Rough Justice

Daily Telegraph, London, 25 June 2001

Black vigilantes dispense rough justice at a price

By Tim Butcher in Magaliesburg

SOUTH Africa’s soaring crime rate, and the failure of the country’s police force to halt it, has led to the rise of vigilante gangs that use brutal justice. A recent raid on a suspected criminal typified the activities of these gangs. Under cover of darkness a gang of black rural vigilantes descended on a remote South African village near Magaliesburg that had been troubled by a wave of petty crime.

The chief suspect was dragged out of his rondavel, beaten heavily and wrapped in a heavy duty tarpaulin sheet which was pegged out as the sun rose. For 12 long daylight hours the man lay gasping and sweating as the temperature inside the bundle climbed. When he was released at sunset he had lost a stone and half in weight. From that moment there has been no more crime in the area.

This account is one of hundreds sweeping rural South Africa where a de facto collapse of law and order has led to a dramatic growth in shadowy vigilante groups like Mapogo a Mathamaga (Leopard with the Brown Spots). To their supporters these groups offer salvation, an “African response to an African problem”, making up for the inadequacies of the South African Police Service by tackling crime head-on.

To their detractors, they are unaccountable, lawless thugs meting out mob justice for whoever deigns to pay protection money. Whatever your stance, there can be no debate about how popular they have become in rural areas, where they are believed to have more than 100,000 members promising vigilante justice.

Accurate figures are unknown as groups such as Mapogo a Mathamaga keep no official records, operating on the fringes of accepted business practice. Their leaders have been charged and tried for numerous crimes, including assault and murder, but few of the charges have ever stuck.

What is known is that the breakdown in law and order in areas such as Magaliesburg is so severe that white farmers are resorting to protection by black groups such as Mapogo a Mathamaga. High on a ridge overlooking the lightly wooded scrubland that his family has farmed for generations, Willem van Zyl appears to live in a rural idyll. But on his hip is a holstered pistol and in his eye the look of a hunted man.

“Two farmers were killed up the road here last year and you cannot take any chances,” Mr van Zyl said. He was so anxious that he would not be photographed and asked for his name to be changed in print.

“The crime is so bad that you just cannot rely on the police. They take ages to investigate and even if they do get a case against someone it takes longer to get to court; and in the eyes of black criminals even if they do get sent to prison that is no punishment at all.”

It was this sense of disillusionment that led to hundreds of farmers like Mr van Zyl resorting to Mapogo. His farm gate now displays yellow signs bearing the group’s name and emblem.

In the eyes of Mapogo’s founder, Monhle John Magolego, the group is uncompromisingly brutal but fair. “I am a firm believer in corporal punishment, and if a young man has been naughty his buttocks must be exposed so that he can be sjambokked as a genuine punishment and deterrent.”

Mr Magolego’s tone is quiet and almost evangelical. He appears not to make any large fortune from Mapogo, which he set up in 1968 with local businessmen in his home village of Glen Cowie after a spate of murders. But his picture of the justice Mapogo metes out has been tarnished by squabbles between senior members, some of whom have broken away to form rival groups.

Mr Magolego says his operatives act on tip-offs and gather evidence by physical intimidation. Rather than then wait for a court case, the vigilantes invite the community to watch as they act as judge, jury and executioner, most often sjambokking the “offender”. It is this blurring of the principles of “white” justice that puts Mapogo at loggerheads with South Africa’s legal authorities.