In September last year, 14-year-old Amani Pula, a promising student at the Imhoff Waldorf school, was murdered at his family home in Masiphumelele (Masi), a small township nestled between the coastal neighbourhoods of Noordhoek and Kommetjie in the Western Cape. It is alleged that he was raped.
Amani’s brutal murder set into motion a series of retaliatory mob killings and protests in the South Peninsula community. In one incident, Masi residents hunted down Skhumbuzo Gqamana (32), who had been identified as one of Amani’s killers. However, instead of handing him over to the authorities, community members necklaced him in public and pummelled him with bricks as he burned to death.
“He was guilty,” says Ntombi*, a Masi resident and single mother of two. “He admitted he held the boy down to be raped, but said that he didn’t rape the boy.”
Poor policing to blame
At the time, residents said that it was inefficient policing that drove the community to mob justice. “The crime is too much,” Ntombi says, citing the community’s ongoing fight against drugs as a key example of poor policing in the area. “Masi was nice before, but tik has become our biggest problem. These drugs are pushed onto our children when we’re away at work.”
She adds that the community as a whole has no faith in the police’s ability to effectively control crime.
“We reported everything to the police station, the drug and tsotsi problem, but they didn’t do anything. They searched for drugs but didn’t find anything. So the community took over and found the drugs. And the community took over and found the murderers.”
Pierre du Toit, an associate at Johannesburg-based law firm Hooyberg Attorneys, says it is a sad reality that the SAPS is often overloaded.
“Investigations take weeks, if not months, and only years thereafter that a conviction can be handed down with sentence. Because of this, the retribution, or sense of community vengeance, is only experienced much later, giving rise to frustration and motivating the desire for an immediate result.”
For Ntombi, the immediate result of the mob justice has brought a much-needed sense of peace to the township.
“Now that the skollies are gone we can go out at night and even answer our phones in the street.”
Vigilantism and the Law
According to Jonathan Burchell, author of Principles of Criminal Law (1991) mob justice consists of ”the unlawful and intentional commission by a number of people acting in concert of acts of sufficiently serious dimensions which are intended forcibly to disturb the public peace or security or to invade the rights of others.”
“We as South Africans give up our individual freedom and collectively agree to a constitutional democracy with a governing set of rules, the source of which is the Constitution,” says du Toit, adding that the assembly of mobs participating in civil disorder presents a threat to the persons of the community, whether partaking or not, as well as to the Republic of South Africa.
Cornerstone to our Constitution is the Bill of Rights. A community has the right to freedom of speech and association, but so too, does the individual have the right to be tried in an open court, without fear, favour or prejudice.
“You can’t take the law into your own hands,” says du Toit. “It is unconstitutional to rape or murder, but it is also unconstitutional to take it upon yourself to try an individual for same, and to assault his or her rights because the justice system is too slow for your liking. People are, however, feeling vulnerable.”
South Africa has seen its fair share of vigilante court cases. In the State v Dikqacwi and Others 2013 ZAWCHC 67, the seriousness of mob justice was outlined and upheld, but similarly the accused’s personal circumstances were taken into account.
Du Toit explains: “The accused did not come off lightly, so as to uphold constitutional integrity, but the rationality behind the mob justice was addressed and housed favour.”
He adds that cases like these are extremely difficult for judicial officers to deal with.
“Public vengeance must be seen to be unacceptable, but certainly any court, when determining the appropriateness of a sentence, should look at the effectiveness of the criminal justice system while deterring others from committing the same crime. The court should further consider the question of what is sufficient rehabilitation, and if it will serve and further motivate the reformation of the offender, as per the individual characteristics of the accused, and in the light of the community’s interests.”
All for one and one for all
Community activist Lubabalo Vellum (36), who had been identified as the ring leader behind the Masiphumelele vigilante attacks, was taken into custody in October and charged with murder, attempted murder, assault with intent to cause grievous bodily harm, and public violence. His arrest led to a series of mass protests in Masiphumelele, in which roads were closed to traffic and additional police deployed to the area.
“What people must understand is that we’re not just protesting for better police,” Ntombi says. “We’re protesting because if you arrest one of us, you must arrest all of us. If one is wrong for taking justice, we are all wrong. We have a history of standing together as a community, to fight fires and floods, and now crime. We’re strong. We will keep protecting each other.”
While there were reports of xenophobic attacks and further public violence, including incidents in which local businesses were vandalised and even burned, Ntombi maintains that the protests were peaceful, and that residents only became angry when the police fired rubber bullets and teargas into the crowd of over 500 people.
“Even white people supported us that day [during protests outside the Simonstown Magistrate’s Court], and the Somalis brought us food and water. This is not about xenophobia or politics. It’s not a Democratic Alliance thing or an ANC thing. It’s about crime,” she says.
Disgruntled residents have been advised to contact neighbourhood watch groups, the Community Policing forum or the Police Ombudsman’s office if they feel police are not delivering adequate service. In Masi, two mobile police stations have been earmarked to become permanent structures, with the intention to address crime and curb further acts of mob justice in the area.
Du Toit says: “Certainly, greater policing presence is essential to safeguard constitutional values in communities, as well as to provide safer environments,” but he adds that South Africa should consider the establishment of specialised courts, which would specifically deal with community pressures. “When there is a transgression that shakes a community, such a case should get preference to be brought to a result. Practically it could mean that a magistrate should receive a directive from the judge president, that a calendar day is to be allocated to community sensitive transgressions. This would feed the need of society, as well as enforce constitutional compliance.”
For now, community leaders have called for calm in Masi. It is not known whether Amani’s mother feels that justice has been served. What is known is that nothing can bring back the bright young man, whose “light,” according to the College of Teachers on the Imhoff Waldorff Facebook page “shone bright in both the classroom and on the soccer field.,”
*not her real name
At the time of going to print, community activist Lubabalo Vellum was charged with murder, attempted murder, assault with the intent to cause grievous bodily harm, and public violence. He had been granted bail and was scheduled to be heard in court in January.
According to Jonathan Burchell, one cannot take the law into one’s own hands, simply because the legislature has chosen to criminalise conduct that is shaped by the desire to protect certain values or interests that are prized in society. These interests or prized values are:
- To maintain human and civil rights
- To uphold public sensibilities
- To maintain the government of the state
- To promote the collective welfare of South Africa