national shutdown

A police officer stands guard during operation clean-up and rebuild following days of looting and anarchy at Ndofaya Mall on Mandela Day on July 18, 2021 in Soweto, South Africa. Photo: Gallo Images/Sharon Seretlo

SA riots LATEST: ‘SAPS failed in duty to protect citizens’ – experts

SA citizens who protected their communities should not be labelled “vigilantes” for bravely stepping in where the police failed them.

national shutdown

A police officer stands guard during operation clean-up and rebuild following days of looting and anarchy at Ndofaya Mall on Mandela Day on July 18, 2021 in Soweto, South Africa. Photo: Gallo Images/Sharon Seretlo

The recent unrest and violence in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) and the way in which citizens were forced use their firearms to protect their communities and businesses has proved that the police are “failing” in their duties.

This was among the points raised at a public discussion of a panel of security experts hosted by the South African Self Protection Alliance (SASPAlliance) on Thursday.

The wide range of experts gathered to discuss that emerging from the ashes of the recent violence and looting in KZN and Gauteng are concerns about vigilantism, fearful communities, and policing failures. 

This comes at a time when Minister of Police, Bheki Cele, has published the Firearms Control Act Amendment Bill, which seeks to remove the right of citizens to own a firearm for self-protection.

International media headlines described how vigilantes had taken to South Africa’s streets as the death toll from looting and violence rose.  Some headlines read that vigilantism was growing in South Africa as citizens took it upon themselves to tackle the unrest.  

However, contrary to these headlines the assistance of armed citizens was gratefully accepted by a thinly stretched law enforcement officers, and in fact President Cyril Ramaphosa thanked communities for their support.

In some areas residents handed suspected looters over to the police, blocked entrances to malls and in other cases armed themselves to form roadblocks or scare away looters.  Minibus taxi operators, many of whom have guns, fired bullets into the air to protect people and property and to scare off looters.

IRR researcher Terence Corrigan said ‘vigilantism’ was a condition that no law-governed society should find itself in. When it emerges, it is invariably a symptom of the absence of the state from its responsibilities – the state is failing or was never very effective in the first place. 

He said it held grave dangers for society. And it was important to differentiate this phenomenon from the right and ability of people to defend themselves, and to be ready to do so, when they face immediate threat as self-protection is a natural right.  

 Interpol Ambassador Andy Mashaile said the recent riots and violence in KZN, and Gauteng had proved that the SAPS was failing and in many instances, had relied on communities to support them during this crisis. He said that associating these communities as vigilantes was counterproductive.  

Community Policing and Neighbourhood Watch groups can be effective if implemented correctly and could dramatically reduce crime. He said too many lives were being lost and communities needed to stand together like never before and work with law enforcement officials to stop criminals from ravaging society. 

Social scientist, Dr Rama Naidu, said it was important to analyse  the complex, interwoven reasons for the unrest. She said issues of racial tensions and conspiracy theories were now holding citizens in fear and anxiety.

 Safe Citizen Campaign Director, Jonathan Deal said firearms were “an intrinsic component of modern society”. 

“They underpin the rule of law, acting as the ultimate enforcement of our courts, defend our national borders and are used by state institutions to protect law-abiding citizens, state property and private assets. Guns provide an opportunity for physically weaker people to say ‘no’ to a criminal aggressor,” Deal said.

“The use of guns by criminals doesn’t establish a case to deny law-abiding and responsible citizens the opportunity to an effective method of self-defence. In South Africa, there is no denying the real and prevalent threat of violent crime. The SAPS, even prior to the riots and looting in July 2021, have admitted that they are unable to protect the community. This clearly establishes the need for a compact of united South Africans in which distinctions of race, class and culture are displaced by two categories – criminals and law-abiding citizens. You are one, or the other”.

If passed into law, the FCA bill would in effect remove the final line of defence for law-abiding citizens whose lives are under threat from violent criminals while our country burns.