Contradictions of Democracy: Vigilantism and Rights in Post-Apartheid South Africa

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What does the worrying high level of violence in South Africa mean for democracy? In our popular Book Club feature, Nicholas Rush Smith explains the lessons of his recent publication on vigilantism and rights in post-apartheid South Africa. 

During the 2017-2018 statistical year, South African police attributed 849 murders to vigilante violence. Although the number may seem extraordinary or unusual, it is not. Police data suggest that in any given year roughly five percent or more of South Africa’s 18,000-plus murders result from citizens punishing one another outside of the state.

South Africa is not the only country, of course, where vigilantism is common. Transitional democracies in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and across the African continent report frequent vigilantism. Yet, South Africa stands out because of the celebrated nature of its democratic transition, its relatively robust constitutional order, and the extensiveness of its institutional reforms following the country’s democratization in 1994.

Why is this violence occurring? And, as South Africa marks twenty-five years of democratic rule, what does this violence reveal about the nature of the country’s democracy and about the nature of democratic order generally? Based upon twenty months of ethnographic and archival research, my recently published book, Contradictions of Democracy: Vigilantism and Rights in Post-Apartheid South Africa, provides some important answers to these questions.

Understanding Vigilantism

Often, vigilante violence is attributed to the failures of the state to provide order – for instance, through the state’s inability to police or prosecute – or because of breakdowns in community cohesion.  In South Africa, there are reasonable grounds for such conclusions. For instance, there is ample evidence the country’s police services are politicized at the highest levels with negative effects for quotidian policing. And while the number of police officers has grown massively since the end of apartheid, they are distributed unequally, with stations in poor neighborhoods having less access to police services despite comparatively high rates of crime. The state’s prosecutorial authority has also been politicized, with unfortunate consequences for its ability to secure convictions. At the community level, poor neighborhoods still suffer the effects of apartheid, including stunning economic inequality and desperately unequal access to state resources.

Yet, attributing vigilantism to the technical failings of the state and strains on communities sits awkwardly against important patterns of violence. Despite its ample policing challenges, for example, South Africa’s crime rate has plummeted since the end of apartheid, even as data from the police and mortuaries suggest rates of vigilantism held fairly constant or even increased in some areas, indicating the relationship between crime rates and vigilantism is not direct. Moreover, there are a surprising number of attacks that take place against suspects under police guard or where suspects have been released on bail or while an investigation is ongoing – a pattern that scholarly work suggests is common elsewhere. The same is true of periodic attacks on alleged witches, whose “crimes” do not lend themselves to solutions through the state’s legal system. Even lawyers representing controversial suspects have been attacked, suggesting that for at least some citizens, the basic tenets of the criminal justice system are as much of a concern as how it functions.

How do we account for these patterns? My book argues that rather than seeing vigilantism as a functional response to state or civic failure, we should understand vigilantism as an often contradictory response to processes of state formation within the context of civically dense communities. Even as citizens regularly engage the courts to advance the cause of social justice, citizens’ often have ambivalent relationships to the state’s rights regime – sometimes seeing it as preventing punitive justice or as enabling insecurity. Vigilante citizens, in particular, claim that due process rights can make citizens unsafe because suspects may be released back into neighborhoods following arrest where they can continue to prey on residents. In effect, for these citizens the technical success of legal institutions – for instance, granting bail for minor crimes or withdrawing charges if there is insufficient evidence – can mean profound state failure. In townships, where there are often intimate neighborhood ties, these understandings are intensified as the suspect may be “known” to would-be crime fighters. Such citizens can then rely on local civic networks to mobilize a response and “correct” the state’s “failures.”

Responding to Vigilantism

Still, given the ample problems with South Africa’s policing and prosecutorial services, it might seem that investing in more policing and prosecution would be the best solution to vigilantism, with the hope that more and better policing will create order and lessen citizens’ desires to take justice into their own hands. There is reason for caution with this common sense approach, though.

While increasing the number of police officers may be fairly easy, ensuring that they will act within the bounds of the law is a different matter entirely – particularly when there is a history of politicians advocating violent policing, the victims of lethal force are often economically and socially marginalized, and some rank-and-file officers are sympathetic to vigilante justice. Moreover, in some other countries that have tried to prosecute their way out of high crime – most notably the United States – this strategy has resulted in the unintended byproduct of morally abhorrent rates of imprisonment of young men of color already on societies margins. As it is, South Africa has one of the largest prison populations in the world, as magistrates have handed down longer sentences over time. Indeed, vigilantism is often used as a reason for justifying ever harsher state punishments, including the return of the death penalty in the United States. Even more, the high rates of police violence in South Africa – much of which may be illegal – can make it difficult at times to distinguish between police violence and vigilante violence. Perhaps it is no wonder that South Africa’s first show for Netflix is about a vigilante ex-cop whose superpowers allow him to clean up Johannesburg’s streets where its all-too-human police have failed. In short, given the South African police’s violent history, increased policing by itself may mean unintentionally injecting more violence into communities that are desperate for less of it.

If increased policing and prosecution are likely to have unintended effects, what can be done?  Unfortunately, there may be few easy solutions. In the short term, decreasing the myriad forms of physical, economic, and moral insecurity that citizens face is important. Doing so, though, does not necessarily mean investing scarce resources in ever-increasing numbers of police. Rather, as scholars have suggested elsewhere, it may mean looking toward solving the multiple economic, social, and infrastructural challenges that fuel insecurity in the first place.

In the long-term, as research from the United States has shown, challenging the basic acceptability of vigilante violence as a mode of social control may be the key. In this regard, South African politicians and police officials have taken an unfortunately contradictory approach to vigilantism, almost since the birth of the democratic order, by condemning popular justice while simultaneously criticizing the country’s rights-based constitution. If the state offers contradictions, an anti-vigilante citizen movement in a Cape Town township, Khayelitsha, may offer a better path forward.

Area residents, with the backing of nationally-prominent social movements, protested against the area’s vigilante violence after numerous such killings in 2011 and 2012. While a commission of inquiry emerging out of the movement ultimately argued in favor of increased policing as the best solution to the area’s vigilantism, activists who mobilized, at great personal risk, to condemn vigilantism as a practice in its own right may provide the real key to solving the problem. Even as South Africa’s state needs to do much better in addressing its citizens’ multiple forms of insecurity, to the degree that vigilantism is a bottom-up phenomenon, solutions to it may need to be too.


Nicholas Rush Smith is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the City University of New York – City College. He is the author of Contradictions of Democracy: Vigilantism and Rights in Post-Apartheid South Africa (Oxford University Press, 2019) and has published work in the American Journal of Sociology, Comparative Politics, African Affairs, PS: Political Science and Politics and Qualitative and Multi-Method Research.

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