The Company & It’s History

Mapogo’s Structures

Mapogo a Mathamaga Business Shield was founded by a group of businessmen from Sekhukhuneland in the Northern Province. According to one of its founding members, the organization was established against the backdrop of unprecedented levels of crime including car hijacking, house breaking, theft of valuables, murder, assault, etc (Mr Mashifane, interview, 1999). Businessmen felt that they were targeted by criminals in the area and that neither the police nor the criminal justice system more generally was willing or able to offer them protection or reduce the crime rate in the region. One of the members expresses his frustration with the local police by recounting his experiences.

I had about 50 dockets whereby fingerprints [of the culprits] were taken, but the police did not manage to make a breakthrough with even a single docket. When we reported the case to the police sometimes they came, sometimes they did not, and if they did come, they would not do follow-up on those cases. (Mr Mashifane, interview, 1999)

These grievances are expressed in the preamble of Mapogo’s constitution.

The areas of Nebo and Sekhukhune and surrounding areas are presently suffering under an unprecedented wave of crime and lawlessness, where criminals are openly flaunting their crimes in complete contempt of law and society… the state and its political rulers do not have the political will and / or ability to stop this wave of crime by giving tangible and material support and encouragement to the police and by devoting adequate funds for law enforcement and to see to it that these funds are spent properly and effectively.

While Mapogo was formed as a response to these grievances, when asked about the final trigger for the establishment of the group, members usually refer to the killing of eight businessmen within the period of two months in July and August 1996. At the funeral of one of the victims, the idea of Mapogo was mooted and consolidated (John Magolego, interview, 1999). This event culminated in a series of meetings among the businessmen, which eventually resulted in the drawing up of the constitution and a memorandum to the MEC for Safety and Security detailing Mapogo’s grievances and demands.

Both the constitution, which urges members to work within the law (Mapogo constitution, 1996), and the memorandum are an indication that Mapogo initially attempted to employ legal methods to apprehend criminals and to co-operate with the police. According to Minnaar, ‘the group initially arrested suspects and handed them over to the police, but changed tactics after police released a number of the suspects’ (Minnaar, 1999, p.16). Indeed, three months after its establishment in November 1996, a media statement issued by the office of the MEC for Safety and Security (1996) condemned Mapogo for its brutal methods and its disregard for the rule of law. Nina (2000) argues that this gradual move from compliance to circumvention of the law by vigilante groups is a common phenomenon.

Mapogo’s Methods

According to many respondents, Mapogo does not follow due process. Suspects are not presumed innocent, and there is no separation between investigation, prosecution and conviction. Members have to pay an annual fee, ranging from R100 to R10 000 depending on their status or the size of their businesses. Paid-up members who have become victims of crime usually call Mapogo, recount the incident and name suspects. Mapogo then tracks down the alleged offender, demands the whereabouts of the stolen goods and metes out punishment. Investigation into the allegations is scant and members usually rely on suspicions, rather than evidence. The suspect does not get the chance to defend himself or herself against the allegations. Asked about allegations of using force to obtain confessions, Mapogo’s President Magolego responded with an allegory.

“I don’t want to deny that if a sponge is retaining water and water is needed out of the sponge, we have to squeeze it a little. That is what happens with Mapogo and in most cases they are successful… I always say that if a patient drinks my medicine, I don’t regret it, my medicine is never wasted.” (interview, 2000)

This medicine, more often referred to as ‘African medicine’ is corporal punishment in various forms. Sjambokking, i.e. beating the suspect with a leather whip, sometimes soaked in peri-peri sauce, is most commonly used, but members have also been accused of dragging people behind cars, or throwing suspected criminals into crocodile-infested rivers. The degree of punishment is arbitrary and dependent on the individual member meting it out.

During both interviews, Magolego made no attempt to justify or deny the often arbitrary use of violence. On the contrary, as in the statement above, he endorsed it, and even displayed pride about the contravention of not only the South African constitution, but also Mapogo’s own constitution. The fact that Magolego had no inhibitions about openly talking about his acts is an indication of the lack of state intervention.

