Bruce, D. & Komane, J. (1999). Taxis, Cops and Vigilantes: Police attitudes towards street justice. In Crime and Conflict, No. 17, Spring.


David Bruce & Joe Komane

In Crime and Conflict, No. 17, Spring 1999, pp. 39-44.

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. is a Senior Researcher in the Criminal Justice Programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.

Joe Komane is a former Research Intern at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.

Vigilantism in the post-apartheid era began to attract national media attention following the burning and killing of Cape gang leader Rashaad Staggie by the vigilante organisation People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (PAGAD) in August 1996. PAGAD represents a relatively organised type of vigilantism as does "Mapogo a Mathamaga" which has emerged in the Northern Province and Mpumalanga.

An edition of the television programme Special Assignment also depicted the operation of a "community court" run by the Eyona taxi association in Guguletu. Members of the group were shown lashing a group of alleged rapists after a woman laid a complaint with them. Apparently, similar courts also operate in the Western Cape African townships of Nyanga and Khayelitsha.

The above examples all appear to represent forms of vigilantism which are relatively organised. What has also received some coverage in the press but is less widely recognised is what appears to be a widespread phenomenon of spontaneous vigilantism or "mob justice" in response to criminal activity. Cases of this kind have been reported as occurring in a range of places but one locality where they appear to be particularly prevalent is in the area surrounding major railway stations where there are large taxi ranks (Meyer, 1998).

These are areas of convergence for large numbers of people and have also become important areas for street trading. Along with all the people and commercial activity these areas have also tended to attract a criminal element usually involved in forms of petty theft and robbery. While private security agencies have often been contracted to police railway stations, in the surrounding area what has tended to emerge are more informal mechanisms for maintaining order.

Unlike the situation in Guguletu at many of these transportation hubs vigilantism appears not to be formally organised. The role-players involved may change from incident to incident and vigilante actions seem often simply to be part of the "culture" or "way of doing things" particularly amongst members of the taxi industry as well as amongst some groups of informal traders.

In addressing issues of crime prevention at these transport hubs one of the issues that emerges is how these informal mechanisms interact with formal structures and particularly the SAPS. A particularly interesting question relates to how members of the SAPS understand and relate to these vigilante or informal policing activities. These attitudes are interesting for two reasons:

  • Since vigilantism and formal systems of policing have many objectives in common, history suggests that police may be unwilling to take action against individuals involved in acts of vigilantism;

  • The philosophy of community-oriented policing would seek to enhance community cooperation with the police and involvement in crime prevention. However when such community involvement extends to vigilante activities, this presents challenges to those who wish to promote community policing as, in terms of the law, the police are required to take action against vigilantes as vigilantism amounts to a form of criminal activity.

In order to better understand these attitudes, a series of interviews were carried out with police personnel working in the vicinity of three major transportation hubs situated in Pretoria, Durban and Cape Town. Before looking at what these attitudes are however it is worthwhile to briefly examine the recent history of vigilantism in South Africa.


Focusing on the 1970's and 1980's, it is possible to distinguish at least four forms of vigilantism in South Africa:

  • the makotla;
  • the self-defence units;
  • police vigilantism;
  • conservative vigilantism.

During the apartheid era, the black townships were under-policed. According to Scharf and Ngcokoto (1990) "with no credible formal adjudicative structures to use, Africans . . . resorted to their own informal structures . . . from 'private' police forces in the form of makgotla . . . to neighbourhood moral pressure." In Guguletu, for instance, from as early as the 1950s onwards, "groups of peace-keepers called Amasolomzi were formed to patrol the streets and apprehend trouble makers."

Similarly, tribal courts called "makgotla" existed in Soweto and many other township areas. These can be seen as a community-based response to the problem of crime, as well as representing the continuity (or re-establishment) of traditional structures of authority in black urban areas. While more spontaneous forms of "street justice" might also have occurred, these structures were relatively formalised. Where "justice" was imposed, this was largely in terms of the deliberations of these bodies.

