Skip to main content

Residents walk through shacks in Cape Town's crime-ridden Khayelitsha township in this picture taken July 9, 2012. At least 11 people have died at the hands of vigilantes in the township since January as angry residents, tired of poor policing, take the law into their own hands. Picture taken July 9, 2012.Mike Hutchings/Reuters

At a glance, it's just an empty patch of ground strewn with garbage and marked by a couple of crude goalposts. But as everyone in the surrounding shacks well knows, a lot more than soccer happens here.

"They beat you with anything they find, like a rock," says Eugene Cukana, a construction worker who lives nearby. "Then they put a tire around your neck and they burn you."

Public hearings by an inquiry this month in Khayelitsha, an impoverished township near Cape Town, have heard chilling testimony of vigilante killings on the "field of death" and other execution sites, motivated by rising discontent with police corruption and government neglect.

Between April, 2011, and June, 2012, a shocking total of 78 people were murdered by mobs in Khayelitsha. Hundreds more have been killed in vigilante murders across the country – often unremarked in the media and almost ignored in political debate.

In the past year, Mr. Cukana witnessed a killing by a mob of 100 people. The victim was a suspected criminal. They dragged him unconscious to the "field of death." Nobody bothered to call the police.

"It was quite a sad thing," Mr. Cukana said in an interview on the edge of the field. "He's still a human. But if you call the police, they don't come. So we take the law into our own hands."

Public lynchings are sometimes assumed to be a phenomenon of lawless places like the Central African Republic. Yet they happen routinely in South Africa, the richest country on the continent. They are a symptom of some of its most disturbing problems: police corruption, social violence, severe inequality in public services and the lingering effects of apartheid and economic marginalization.

"It's become totally normalized," said Zackie Achmat, an activist who was worked on Khayelitsha issues for many years. "The inequality in our society means that black people's lives are worth nothing."

The vigilante murders, he believes, are a continuation of the extra-judicial assassinations that were commonly used by the apartheid state to deal with its enemies. And he sees them as a reminder that a form of apartheid still persists today, with impoverished blacks stuck in isolated townships without equal access to policing services.

"It's straight back to the past," he said. "We're pushing people further out of the city – working-class poor black African people. I would have expected the apartheid government to do that. We're stigmatizing them as land invaders, instead of ensuring that they become integrated."

The most common form of vigilante killing is known as "necklacing." A gasoline-drenched rubber tire is placed around the neck of the victim and set on fire.

Even if the victim runs, it is almost impossible to escape an agonizing death.

Necklacing was common in these same townships under apartheid, targeted at suspected collaborators or informers for the apartheid regime. The tactic was even famously praised by Winnie Mandela in the mid-1980s.

Necklacing seemed to disappear after apartheid ended in 1994, only to be revived a few years ago. Now the victims are common criminals, rather than alleged collaborators. But the underlying reasons are the same: cynicism about the police, mistrust of the courts and a belief that mob justice is the only form of effective justice in a corrupt system.

"I've seen a lot of people die," says 23-year-old Sifiso Zitwana, who has spent most of his life in Khayelitsha.

"They die in front of my eyes and I don't even think of calling the police. You want him to die because you don't want him to break into your house tomorrow. If you do something wrong, you have to be killed."

He was 14 or 15 when he saw his first vigilante killing. "I could see that man dying in the hands of people, and it touched me. But wrong things become a normal thing. It's like when your mother always beats you – you don't cry any more."

The vigilante killings are often committed by "street committees" or "community courts" – a semi-official veneer for brutal slayings. The killers are rarely arrested, and even those who are prosecuted are rarely given any prison time, since judges are sympathetic to their frustrations with the dysfunctional police system.

Vigilante murders are so common in many South African townships that the police sometimes don't even cordon off the scenes. They leave the burned corpses in open fields as children walk casually past.

"We ought to worry about the impact of more brutality on an already brutalized people," said Redi Tlhabi, a popular radio host, in a recent commentary on vigilantism.

"I worry about the children in those communities. They are being taught the language of blood and death from an early age."

After many years of protests over the poor policing in Khayelitsha, the provincial government set up a commission of inquiry. This month, it has heard shocking testimony about police wrongdoing and corruption, including many cases where the police ignored serious crimes – even stabbings and murders – or let dockets go missing, allowing criminals to walk free. Up to 300 cases of police misconduct have been reported annually in Khayelitsha's police stations.

Witnesses testified about armed robberies near police stations that officers refused to investigate. Some parts of Khayelitsha have become so dangerous that they are "no-go" zones for the police. So young people often join violent gangs for protection. Two of every five primary school children in Khayelitsha have witnessed a murder, one scholar testified at the inquiry.

Most residents are afraid to walk outside at night, but they don't have indoor toilets and can be robbed when they walk to the bushes or outdoor toilets. "If you walk outside alone at night, it's 100 per cent that you'll be mugged," Mr. Zitwana said.

Elizabeth Konongo, a 54-year-old domestic worker who lives in a shack on the edge of the "field of death," says she is too frightened to join the mobs who set fire to suspected criminals outside her home. But she agrees with their decisions. "If you don't kill the thugs, it doesn't stop," she says.

"They choose this field because they want everyone to see it. They want to teach a lesson."

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe