Vigilantism in South Africa carrying historical imprints of past violence against black people: Image: Adobe stock

Vigilantism in South Africa carrying historical imprints of past violence against black people

Patterns of violence in South Africa have been influenced by their history of discrimination, racial segregation and extralegal violence.


Vigilantism in South Africa carrying historical imprints of past violence against black people: Image: Adobe stock

South Africa’s history of discrimination, racial segregation and extralegal violence has influenced patterns of violence today. Colonial and apartheid governments ruled through violence and racial oppression. Whether through torture, corporal punishment or killings, black lives were deemed infinitely expendable.

“Natives” were subjected to summary “justice” by mining companies, chiefs, native commissioners, and other administrative officials – who could all lawfully mete out unappealable, on the spot punishments. Extralegal (unlawful) violence by the police, white farmers and vigilantes, among others, was also tolerated.

On top of this forced relocations, dispossession, and spatially segregated black townships and bantustans – rural, impoverished areas established for the purpose of permanently removing black people from urban South Africa – resulted in multiple forms of violent dispute settlement. This is still apparent today.

South Africa remains a deeply violent society.

In a recent study I explored the phenomena of vigilante kidnappings and unlawful confinements in informal settlements and former black townships.

I argue that car trunks, shacks, shipping containers, and other commonplace receptacles function as the underbelly of official institutions, such as prisons and police lock-ups. My findings serve as important reminders about the uneasy relationship between local meanings of “justice” and the criminal “justice” system.


For my study I analysed thousands of Excel spreadsheets shared with me by the South African Police Service. I focused on violent crimes (arson, serious assault, attempted murder, malicious damage to property, kidnapping, public violence, and murder) in the Khayelitsha and Nyanga policing clusters for the period 2000 – 2016. I analysed data from the Khayelitsha, Lingelethu-West, Harare, Nyanga, Gugulethu, and Philippi East police stations.


At the time of my research, these stations, in the historically poor black of townships Khayelitsha and Nyanga in Cape Town, had among the highest recorded rates of violent crime in the Western Cape (if not the country). They are notorious for incidents of lethal vigilante violence.

There is no definition of vigilantism in South African law. So, police often use words other than “vigilantism” in vigilante-related cases. I started with an automated search using using 48 search terms. Then I read through the “comments” columns of the spreadsheets to determine whether cases involved the unlawful punishment, prevention, or investigation of crime. I labelled these as instances of vigilante violence. I also looked at court cases and secondary historical research.

My findings reflect stark differences in how residents in poor black areas, and in the more affluent former white areas, deal with crime. In middle class, formerly “whites only” areas, residents use security guards, fortified fences, insurance policies, and better access to the police, among other resources.

But in mainly black townships and informal settlements, everyday infrastructures and objects are used to impose a certain order. Pieces of wire are temporarily transformed into handcuffs, open spaces and community halls into courtrooms, beaches into spaces of death and torture.

Vigilantes would sometimes force someone into the trunk of a vehicle and drive around to locate stolen property (officially recorded as kidnapping or “manstealing”). Garages, shacks, old shipping containers, and public spaces (including community halls) doubled up as sites for the detention, assault, torture, and extrajudicial punishment of suspected criminals.

I found multiple instances of minibus taxis functioning as quasi-police vehicles. Taxi drivers tracked down stolen goods and collected evidence for their clients, who often paid for these services. I also found less organised instances where smaller private cars were used for finding stolen goods.

Sometimes people are driven to Monwabisi Beach, which forms Khayelitsha’s western border. When people are forcibly taken there at night, it is transformed from a space of beauty and leisure into one of violence and death.

The common garden shed is used to store tools and gardening equipment in middle class suburbs. Security guards, on the perimeters of luxury properties, also use them. In South Africa’s marginalised spaces garden sheds (ityotyombe) are the more expensive version of corrugated iron shacks (ihoki). People who cannot access formal housing live in them, often with multiple other people.

They also double up as spaces of incarceration, punishment and torture.

The phenomena I studied are not mere forms of gratuitous violence. Instead they mimic and distort the way that the state, and the affluent middle classes, target the racialised poor in pursuit of “crime control”. They also mimic the violence of organised crime.

Porous boundaries

My findings highlight the porous boundaries between different forms of violence: between torture and extrajudicial punishment; between lawful arrest and unlawful kidnapping; between gang, vigilante, and police violence; and between judicial and extrajudicial punishment.

Vigilantes adopt similar tactics to the police in the arrest, detention, investigation, and extrajudicial punishment of crime suspects. Sometimes, they drop suspects off outside police stations. Thus, after roughing them up, they demand further punishment from the state. Taxi owners have an ambiguous relationship with the state. This is particularly so when they assist in maintaining order, albeit violently. There is historic precedent for state tolerance (or encouragement) of vigilante violence.

When police use excessive force, arrest arbitrarily, or when an initially lawful arrest (by police or civilians) morphs into extrajudicial punishment, the line between lawful and unlawful violence collapses.

This shows that the boundaries between violence and the law are porous, and not as distinct as they at first glance seem to be.The Conversation

Gail Super, Assistant Professor, University of Toronto

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.