As the issue of crime has taken precedence in community news, over the weekend, the Athlone Gangwatch Facebook page published disturbing images of a suspected burglar, who had allegedly been attacked and killed by members of the community, in what has been described as a ‘mob justice’ attack. Chairperson of Athlone Community Policing Forum (CPF), Aziza Kannemeyer, explained that the action taken by residents reflects the frustrations of South Africans who feel unsafe in their own space, since they are “are constantly on the lookout.”
“People have galvanized themselves into different neighbourhood watches, but there is only so much that they can do,” Kannermeyer stated.
She noted that the CPF in “no way condones the actions presented on social media”, furthermore affirming that the loss of life is a traumatic experience for the family of the deceased.
Kannemeyer explained that the actions taken by community members to combat crime is a direct result of a combination of socioeconomic factors.
The failure of the judicial system, she asserts, is evident in the perpetuated actions of criminals once they are released from prison; a reality which “mocks the innocent people of South Africa.”
She further notes that issues found within the system are compounded by the lack of resources, both at a municipal, as well as national level.
Many individuals have experienced more than one burglary and due to a failed justice system, therefore, feel the need to protect against criminal activity.
Kannemeyer explained that the actions taken by community members have received a mixed reaction, with certain individuals applauding the actions taken, while “others feel that the system must run its course.”
The justice system, she asserts, when proceeding with the investigation, should to take into consideration all factors, since “it’s not unheard of where elderly people are robbed.”
She explained that increased incidents of criminal activity will result in a reaction from community members who are constantly faced with this grim reality.
“What happened in Athlone is merely a symptom – it is happening everywhere.”
Kannemeyer further noted that she does not encourage community members to take the law into their hands – “this would mean that the entire justice system has failed.”
“I don’t think that these kind of pictures should be [viewed] as a trophy; it should [however] be a deterrent to anyone else who feels like doing the same thing.”
“We would rather encourage community members to become part of those type of formations [neighbourhood watches] before another life is lost.”
Kannemeyer encouraged the South African Police Service (SAPS) to meet with community members in order to gain an understanding of the various concerns of the public.
“What is lacking in South Africa is a proactive approach to crime; the institutions of safety and security are waiting for something to happen before they react,” Kannemeyer asserted.
Legal ramifications for mob justice
Director of Safety and Violence Initiative (SaVI) at UCT, Professor Guy Lamb, explained that community members who take the law into their own hands can be charged with murder. The charges would, however, depend on the evidence provided.
“According to South African law, if someone takes someone else’s life unlawfully, then that person can be charged,” he asserted.
Lamb affirmed that “vigilante” violence occurs in all parts of the world, and is prevalent in communities that experience high levels of criminal activity with a criminal justice that is “slow to respond.” Mob justice of this nature, he affirms, is prevalent in countries such as Brazil and other parts of Latin America.
Lamb echoed Kannemeyer’s sentiments that mob violence is a symptom of built-up frustration and a failed justice system.
He explained that this form of action, in asserting social control, was evident in the build-up to the Khayelitsha Commission where numerous incidents of mob justice were reported.
Lamb further noted that there is a movement within the Western Cape that is driven by the Department of Community Safety and the Premier’s Office, which endeavour’s to approach the issues of crime “in a more holistic way.”
“Within communities you have all sorts of resources; social workers, nurses, people that are good at management, and trauma counsellors.”
These specialists need to be mobilised within communities in order to deal with perpetrators who, quite often, have a history of abuse and violence. In doing so, Lamb notes, families of repeat perpetrators will be provided with support.
“The psychological theory that people [assume] that if there is quite a severe punishment for your actions, then they will stop doing it [is incorrect, since] the issue here is that the bases for this kind of criminality is not based on rationality.”
The severe criminal sentences and large prison population has not deterred criminals.
Lamb, therefore, asserts that Facebook posts, which depict mob justice, are unlikely to deter criminal activity.
The idea that South African prisons are laced in luxury, Lamb explains, is unfounded.
The South African justice system has not made strides in rehabilitating criminals, he added.
“If people do commit crimes we need to find ways to minimise the possibility that they will commit crimes in the future and find ways to address why they are committing crimes so that when they are released from prison they do not become repeat offenders,” Lamb concluded.
VOC (Thakira Desai)