Indeed, Mapogo rarely faces legal consequences for their actions. Yet, 30 members, among them the president John Magolego, have been charged with various crimes, ranging from murder, attempted murder and abduction to assault. The majority, however, have been released on bail paid by the funds accumulated through the collection of membership fees.

Hundreds of people have been subject to Mapogo’s violent punishment and more than 20 people have died through beatings (Mail & Guardian, 2000a). A victim of this ‘instant justice’ recounts his experience of ‘punishment’ by Mapogo.

Mapogo’s membership

At its outset, Mapogo clearly served a very limited number of people and was concerned mainly with crimes relating to property. Concerns of the more general population, such those about rape or assault, were not considered.

It is difficult to establish the extent to which Mapogo engaged in business promotion activity or to what extent this was rather a means of establishing legitimacy and respectability in the face of the numerous allegations against them. Yet, it becomes obvious, that at least initially, Mapogo was established by and directed at the business constituency in the rural areas of Sekhukhune and Nebo. Shortly after its establishment, however, people from a variety of backgrounds started to join and membership, which is said to approach 60 000, now includes white businessmen from the urban areas of Pietersburg as well as farmers a contentious issue that will be elaborated on below. Having begun its activities in a small area in the Northern Province, Mapogo has, within the last four years, opened branches in the provinces of Mpumalanga, the Northwest Province and the Free State. Membership has even reached as far as Gauteng, with the recent opening of a branch in Pretoria.

Mapogo ‘out of control’

Given this enormous expansion within a short period of time and the diversity of members, there have been concerns that Mapogo are ‘getting out of hand’(respondent, 2000). Whilst this is a valid concern, it was surprising that a large number of people we talked to, especially within the political parties, saw this factor as the main problem, rather than attacking Mapogo’s illegal methods and unaccountability in principle. The chairperson of the Pan African Congress (PAC) Northern Province, M.C.J. Mphalele, for example argued that ‘the problem with the organisation is that it is getting big and difficult to control’ (interview, 1999). The accounts given by victims of Mapogo supported this concern. One victim recounted an incident where she was punished by Mapogo members for ‘talking too much’ (victim, interview, 2000). On complaining about it to the local branch, however, it emerged that the executive members were unaware of the incident. According to Seth Nthai, Premier at the time.

Considering Magolego’s often contradictory, but nearly always, violent pronouncements, it is questionable whether this control is even desirable. But Mapogo members deny this claim and argue that the organisation has a regulated and regulating structure, which involves having three to four commanders in each area and holding monthly seminars to control its members (News Headlines, 19.8.1999).

We have some leaders who will monitor, make sure things go well. Not necessarily myself. I don’t have to be there. I am the leader of course. As a pyramid style, I’m right on top here and down there, there must be some guys to see to it that things go on normally. (interview, 2000)

Mapogo’s Populism

All that works is psychology. (John Magolego, Interview, 2000)

Mapogo’s success, both in terms of the alleged reduction in crime and in terms of the rising membership, has been attributed largely to its violent methods, which are able to deliver instant justice. However, during the research it became obvious that Mapogo’s appeal relies to a great extent on the deployment of a populist rhetoric, including symbolism and references to notions of African justice. Similarly, it emerged that Mapogo’s ability to contain crime rests largely on the creation of fear within communities.

African Justice or ‘thuggery with an excuse’?

In the denial of the state as sole guarantor of the social order, vigilantism will invoke an ‘imagined order’ that either existed in the past, or never existed but is desired. (Nina, 2000, p.7)

Mapogo’s president, John Magolego, has become infamous for arguing that Mapogo’s methods have their origins in traditional African notions of justice, including both restorative and retributive measures. Rather than elaborating on investigation and cross-examination, here the emphasis is said to be on instant justice and a more victim-centred approach. Rather than relying on seemingly endless trials obstructed by the rights enjoyed by the accused, and which often only lead to small bail payments, as well as a corrupt police force that rarely manages to return stolen goods to the victim, Mapogo responds with swift, violent punishment and the promise to repair the damage done to the victim (of the alleged crime).

