Constant Fear and Mob Rule in South Africa Slum
DIEPSLOOT, South Africa - The two robbery suspects had already been viciously beaten, their swollen faces stained with rivulets of red. One of them could no longer sit up, and only the need to moan seemed to revive him into consciousness. The other, Moses Tjiwa, occasionally stared into the taunting crowd and muttered, "I didn't do anything."
The suspects were awaiting the final cathartic wrath of the mob, the torment of being burned alive, wrapped in the fatal shawl of a gasoline-soaked blanket. Then suddenly they were saved from that hideous death by the brave intervention of a local politician. "Let the police handle this," he implored.
As usual, the police arrived late on that recent evening, and many in the mob angrily objected to their being there at all. Finally, one police inspector shouted: "Get back or I'm leaving this place and never helping you people again. I hate Diepsloot!"
Crime in South Africa is commonly portrayed as an onslaught against the wealthy, but it is the poor who are most vulnerable: poor people conveniently accessible to poor criminals. Diepsloot, an impoverished settlement on the northern edge of Johannesburg, has an estimated population of 150,000, and the closest police station is 10 miles away.
To spend time in Diepsloot over three weeks is to observe the unrelenting fear so common among the urban poor. Experts point to the particularly brutal nature of crime in this country: the unusually high number of rapes, hijackings and armed robberies. The murder rate, while declining, is about eight times higher than in the United States.
In Diepsloot, people usually bear their losses in silence, their misfortune unreported and their offenders unknown. If a suspect is identified, victims usually inform quasi-legal vigilante groups or hire their own thugs to recover their property.
There is also the impromptu mob justice, when an apprehended suspect becomes the sacrificial culprit for a thousand grievances. Even Jacob Zuma, the new president, says that citizens cannot be "blamed if they take the law into their own hands."
In one way or another, most already do. Among the wealthy, private security is the substitute for police protection. The open veldt surrounding Johannesburg is filling in with one barricaded development after another, fortified with electrified fencing, cameras and armed patrols.
But the poor have no money for such defenses. Robbery is the most common crime in Diepsloot, a place where most every door is flimsy and each pathway a peril. Five-pound hammers are commonly used in assaults. Thieves hide easily in the darkness, preying on those who begin their walk to work before dawn and return after nightfall.
In the case where the mob turned its rage on Mr. Tjiwa and another man, Philip Dlamini, a young woman had been toting a satchel with about $500, the day's proceeds from the grocery where she worked. Mr. Dlamini, accused of snatching the bag away, was quickly seized. A beating made him give up the name of an abettor, Mr. Tjiwa, who at the time was beginning an evening of beer at Themba's Bottle Shop.
"What's this about?" he recalled demanding as he was being wrenched away.
"You know what it's about," his accusers said, smacking his head with the metal end of a spade.
A mob's haste sometimes leads to irredeemable errors. A few days later, Superintendent Sam Mokgonyana, the commander of the police station closest to Diepsloot, speculated that neither Mr. Dlamini nor Mr. Tjiwa was involved in the robbery. Rather, he supposed, the woman carrying the cash was in league with others in some inside conspiracy.
"She should have been the first one arrested," he said. Then he sighed before adding, "I wish I had 100 more men like me so I could do some proper policing."
South Africa is a young democracy, and people have yet to trust the government for protection. Under apartheid, the police were agents of state repression. Now, says Antony Altbeker, a criminologist, attitudes toward law enforcement have "turned from hatred into contempt."
By international standards, the South African Police Service has an adequate amount of manpower per capita, though it is an undersized force in relation to the amount of violence. Whatever the measure, people here often dismiss the police as bunglers at best and crooks at worst. In Diepsloot, an arrest is usually seen as a way to gain the leverage needed to exact a bribe.
While Superintendent Mokgonyana agreed some of his officers were corrupt, he insisted a larger share of the venality rested with prosecutors and the courts.
The superintendent is new to this command and said he tried to keep at least six vehicles on patrol in Diepsloot, but said that the few paved roads did not penetrate the contorted pathways of the shacks. Officers rarely move on foot among the hovels of salvaged metal and wood.
With nightfall, the people themselves are loath to venture out. On May 17, shortly after midnight, robbers shot up Ndlovu's Tavern, killing a man and wounding 12 others. While the gunshots likely awakened hundreds, those who hear everything most often believe it is wise to do nothing.
The heist lasted three hours. Some of the robbers leisurely played snooker while others did the hard work of carrying away crates of beer. The customers had been ordered to lie face down on the floor, and one of the gunmen selected a Freddie Gwala tune on the jukebox and danced on the backs of his captives.
That killing was the first of four that week in Diepsloot. "Nobody helped," George Ndlovu, the tavern's owner, said of his neighbors. "I don't blame them. I would not have helped."
Diepsloot is something of a depository for South Africans forcibly evicted from other overcrowded townships and a collection point for immigrants. It is divided into 12 "extensions." The better areas have government-built houses. The worst have only the haphazard shacks, with no light except that provided by kerosene and paraffin. Water trickles from communal taps. Toilets are the portable kind found on construction sites.
The police now park a small trailer in Extension 1, but the officers there deal only with paperwork. A red-brick police station stands on the township's northern perimeter, but those inside are unarmed municipal officers responsible for traffic, not crime.
"Even if you know who robbed you, there is not much you can do," said David Kaise, a day laborer who was recently parted from $50 and his cellphone.
But he did try, taking his troubles to the Comrades, a group of vigilantes available for hire. They hang out amid the squalor of Extension 1, nursing bottles of Black Label beer as they await the next customer. Their methods are notorious. They chain prisoners down and pour saltwater on their buttocks to soften the skin. Then they wield a heavy plastic cane called a sjambok. A dozen or so whacks are usually enough.
"The sjambok is very good medicine," wisecracked Evens Matamisa, a slender man with dreadlocks and the Comrades' vice chairman. "We bring people to our office. It is the best clinic in town for giving the medicine."
Those who fight crime and those who commit it are too often the same. The Comrades required a $20 fee before accepting Mr. Kaise's "case," and then returned with only the phone, which was broken. The day laborer regretted his decision. "The guy who robbed me must have paid them more," he said.
Each of the extensions has a "community policing forum," a legally empowered group of volunteers meant to assist the police - and very often to act in lieu of them. They vary in size and tactics, but many hunt down suspects and handcuff them. As punishments, they impose fines. They demolish shacks. They sometimes apply beatings.
President Zuma is an advocate for these forums and has spoken approvingly of the "instant justice" they provide. His party, the African National Congress, has called for a "massive" expansion of community policing, with stipends paid to young enlistees.
But police work is dangerous and citizen vigilantes are most often unarmed. Julius Malepe, the forum chairman of Extension 7, complained that his group had apprehended several suspects only to find them back on the street within days.
Then the criminals get angry with him and that puts his life in danger, he said. "We do the job for the police and at the end of the day, they get a fat check and we get nothing," Mr. Malepe said.
That complaint came a month before Mr. Malepe was murdered. Early one Saturday this month, he led two dozen unarmed civilian "patrollers" through the neighborhood. Their vigil ended at 3 a.m., and the forum chairman and another man, Samuel Matari, walked home.
As they passed the New Creation Missionaries church, they were confronted by four gunmen. "We've been warning you," one of the assailants called out, according to Mr. Matari. He and his friend ran for their lives.
Mr. Malepe, the earnest, gap-toothed chairman of Extension 7, was shot down on one of the many undulating dirt roads of Diepsloot, falling dead in the darkness just a few feet from the Fly by Night Tavern.