Making of a mob: where justice just ‘isn’t black and white’
Vigilante group can boast the murder rate has dropped since it started in 2015, but its methods don't sit well with some
“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” cries a man lying on the ground, surrounded by a menacing group of people in high-visibility jackets and a crowd of jeering residents.
The man has been found carrying a knife in Galeshewe township in Kimberley. For his pains, the men confiscate his weapon, whip him twice across the buttocks with a sjambok, then send him on his way.
This is a scene from a new documentary, The Reluctant Vigilante, which explores the compelling story of Galeshewe’s homegrown vigilante justice group, Operation Wanya Tsotsi.
The film, made for Al Jazeera’s Witness series, also shines a light on SA’s crime epidemic and the lengths to which people will go to obtain justice when they believe the state has failed them.
Prefaced with a warning of graphic violence and drug use, the 25-minute documentary by Cape Town’s Christopher Clark and Shaun Swingler features footage of group on the lookout for perpetrators who, once caught, are subjected to Wanya Tsotsi’s “DIY corporal punishment”.
In the documentary, group leader Pansi Obutitse cites a lack of police intervention and dwindling support from the government as his motivation. “I’m of the view that the only time that human beings change their behaviour is if there is a threat of pain,” he says, sitting at his desk in the Northern Cape education department, where he is a labour relations officer.
According to Clark, the group is revered by residents for its “mainly altruistic” efforts. “Some are farmworkers and students, some are unemployed, there’s a pastor involved ... ”
The latest crime statistics show vigilantism is rocketing, with about 849 people killed in cases police classify as mob justice in 2017/18. Clark notes that increasing numbers of South Africans, from all socio-economic backgrounds, are taking it upon themselves to use violence to protect themselves and their communities from criminals.
“It’s important to look at something like Wanya Tsotsi and think about where they sit in that spectrum. Yes, there are aspects that are ethically dubious, but it forces us to think about what self-policing looks like,” he said.
Since Wanya Tsotsi started in 2015, the murder and aggravated assault rate in Galeshewe has fallen by around 40%. “Bearing in mind the recent crime statistics, that’s a very compelling anomaly,” he said, adding that the matric pass rate in the area had increased significantly at the same time.
Having seen violence perpetrated by neighbourhood watch groups in affluent white neighbourhoods, Clark said there was a stereotypical attitude towards racial justice.
“Many people are of the opinion that black people only know violence [when it comes to fighting crime], but it transcends race.”
Swinger said vigilantism said a lot about service delivery by the state, as well as the desire for justice. “The opportunity for instant justice was so powerful and was far more appealing [to the community] than any state mechanisms,” he said. “So much of this proliferation of vigilantism has to do with the perception of a failing state.”
A police officer interviewed in the documentary admits there is a “national problem with policing” and that the police and Wanya Tsotsi “share the same enemy: crime”. But he disagrees with their methods.
“No one deserves to be assaulted, [not even criminals],” he says.
Despite spending a great deal of time in Galeshewe, Clark said he remained ambivalent about the group’s ethics. “Shaun and I still talk about this,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for what they’re trying to do, respect for their motivations, but sometimes you do see things that make me feel uncomfortable and which I can’t condone. At the same time I’m aware that I couldn’t possibly know what it’s like to grow up in a place like that.
“The more time we spent there, the more you start to understand the frustrations. That’s why I find it such a compelling story. Many of us have very black and white concepts of justice and violence, what we can and can’t condone, and this [documentary] really muddies the waters around right and wrong, informal and formal justice. There are no easy answers.
“Whatever you might think of the methods, I feel that the intention is in the right place.”