Whilst it could be argued that Mapogo’s methods are a temporary solution to deal with high crime rates and a weak criminal justice system, Magolego’s explanation is more fundamental. To him Mapogo is an organisation set up not only to address the current failures of policing, but also as a way of dealing with crime that is fundamentally different from and superior to the ‘Western system’. His idea of the incompatibility of African and Western ways of dealing with crime is clearly expressed in his annual presidential address given in August 1999:

This man has three children and is working. He does crime in his life and according to the [Western] law, he should be thrown in jail for hundred years. Who is going to feed his children and wife? Is that a way to build a nation or to destroy a nation? The children of this man will grow and become criminals, because no one is feeding them. An African man will take that man and tell him to sjambok him so that he will get rid of this criminal behaviour and go work for his children. What I am saying is that the African way to stop crime is best. (Magolego, 29.8.1999)

Considering the current weakness of the criminal justice system and the police, and the apparent impunity of criminals in the areas where Mapogo thrives, this approach and its reasoning may be persuasive in its populist ‘logic’. To what extent, however, can it be seen as an expression of traditional justice?

Charles Nkadimeng, Spokesperson for the MEC for Safety and Security in the Northern Province, was adamant that Mapogo’s reference to African justice did not reflect reality.

Mapogo don’t work on those [traditional] lines. Theirs is simply to be informed that Mr or Mrs X is a suspect in that case and then they go and deal with that particular person. Whereas in the system we are talking about, the person is given some level of justice. He or she has to be brought before the [tribal court]. He or she must explain, there is a hearing of some sort. With the Mapogo there is no hearing… More often one would have to admit to save one’s life. (interview, 2000)

Yet, traditional healers and leaders we talked to at Mapogo’s third anniversary were largely supportive of their activities. Arguing that the idea of Mapogo is sanctioned by the ancestors, a number of them see Mapogo as the only way to restore order and the lost moral fibre in their communities. Although especially the healers phrased their support in culturalist terms, it is important to mention that a number of them own businesses in the area, and thus may be supporting Mapogo for reasons unrelated to tradition. However, support for Mapogo’s methods also came from a more formal traditional vantage point, largely with reference to the issue of corporal punishment.

Whilst officially taking a stance against Mapogo’s methods, the provincial chairperson of the Congress of Traditional Leaders (Contralesa), Kgoshi Setlamorago Thobejane, largely supports Mapogo’s rejection of the notion of rights, arguing that these concepts are foreign to Africans. Strongly reminiscent of the cultural relativism employed by the apartheid engineers to justify ‘separate development’ and the denial of rights to Africans, he goes on to state that ‘… fundamental rights are good as much as they cannot be applied, raw as such, to a given society. We are a different society’ (interview, 2000). Asked about the veracity of Mapogo’s claim to African justice Thobejane furthermore argued that Contralesa has been calling for corporal punishment to be retained. When they [Mapogo] are saying they are dealing with the problem in an African way, it’s because they are defying the present abolition of corporal punishment. (interview, 2000)

Mapogo’s support by the tribal leaders largely rests on a reduction of ‘African justice’ to corporal punishment. Indeed, Thobejane showed surprisingly little disagreement with the lack of any trial in Mapogo’s operations, finding it ‘unfortunate’, but balanced out by the strong emphasis ‘on locating and investigating’. (interview, 2000)

