For residents of Plot 52 in the Zandspruit informal settlement and South Africa at large, the morning of May 19 2021 will not be soon forgotten.
Right in front of children and community members, old and young, community members decided to take the law into their own hands, triggering a series of events and actions that cannot be reversed. Law-abiding citizens became criminals on that day. The innocence of children was taken away – what they saw was traumatic and will stay with them for long time.
The gruesome murder of five young men by angry community members, at a local sports ground, the stripping naked a group of nine young men, dousing them with petrol, necklacing them with tyres and setting them alight, evokes memories of the apartheid-era style of dealing with impimpis.
One thing is certain, the horrific events have traumatised the families and relatives of the deceased; community members who witnessed it and society at large, who learnt about it through the media.
As gruesome as this incident was, sadly, vigilantism or mob justice is not a new phenomenon. Research by the Institute for Security Studies in 2019 shows that at least two people die as a result of mob violence or vigilante group attacks per day. The South African Police Service's analysis of the 2019/2020 crime statistics indicates that at least 1 202 of the 21 325 murders recorded were linked to mob justice, and the figures are expected to be much higher given that police do not establish motives in all murder cases.
The Zandspruit incident, 26 years into South Africa's democracy, forces us to take a step back and ask the difficult questions. We should ask at this point, what would compel law abiding citizens to commit crime – not just any crime but such violent and barbaric crime? What drives this violence in our communities and most importantly what needs to be done to address mob justice?
Research by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) shows that violence does not occur in a vacuum, in most instances, community members would have tried more peaceful ways of addressing the issues and problems prevalent in their communities and it is when the police and those in authority do nothing to address the community grievances that communities resort to violence, taking the law into their own hands to deal with their own problems.
In the Zandspruit case, community members have spoken out, saying that they have reported crime in their informal settlement and pointed out the criminals to the police but police took no action.
Questions arise in the wake of mob justice killings when innocent, law-abiding citizens become criminals overnight, committing the ghastliest acts. What compels non-violent, law-abiding citizens into committing such violent crimes?
In the "Smoke that Calls" report published by CSVR in 2011, research findings went into the psyche of collective violence, where mob psychology, safety in numbers of community members and peer anger emboldens law abiding citizens who would normally not resort to committing crime as individuals, to doing the unthinkable and committing the most gruesome murders.
Normalisation of violence in our society is another factor, one that constitutes a faultline in South Africa's democracy and peaceful transition. Violence is a language that communities resort to, the default setting that we seem to go back to when more peaceful ways to resolve issues using more peaceful channels fail. In the Smoke that calls report, community members interviewed in the eight communities revealed that "violence", the burning of tyres and property and other violent acts become the "smoke that calls" leaders, authorities and those in power into taking action and hearing the community grievances and frustrations.
This normalisation of violence explains how violence and such gruesome killings no longer conjure strong emotional reactions from community members who witness such acts. When community members make jokes on the scene of such horrific crimes and are unfazed, carrying on with their normal routines afterwards as if nothing happened – this is an indicator that violence has indeed become so entrenched and normalised as a way of resolving issues and conflicts in our personal relationships, and as language that can be easily passed on to the next generation, if the cycle of violence is not broken.
While a number of issues have been brought to the fore in the wake of the Zandspruit mob killings – such as the failures of the criminal justice system, the lack of trust and confidence in the police and those in authority by community members – with the latter being supported by the 2018 Afrobarometer survey that revealed that 66% of the people in South Africa do not trust the police and the courts, the psyche of our society and its relationship with violent past which is still very much present, requires a deeper discussion.
Violent killings and mob justice are a symptom of much bigger societal problems that point to the psyche of our society. They are an indication and an eruption of unresolved issues from our traumatic past that we have left unaddressed for far too long.
The unresolved trauma of the past is at the root of the rage and violence that manifests as part of our responses when we have been wronged. When our souls and spirits are broken as a society, it reflects in how we deal with issues and violence is a manifestation of this brokenness and the consequent rage and anger that spills out when we have been wronged. The default language of violence and the gruesome nature of this violence that communities resort to as their last option in dealing with problems, crime and criminality is a response to issues and challenges in our present day.
The work of CSVR shows that merely addressing the issue of vigilantism through strengthening the criminal justice system and arresting those who commit these acts in communities is merely dealing with the symptoms of the problem. There is a need to address the normalisation of violence and South Africa's collective trauma stemming from its violent past, through addressing the unresolved legacies of the past and how this has affected individuals, community members and society at large.
This op-ed was first published by IOL.