Vigilantism is a crime that has to be stopped

I FIND it difficult and disturbing to comprehend the thinking and rationale linked to some of the definitive but horrifying decisions taken by communities who resort to vigilantism - or "people's justice" - as a preferred way to address their frustrations.

This type of approach is a subject that has been on my mind for some time. It has now become an issue that has led me to ask myself why planet earth is cruel to the human race. Maybe the converse is the answer to this mind-boggling question.

Shocking pictures and articles of human beings who are labelled "criminals" or "witches" continue to be permanent fixtures in the media.

Surprisingly, nothing is said to denounce those irresponsible and barbaric actions of a few individuals among our communities who simply believe that they can get away with murder.

In most cases the punishment is aimed at the so-called "perpetrators", or individuals whose criminal and deplorable behaviour stimulate the hidden anger of the community. Honestly speaking, it is the families of the so-called community outcasts who feel the heat, pain and shock when aggrieved communities translate their anger into mob justice.

Their properties are likely to be destroyed when the ugly face of vigilantism is shown by angry communities. Those families end up relocating for fear of being harmed.

The most worrying factor about this ever-increasing phenomenon is that it is not confined to a specific area.

It is more distressing to notice that some respectable and influential people also play a leading role in perpetuating such dastardly acts.

Reports of mob justice are prevalent in all the provinces, justifying it to be labelled a national problem.

In December 2007 Gauteng police arrested four men accused of setting a man alight in a mob justice attack in Roodepoort. The victim was accused of robbing a man of his cellphone.

In another incident in July 2008 an alleged thief was beaten and seriously injured in Marabastad, Pretoria. The man was walking past the shop he had allegedly burgled earlier, wearing clothes he had stolen from the shop, when he was confronted by the shop owner.

Six people were battered and stoned to death by angry residents in two unrelated incidents of mob justice in Ntuzuma, KwaZulu-Natal, in August 2008.

We tend to be a country that has lost its values and morals. Incidents of mob justice are carried out and celebrated in front of young children.

Such actions are a recipe for breeding a future generation that will be content with violence. I believe that answers must be sought to change the existing mob justice mentality.

All these dreadful acts of violence can be stopped if there is persistence in collectively taking ownership of the crisis and making it our responsibility to embark on a public education campaign in our communities.

Government departments such as justice and constitutional development and police as well as identified non-governmental organisations are well-positioned to take the lead in this initiative.

For instance, take the thought of introducing effective community courts (makgotlas) in rural areas, where chiefs can be empowered to mediate on issues with probable chances of igniting vigilantism. This kind of community engagement has to be properly researched and applied only as a pilot project ahead of its implementation across the country.

Vigilantism in urban areas is a real headache and can be managed through awareness campaigns and education.

Lack of information on how our criminal justice system operates appears to be one of the contributing factors. Most communities are upset by the release of criminal suspects on bail. Failure to educate them contributes to the existence of this problem.

The current approach of setting the police against perpetrators of vigilantism is not enough to address the root cause. There is a need to engage our communities through community structures to explicate the dangers and the consequences of vigilantism.

I believe that former Sowetan editor and founder of the Nation Building concept, the late Aggrey Klaaste, had laid a perfect foundation for all South Africans to apply their minds in building a better nation.

Such initiatives should be pursued to confront issues like vigilantism. Vigilantism is criminality that has to be nipped in the bud and condemned at all costs.

lThe writer is the national spokesperson of the SAPS. He writes in his personal capacity