is a response, not an action that occurs in isolation, and it is a
response to the threat of harm within a community.
So the threat of harm is there to trigger a response. But why this response? In
both time periods the people most vulnerable to harm were the same people
who could not achieve recourse through any other means. Under Apartheid, non-

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white South Africans were explicitly denied access to law, order and justice.
(Remember that the Apartheid government expressly encouraged vigilantism
and internal political violence in black communities). In democratic South Africa,
many lack the financial resources required to seek recourse. Police and public
lawyers are poor, often incompetent and often corrupt. Even those that arent
are perceived that way by the general public (Centre for the Study of Violence
and Reconciliation, 2008). The system is large, bureaucratic and difficult to
understand. It remains are difficult as ever for people to achieve safety and
justice through the state.
In both meanings of vigilantism the core concepts are the same: there is a threat
of harm, and there is a lack of institutional support for solving this harm. Both
understandings of vigilantism refer to everyday policing of a sort.
Tradition
Tradition is frequently used to explain and excuse vigilante actions. References to
African justice and our way of doing things are common. This area of analysis
is vague, as interpretations of African culture are diverse and plural, and there
are just as many traditional leaders who condemn extra-legal punishment as
those who condemn it. Ball (1994) traces the development of necklacing and
burning as ritual and finds strong evidence of its place in tradition. At the same
time, various tribal courts still exist, and other mechanisms for traditional
justice remain and are firmly supported by the state. Tradition is not enough of
an explanation, although it does give us some more nuance to our understanding
of vigilantism.

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Nevertheless, across both time periods there is a feeling of ownership over


vigilantism: it is justice that is ours, and not theirs. Under Apartheid, their
justice was the illegitimate and unjust state machinery. Under democracy, their
justice is a white, liberal bureaucracy that doesnt seem to be making life better
for people on the ground. Perhaps by claiming vigilantism as culture and
tradition, people are attempting to differentiate between legitimate and
illegitimate systems of government.
Normalisation of violence
The idea of a cultural of violence in South Africa is one readily accepted by the
mainstream, as it is hard to deny the evidence. South Africa is a society that
almost always defaults to violence, be it in labour strikes, football matches,
usually non-violent crimes and more. The rates and degrees of violent crime in
South Africa are notoriously high. Various academic institutions, foremost among
them the CSVR, have traced the development of the culture of violent in South
Africa. (Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, 2008).
The normalisation of violent response in South Africa can help us explain why
vigilante justice is so often so terribly violent, and why mob violence is more
often the response than, for example, organised protection and security. Violence
in South Africa is a conditioned, emotional response, and it is one created by a
long history of trauma (Martin, 2009). This gives us a framework that is useful for
understanding the prevalence of violence even among usually law-abiding
citizens.
Social control

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As Ball (1994) showed in her study of necklacing, and as numerous others (Dixon
& Johns, 2001; Harris, 2001; Nomoyi & Schurink, 1998; Sekhonyane & Louw,
2002) have touched on, vigilante violence can be interpreted as a method of
social control. Under this explanation, it is not necessarily the threat of physical
harm that inspires vigilantism, but the threat of harm to the solidarity and fabric
of the community. Vigilantism is then a mechanism of discipline used to either
force social deviants back in line or to expel social deviants from the community.
This is perfectly in line with the pre-1994 political nature of vigilantism, where
the social deviants were those challenging the status quo and causing unrest.
This also makes sense under the post-1994 understanding: now social deviants
are criminals who target their own communities, but also foreigners, lesbians,
and other non-conforming members of society.
Conclusion
Although the meaning of vigilantism has changed significantly since the
transformation to democracy in 1994, the core causes of vigilante actions remain
the same. Vigilantism is a conditioned, violent response to physical and social
harms that arises from a lack of other avenues of recourse.

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