Mapogo A Mathamaga was formed in August 1996 after the eighth murder of a businessman in the Sekhukhuni / Nebo area. Initially the group was formed to protect business people, and was perceived to be succeeding in its fight against crime. It was referred to as Mapogo – business shield. During campaigning later the same year, Mapogo managed to recruit other community members as well. Mapogo then changed its name to Mapogo A Mathamaga – Community and Business shield with its headquarters at Jane Furse. Today the group boasts 72 branches with over 40000 members. Only registered members are entitled to Mapogo’s protection. To be a member of Mapogo, a joining fee is payable at a local branch. Those who own businesses and cars are supplied with stickers sporting two leopard heads to be displayed on their properties. This serves as a deterrent to potential criminals.
Harsh and swift punishment
Mapogo claims that its success in fighting crime is due to administering sethlare or medicine to criminals. The suspended leader of Mapogo, Magolego Monthle, believes that “crime is out of hand, the government cannot cope, and corporal punishment is the best approach. There are no suspects, just criminals. If you are caught red-handed, you are a thief. The case is not remanded, street justice is applied.” Many residents in the Northern Province believe that crime has decreased since Mapogo was established. But the police do not agree. They point out that assault is a crime and that Mapogo’s strategy often involves dropping off alleged perpetrators they have assaulted at the police station. But Mapogo employees do not co-operate with the police in the investigation of alleged crimes and cases have to be dropped as there is often no one to give evidence.
The Department of Safety and Security and police stations have taken a tough stance to prevent Mapogo from assaulting people and breaking the law. Since its formation in 1996, almost 300 charges have been laid against members of Mapogo-a-Mathamaga.
Source: South African Police Service, Northern Province
Charges include assault, malicious injury to property, crimen injuria, public violence, intimidation and sabotage. While Mapogo members have been involved in fighting criminal activity, the organization has continued to enjoy public support.
This may be a result of various factors:
- Failure by the police to give feedback on the status of cases to complainants, as well as lack of arrests.
- Apparent collusion between the police and criminals.
- The state’s perceived reluctance to act on communities concerns about crime.
- Poor understanding of the criminal justice process by the public.
- Complex, lengthy and often costly court processes which rarely show results.
What should be done?
The preliminary research results suggest that the key to reducing vigilantism is to improve community attitudes towards the criminal justice system.
The police and the courts must reverse the growing public perception of corruption within these institutions and increase confidence and trust which encourages people to co-operate with the system. This will require fixing key blockages in the criminal justice process and improving police service delivery to the public. Quick fixes are unlikely to reduce vigilantism and government should not be seen to be reacting to popular demands for immediate solutions.
Some suggestions of what could be done by the state include:
- Access to the courts needs to be improved. Many people, particularly the illiterate, feel alienated from the court process.
- The establishment of branch courts can further help unclog court backlogs. Less serious cases can then be expedited by smaller branch courts.
- Mediation and arbitration could be applied where cases do not have to go to court. This will have the effect of speeding up the processing of cases and easing the burden on the court roll. This should only apply to petty crimes and cannot address vigilante responses to violent crimes.
- Public awareness campaigns on the workings of new laws such as the bail law, the Domestic Violence Act, and the rights of the accused are necessary.
The public seeks a criminal justice system which is cost-effective, time saving and produces results that people can see. Vigilantism, as a part of the many community initiatives to fight crime, has found a niche in an ailing criminal justice system. Properly regulated, certain vigilante type activities could be incorporated into the concept of community justice or community courts as expounded in a discussion paper by the South African Law Commission.