The formation of Self Defence Units (SDUs) after 1983 can be seen as an initiative from within township communities to give a more coherent form to the activities of the youth. While the SDUs may initially have been endorsed by other popular resistance structures, once formed and legitimised they took on a life of their own. As state control over the townships collapsed, the SDUs were able to step into the gap as alternative policing structures. While they justified their existence on the grounds that communities were under attack from hostile "external" forces, they also became involved in imposing "justice" within communities.

Punishment by the SDUs was supposed to be imposed by sentence of a "people's court," but more summary forms of justice were common. In enforcing a consumer boycott in Nyanga in the Western Cape, for instance, "undisciplined youths claiming to be comrades punished transgressors summarily by forcing them to consume their illegal purchases on the spot," (Scharf and Ngcokoto, 1990). Some, particularly those identified as collaborators with the system, were dealt with by even more brutal measures. This breakdown in control over the youths fed not only vigilantism but also may be seen to have contributed to the increase of youth involvement in crime.

A further manifestation of vigilantism during this period can be seen in the official police structures. Prior to the demise of apartheid, those who scrutinised the activities of the police focused overwhelmingly on their activities in dealing with political activists. As yet, there have been few significant efforts to document the activities of the police in relation to ordinary criminal suspects.

One study however included an analysis of 447 fatal shootings by the police in Metropolitan Cape Town during the years 1984 to 1991. The number which were not political (217) outnumbered the shootings (201) which were political (in 29 cases this information was missing). (Desiree Hansson, personal communication). Thus, it is not necessarily the case that official violence was more severe in dealing with perceived political threats than it was in dealing with alleged criminals. Where police violence exceeded the bounds of the law, whether this was officially approved of or not, it amounted to a form of vigilantism. Extra-legal violence was also associated with the "kitskonstabels" and municipal police who worked for the town councils in black townships.

The fourth form of vigilantism emerged predominantly in the late 1980's. Haysom (1990) describes the emergence of a wide number of groups of this kind in different parts of the country, who were identified by names such as, "the A-Team, Ama-Afrika, Phakatis, Mabangalala, Amadoda and the Witdoeke." These groups were "violent, organised, and conservative groupings operating within black communities," who would "act to neutralise individuals and groupings . . . opposed to the apartheid state and its institutions." Although they received "no official recognition," they were "alleged to enjoy varying degrees of police support."

In part, conservative vigilantism may have been an attempt at re-asserting authority by groups who had been marginalised by the anti-apartheid movement (such as chiefs in the homeland areas) and those who resented the new untrammelled authority of the youth. There is some evidence that "the police actively prompted the formation of vigilante groups in some areas," because their victims were consistently "those perceived to be resisting apartheid institutions," and this support enabled them to act "brazenly as if their extra-legal violence has no legal consequences," (Haysom, 1990).

Communities, pro-democratic and conservative political elements, and the police themselves have therefore contributed to the present situation, in which vigilantism may be said to be part and parcel of our history.

The police and vigilantism

Extra-legal violence by the police, particularly where this is intended to "punish" law breakers or persons or groups who are perceived as a threat to the existing order, may be seen as a form of vigilantism. As indicated police activities of this kind during the apartheid era may be seen as one of the historical forms of vigilantism in South Africa.

This study merely examines police attitudes to vigilante activities engaged in by other groups. However one question is to what extent the police themselves continue to be involved in vigilantism in South Africa. Since it started operating in April 1997 for instance, the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD) has recorded over 1000 people killed by members of the SAPS. While many of these deaths can be explained in the context of high levels of violent crime and for instance the high number of attacks on police officers, there is also reason to believe that a certain proportion of these deaths are the result of unlawful actions by the police and that the problem of police vigilantism persists in South Africa. More often than it is linked to deaths however it takes the form of "less than lethal" assaults on suspects. On an off-the-record basis, many members of the police service readily admit that assaults on arrestees are a common practise.

One other way in which vigilantism directly affects the work of members of the SAPS is that they are frequently involved in dealing with the aftermath of vigilantism. Studies which have been done on deaths in custody which have been recorded by the ICD in Gauteng indicate that as many as 20-30% of these deaths are cases of people who have been injured by members of the public prior to being taken into custody by the police. While the police are not directly responsible for the injuries which these people receive, they may sometimes deliberately neglect to intervene in incidents of vigilantism which they are aware of or fail to ensure that the person receives prompt medical attention. Examining police attitudes to vigilante activities helps to explain why this is the case.