This intervention raises larger issues around the origins of ‘customary law’ and the extent to which notions of tradition that are prevalent today, have been distorted or even created by colonial rule in co-operation with tribal leaders wanting to maintain local power. During the previous dispensation, traditional authorities, civil administration and businesses were often united in the common stake they had in the maintenance of the status quo. Indeed, right-wing vigilantes during the 80s operated largely with the support of all three groups. To what extent this alliance continues today is unclear, but Mapogo and the traditional leaders we talked to were united in their blame of the current crime situation on democracy and the constitutional provision of rights. Mapogo’s president, Magolego, even went so far as to argue that the ‘spirit of lawlessness’ started with the Soweto uprising in 1976 and that ‘before 1976 there was order… and the administration was good’ (interview, 2000). Hence there are grounds on which Mapogo’s ‘Africanism’ can be seen as a handy justification for the rejection of rights and the re-assertion of power by groups who benefited from apartheid.


Vigilante violence is extreme and symbolic terror. (Haysom, 1989b, p.4)

Mapogo’s efforts to present members with ready-made solutions and simple, ‘logical’ equations are best exemplified by its use of powerful imagery. Starting from the organisation’s name taken from a Sotho proverb, Mapogo’s public pronouncements and display are coloured by an eclectic mixture of images. Criminals are regarded as ‘ill’ members of society, needing to be ‘cured’ by Mapogo’s ‘African medicine’ and Magolego explains the ascendancy of crime in this way.

The kitchen has to be clean. If the owner leaves it dirty, it gets cockroaches. Are the cockroaches at fault? No, the owner is at fault. The government does not clean up its own rural areas and so cockroaches pop up. The government is at fault. (HRC Quarterly, 2000)

The opening of a new branch is usually accompanied by a ritual-like event involving the gathering of followers equipped with Mapogo T-Shirts and flags, and the strapping of large banners onto cars. One such event is recounted in the following excerpt from a newspaper article:

The Mapogo convoy headed off shortly afterwards, the yellow bakkie setting a slow pace on account of head wind, which threatened to wrench the banner from its moorings. Once in Mogodi, they drove, horns blazing, to the house of the local chief, who had invited them a month earlier. While Magolego and some of his senior followers conferred with the chief, the rest sat under trees, wandered around whipping the air, or sang and danced the group’s song, sjambok waving… And then Magolego appeared from the chief’s house, having swapped his grey suit for a ceremonial blazer with gold trimmings. He strode regally between two line of chanting, sjambok-waving followers, and then climbed into his BMW to lead the procession to a packed community hall where local residents were waiting to join. (Mail & Guardian, 1999)

The glamorous display of power in conjunction with the legitimacy generated through the consultation with the local chief is undoubtedly part of Mapogo’s strategy to win supporters.

Fear as a tool

Rooting out vigilante movements, once they are established, is never easy. And this is not because they find widespread acceptance in the communities they operate in. Instead, they are able to perpetuate their existence largely because of the fear they generate. (The Sowetan, 22.7.1999)

During our research, the impact of the fear created by Mapogo within communities became most obvious when talking to victims and community members more generally. Many were scared to make any explicit comments on Mapogo out of concerns about repercussions. It soon became apparent that fear is one way in which Mapogo members are able to wield influence. This was freely admitted to by Mapogo’s president.

If you tell them about Mapogo, no one will touch their businesses,… once they see the sticker of Mapogo. This thing of Mapogo has been well marketed through my interviewing publicly, delegations, newspapers, talking and so on… All those things made it strongly possible for people to get the whole story about Mapogo and consequently people had all information and are scared of Mapogo. (interview, 2000)

Indeed, according to Jack Mokobi:

In areas like Lewobakgomo, and even here in town, white people join Mapogo not because they believe in them, but because if I have a sign or the shield there in my business, I am assuming that people will be afraid to even touch my property… You know they don’t have the response capacity, you know it’s all in the mind. (interview, 2000)

The dangerous dimensions of the fear generated by Mapogo emerged when we talked to union representatives, whose responses will be discussed in more detail below. They argued that employers and farmers often use the threat of Mapogo to discipline workers, and that workers are often so intimidated by Mapogo that they do not report abuse by employers to the police.

