JOHANNESBURG— South Africa may seem like a peaceful, democratic country, but its high rate of violent crime tells another story. Despite a crime drop since it peaked about 10 years ago, last year South Africa recorded 15,609 murders, or 43 a day. That is four and a half times the global average. The main victims are poor, black citizens whose confidence in South African police remains so low that they at times take the law into their own hands. Although there is no official statistic, mob justice is rife.
There are almost 1,200 houses in the Thabo Mbeki squatter camp, huddled together in the gentle hills that roll east of Johannesburg. The big city is a mere 30 minutes away, easily accessible from the highway that links it to the capital Pretoria. So easily, in fact, criminals can swiftly get in and out of the settlement - even though there is not much to steal here.
The local tavern, or “shebeen” as it is called here, is a simple cluster of buildings protected by high barbwire and closed off with iron gates. But that is not protection enough against the rampant crime.
Thabo Mogomele and two friends are sitting under a corrugated roof, drinking beer. Its noon, but they say there is not much else to do in a community where only a lucky few have a job. He describes a recent crime incident.
“The robbery happened when we were on the street. The mob there, they were chasing those thugs, and since we knew that they had just robbed here, we followed those thugs, and then threw some stones," Thabo noted. "Out of frustration actually because we knew it was not for the first time, it was maybe the 13th or 14th time. And then we got one of the old guys there. Unfortunately we didn't kill him, but we wanted to.”
The man had a gun, as they always do, Thabo says. But that wouldn't deter a community too fed up with robberies to sit tight until the police arrive. Thabo explains why he thinks mob justice works.
“Our kids now. A small gun, they know it can hold close to 8 bullets. If he can shoot, he will only shoot 8 people. If 100 or 200 people chase you, even if you've got an AK47, you can't just shoot, because one thing for sure, you know you are going to die,” he said.
Johan Burger, a senior researcher with the Pretoria-based Institute of Security Studies and a former policeman, says that there is no specific data on mob justice. But he says it has roots in the apartheid era that ended two decades ago.
At that time, he says, the police only focused on repressing black citizens, and didn't care about crime in their neighborhoods. Therefore, he says, they didn't have much choice but to resort to vigilante actions.
Community leader Ebrahim Nthite says blacks in Muldersdrift remain a second priority.
“In our community, in the past couple of months, we had thugs coming from other areas to make robberies here. We tried to call the police for a period of 2.5 hours, they didn't come in the area," he explained. "But in December, some people were killed in the white community. The police took 10 minutes to respond. So you see there are too differences. The service is not good; we are not happy about it.”
His friend Thulani Molefe agrees on poor police performance.
“We'll see them here within 5 minutes if it's a case of a man fighting with his woman. Then they'll come running like it's nobody's business," he said. "You see, where there is a danger, they won't come. Up until the community takes the law into their hands. That's the only solution in South Africa, because our law enforcement, they are not active. They are lazy.”
Brigadier Neville Malila, a spokesperson for provincial police, denies such accusations.
“Your status in the community does not result in preferential treatment. We treat everyone equally," Malila stated. "Irrespective of where complaints are coming from, whether they come from business areas or from communities or from informal settlements.”
Burger with the Institute of Security Studies, says public protests and vigilante actions are on the rise. Last year, police responded to about 12,000 so-called “unrest related” incidents. That is up from 8,000 seven years before.
Distrust in the police reached a new high in the country last August, when officers opened fire on a group of striking miners in Marikana, killing 34. An investigation is underway.