When the officers in each area were asked about the appropriate police response to community-inflicted punishment, a variety of attitudes emerged. One senior police officer firmly maintained that vigilantes should be "locked up" because this activity is inherently illegal. Senior police in Durban indicated that they had taken steps to tackle the problem. Workshops had been organised with representatives of traders and the taxi industry with the objective of discouraging acts of vigilantism and encouraging them to act within the framework of the law.

More junior members of the police service, however, seemed to think that these workshops had been ineffective and that vigilantism had continued despite the appeals which had been made by more senior police.

One sergeant argued that, when coming across instances of punishment being meted out by members of the public, police should act decisively to uphold the rule of law. Referring to one example of taxi people beating a suspect at the Berea Road taxi rank, he said when dealing with taxi people it is necessary to use not just "minimal force" but "maximum force," due to the fact that efforts to police the actions of members of the taxi industry often meet with a violent response.

Another sergeant asserted that where police came across vigilante activity they should arrest the person allegedly responsible for the original offence, as well as those involved in assaulting him or her.

The head of a Crime Prevention Unit in Cape Town said, "although we allow the community to be involved in crime prevention, we don't condone vigilante activities of beating people who are suspected of being criminals. It is totally against the law for anybody, be it individuals or the community, to act like a law enforcement agency."

He went on to say, "the level of community involvement is restricted and closely monitored by ourselves. Theirs is to report crime cases to the police and we make follow ups to such matters." In a similar vein, one of the police reservists said, "we understand that crime is a thorny issue in the community, but PAGAD activities are strongly condemned as they are part of the problem not the solution."


Other police officers, however, did not show this level of intolerance for vigilantism. One officer said that, while he would intervene to stop vigilantism if it was happening in his presence, he didn't object to the activities of vigilantes.

One sergeant argued that the appropriate response would depend entirely on the situation. When a suspect is caught robbing people at a gunpoint or using any dangerous weapon, for example, he felt it to be justifiable to beat such a person and that this should be explained as self-defence on the part of the victims. As far as he was concerned, a case of assault in this situation would be pointless,

He argued that, because of the deficiencies in the criminal justice system, it is reasonable for the people to punish offenders. Vigilantism, "is not a good thing to do but there is no way it can be stopped as long as the situation of crime is not adequately addressed by the government."

Furthermore, he said that in most cases the people respond to crime situations where there is little doubt about the guilt of the perpetrator. He suggested that it was understandable for the people to give the criminals "some good lessons." This serves to provide an example to other criminals.

Referring to the aforementioned episode of Special Assignment, another sergeant said that this coverage was good as it teaches people that they should not commit crime and that this showed how criminals should be dealt with. Vigilante justice was preferable to handing people over to the police where they will be released quite easily, he said.

Another sergeant argued that sometimes it is justifiable and legitimate to inflict punishment on the perpetrators of crime. Referring to the flogging of alleged rapists depicted on television, he said this, "is a very good lesson for people who commit crime and think that they can get away with it." He said that he was aware that these actions were illegal but he said that his sympathies lay with the original victim of criminality and not the perpetrators of crime.

Another sergeant who is involved in foot patrol pointed out that "bobbies on the beat" often encounter vigilantism in circumstances in which there are few police present, making it difficult for them to deal with a rampaging crowd. In these situations, he indicated, he would first evaluate whether he would be putting himself in jeopardy by intervening. Particularly in incidents where members of the taxi industry were involved, he indicated that police would be unlikely to intervene as they believe the taxi people to be heavily armed.

In Durban, one sergeant referred to a situation where he and a colleague had attempted to intervene when taxi drivers were found assaulting an alleged law breaker. As a result, his colleague had been assaulted, while he had only managed to escape assault by running away.

Not only did members of the police service fear physical assault at the point of intervention, but one officer explained that intervention might involve other risks. Many members of the police service are also "clients" of the taxi industry, as they rely on taxis for transport to and from their homes. Taxi drivers may even know the home addresses of members of the police service. This places them in a position where they may be vulnerable to attempts to intimidate them.