Mapogo’s Reception

This ‘fear factor’ makes an assessment of community support and the general perception of Mapogo within communities a difficult task. Delius argues that generally, ‘these are communities, which don’t believe that you should babble on to outsiders about what you’re thinking (interview, 2000). This is compounded by the fact that Mapogo is a particularly ‘hazardous’ topic and many people are afraid to talk freely. A victim of Mapogo argues that the police, the chief and the community ‘are doing nothing, they just stand and watch, because they are afraid of Mapogo’ (interview, 2000). This supports Minnaar’s (1999) assertion that vigilantism often involves a ‘conspiracy of silence by the whole community’ (p.5). Informally, a number of people complained about Mapogo and told us they hoped our work would assist in the fight against the group.

Rather than talking about ‘community support’ it may be more fruitful to examine the support given to Mapogo by factions of the community. Union representatives, for example, emphasised the class character of Mapogo’s support within communities. Jack Tshwene, representative of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) argued that ‘it is only those who have properties who are satisfied’ (interview,1999). Gender, too, influences support. Research carried out by the Human Rights Committee found that women acknowledged that the areas had become safer since Mapogo’s emergence, yet at the same time were highly critical of Mapogo’s failure to deal with domestic violence and rape. (HRC Quarterly, 1999)

According to Delius, communities in the Northern Province are divided along generational lines and Mapogo thrives on this division.

Mapogo’s ideology is that there’s a strong generational dimension to it, which is that we’ve got to reassert the control of the elders, and that it is time that these youth are put into place and taught to listen. And… to some extent everybody else is a spectator in that collision, but I’m not sure if they’re passive spectators… They can operate in this context because there’s a strong sense that things are getting out of control, and that something has to be done. So that people have a variety of attitudes about Mapogo, but you are unlikely to get a powerful community-based counter-mobilisation. (interview, 2000)

Indeed, in the four years of Mapogo’s existence there has only been one case of open protest against its operations. In 1996, when Mapogo’s brutal methods first became known, a group of villagers started to protest and boycotted the businesses of Mapogo members until Mapogo had reached an agreement with the provincial government to work within the law. The agreement was disregarded by Mapogo shortly after that.

Spokesperson of the Premier’s office, Jack Mokobi, argues, however, that there is ‘community support’ for Mapogo mainly because Mapogo employs instant, visible justice.

A person gets arrested, assaulted and he goes and says ‘I have stolen these things, here they are’, and Mapogo take them back. Whereas when you follow the correct criminal procedures, it might take up to a year to finalise a case. (interview, 2000)

Frustration with the often slow proceedings of the criminal justice system is indeed one of the main reasons for support of Mapogo. Yet while it is indisputable that the criminal justice system is inefficient in many areas, this frustration is also often due to lack of knowledge about its workings. Limited information about rights and the mechanisms available to realise them, and lack of understanding of the criminal justice system are particularly frequent in rural areas. Research carried out by the Community Agency for Social Enquiry (CASE), for example, found that 86% of respondents opposed bail for murder or rape suspects. Yet, ‘focus group participants were largely unaware of the reasons for the bail system’. (Pigou, Greenstein & Valji, 1998, p.10)

Another potential reason for the support of ‘instant justice’ is South Africa’s long history of informal justice, involving earlier vigilantes, Makgotlas and the People’s Courts of the 1980s. Communities, which for decades were virtually dependent on informal justice to solve disputes and trial criminals, are now forced to rely on a criminal justice system that often appears to be far removed, costly, inefficient and corrupt. As Nina argues, current vigilantism thrives on this collective memory ‘that can remember that we knew how to protect ourselves in the past’ (Nina, 2000, p. 7). Given this historical context and the frequent absence of visible legal alternatives provided by the state, as well as the financial interests that the businesses have in dealing with crime, the current flourishing of, and support for, informal justice mechanisms is unsurprising.