In Durban, police indicated that they would, on occasions, intervene in situations of vigilantism but would not take further action against the vigilantes. They explained that it is not possible to arrest a crowd of people, especially when they are angry.

Officers said that when they received a report that a group of people was beating someone, they would frequently simply wait until the incident appeared to be over, and then ensure that the beaten person is taken to hospital. While they might admonish the vigilantes, they would be unlikely to open a case, or take any other action, against any of them.

One sergeant indicated that it was not advisable for members of the SAPS to become involved in the use of force generally as the media tended to judge these situations harshly. When intervening might create the risk of a "shootout," he preferred to let the situation happen, without interference, to be "on the safe side."

The sergeant explained that getting involved in such situations increased his personal risk of suspension and expulsion from the police service, and that no member of the police is likely to be disciplined for not arresting someone who is assaulting a criminal.

Vigilantes and law breaking

Of course, the vigilantes are not necessarily law abiding citizens themselves. A Durban police officer indicated that taxi drivers will either summarily mete out justice to an alleged law breaker or "cover for him," depending on their relationship to that person. Thus, the actions of vigilantes should not necessarily be seen to represent a generalised intolerance of criminality but rather a selective hostility to the criminality of "outsiders."

Similarly, according to police in Pretoria, private security guards "punish" members of the public who do not have train tickets by demanding spot payment from them. Situations of this kind, where complaints of robbery or extortion are lodged against private security guards, present enormous difficulties to the police in relation to meeting standards of credible and effective law enforcement, intended to be carried out in "partnership" with other policing agencies. Also included in the allegations against private security guards in Pretoria were complaints of assault against informal traders.

As one member of the Durban City Police pointed out, the taxi industry itself is fairly violent. Rank managers and drivers are also often involved in harassment of women and intimidation of passengers generally, by, for instance, forcing them to take one taxi rather than another.

Establishing the sovereignty of the law

There are therefore a diversity of police attitudes to vigilantism and related to this, diverse police responses to vigilante activities. These responses may range from attempts to intervene in situations of vigilantism to ensure that justice and due process prevails, to instances where police may directly encourage vigilante activities by handing a person over to be beaten by a crowd. As was the case with the conservative vigilantes of the apartheid era, it appears that those involved in vigilante action today are most unlikely to face legal consequences for their actions.

But it is not only their "attitudes" which obstruct police intervention to prevent vigilante acts. At places like taxi ranks the police come face to face with a robust and often belligerent culture which presents difficulties for members of police services in asserting their authority. Often incidents of mob justice involve large groups of people It may appear to police witnessing such events that intervention will only be possible by escalating the level of violence. There may therefore be value in developing special strategies, and providing special training, to assist police members in intervening in these types of situations.

In recent years various initiatives have been undertaken aimed at broadening the base of support for policing in South Africa. The establishment of community policing as the guiding philosophy of the South African Police Service (SAPS) was motivated in part by the idea that improved links to the community would improve police access to information and assistance from the community.

Broadening the base of policing has also taken the form of increasing the number of persons involved in policing activities, including the massive growth of the private security industry and the establishment of municipal police services along the lines of the Durban City Police. In certain cases there has also been a move to directly involve members of the community in policing activities.

History indicates that all forms of policing run the risk of vigilantism, however. Thus, any initiative involving people in policing activities must, as a matter of course, take steps to restrain the vigilante impulse.


The research on which this report is based was initially conducted as part of a project under the title "Crime on Public Transport," involving the CSIR, HSRC and CSVR and funded by the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology.


Haysom, N. (1990) Vigilantism and the policing of African townships: Manufacturing violent stability. In Hansson, D. and Van Zyl Smit, D., Towards Justice? Crime and state control in South Africa. Oxford University Press: Cape Town.

Meyer, A (1998) Crime Prevention at Modal Interchanges. Transportek, CSIR.

Scharf, W. and B. Ncgokoto (1990) Images of Punishment in the people's Courts of Cape Town 1985-7. In N.C. and A. Du Toit (eds) Prefigurative Justice to Populist Justice in Manganyi: Political Violence and the Struggle in South Africa.

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