‘Let’s do mob justice’


‘Let’s do mob justice’

Journalist KARL KEMP’s new book, Why We Kill, explores South Africa’s vigilantism crisis. In 2022, almost 2,000 murders were attributed to mob justice — 7% of the total. Here is an excerpt about a double murder near Vhembe. The victims were suspected of having something to do with the disappearance of three girls.


FOR Elias and his born-free mates, Ramasitsi and his cohort’s stated motivations about political freedom would probably be unintelligible. But muti and ritual murder? That they would know. They live in Vhembe, after all. Muti killings are a fact of life.

They while away their days by the roadside. Their carwash squats on an otherwise empty plot. Directly behind it is another plot, this one containing one or two roughly formal houses, both of which are blocked off by a rickety gate and fence. Across the road is a small tavern, the cement-block type, and a hair salon, where punters can get their hair done in styles like “chiskop" and “bobcut". Various signs advertise other, incidental services: makumba a hone — “eggs for sale here". Or ria luka — “braid or plait available".

The low-grade squalor, the bush-scrub: it is utterly unremarkable. A straight, rutted, scarred, barely-road running through nothing, hemmed in by the guardian Soutpansberg. The kind of place where even the cicadas don’t bother screeching.

It must have come as a shock, then, when in the late afternoon of August 17 2022, a speeding Toyota Etios came flipping end-over-end with a rumble and crash through the scrub to land upright less than a stone’s throw from where the crew was working.

One of its occupants was flung from the vehicle (Elias only remembers him wearing a red T-shirt), and at a quick glance two others were discernible through the haze of shock and smoke, still sitting in the battered hatchback.

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Who knows what was going through Elias’s mind in that moment? It was close to 5pm, time to knock off, but they had a car to finish and the owner was waiting. Certainly such accidents could not have been uncommon, given the temperament of township road-users, the haggard state of the arterial, and the fact that an entire valley’s worth of people must navigate this place via a mere two skinny lanes.

Elias watched as the occupants of the Etios tried to kick out the windshield to escape. But just then a Toyota Quantum taxi pulled up from the same direction as the Etios. It was packed to the limit with people who immediately alighted. They all appeared extremely angry and agitated.

Elias and his mates are township-dwellers living through a period of almost unprecedented social fury and interpersonal crime. Even here, in the furthest reaches of the bush, it must not have been hard to figure out what was happening. Mob justice here runs as deep and strong as in any metro. Regardless, any suspicions would have been confirmed when the occupant who’d been ejected from the Etios whipped out a gun to hold the mob at bay.

“It was then the Quantum guys said, ‘These are the guys who are kidnapping the kids in our community, let’s do mob justice.' So the kidnappers were trying to run away and the community [his crew and other bystanders] didn’t know what was happening. They thought it was an accident, they didn’t know."

This is the translated version of Elias’s statement. But while he was able to immediately identify the nature of the phenomenon, he could not have known for sure whether the soon-to-be victims were guilty.

So it was fortunate that from the Quantum emerged a young lady. News reports would give her age as 23. And she told Elias’s crew, and all who had gathered, that these men had stolen her cellphone and bag and tried to kidnap her at the recently built Mphephu Plaza a few kilometres back.

The whole truth of what happened hereafter — and in all honesty, probably prior — will forever only be known by those who were there. But this is how it played out, according to Elias.

The two in the car had managed to bust out of the wreck. The one who’d been flung — Red Shirt — had produced his gun. And then, in defiance of what is claimed by disgruntled communities nationwide, a South African Police Service van “happened" to pass by. It stopped, whereupon Red Shirt ran gratefully to the cops and was either rescued or arrested for possession of a firearm — that is not clear. Elias merely says, “He ran for his life to the van."

The other two, however … they would not be so lucky. For whatever reason — and here the reader must decide, based on what we have so far observed — the police did not come to their aid. They were presumably already surrounded by the mob. Elias simply says that the other two were then “beaten and burned by the community" after they were “interrogated" and investigated. He also says the entire episode lasted from 5pm to 7pm. And there is video of the event — of course there is — that portrays the beating, in which no cops can be seen.

“The police couldn’t help," says Elias when asked, “because the community was too many and the community was too angry." The beating itself, as seen in the video clip, is far more energetic than what happened in Zandspruit.

Here was a mob; a real beast of a thing. The viewer sees an obscured figure accosted by two people, a man and a woman, encircled by everyone else, perhaps waiting their turn. The man has a thick, shortish whip and he raises it with both hands overhead and brings it down, over and over. The woman flings a stone at the writhing victim and picks that same stone up to throw it again at his head. The man is yet to arrive at the threshold of death’s door, as he is rolling, trying to evade, but already his movements are sluggish and futile.

At least six other Quantum taxis now stand parked around the road, which is blocked off to all traffic. The author of the video is saying “joh, joh" every time the whip thwacks the body, mingling with the jeers and laughs and yells. Directly in front of him stands a mother, a baby on her hip, and the pair look on together.

Abruptly the video cuts and we see the comatose body of one of the alleged kidnappers being turned over by a foot in a plakkie. And then it cuts again, to what could have been 10 minutes or an hour later, and now we see the Etios alight, the crowd standing well away, chattering excitedly. Again: this is a true fire, not of the targeted type seen in Zandspruit. This fire blasts a spiral of heat out of the car.

A column of black smoke streaks into the sky and must have been visible throughout the whole of the valley, to the Holy Forest and Thohoyandou. The taxis’ horns blare non-stop, one long, uninterrupted drone. The caption beneath this clip contains three laughing emojis and one broken heart: “hupfi vhuluvhi vhothuthubekana" (it is alleged that the brain exploded [during the burning]).

They used petrol from the Etios to set the pair alight. There is some contradiction among the crew as to whether the men were set alight then shoved into the car, or the other way around. But they were most certainly burned — dead or alive. The cops would remove the wreck later that night.

“When they were about to die, they said, ‘We know where we took the kids.' But they couldn’t manage to say where, which place, because they were already in a dying point."

“So they wanted to confess? Say where they were taking the kids?"

“Yes. But they couldn’t, because …" Elias doesn’t finish that sentence.

The “kids" is a reference to the fact that five days before, this entire thoroughfare had been closed off in protest by the locals because three girls — eight-year-old Rudzani Muhanelwa, 14-year-old Mudzuli Tshilongo and an undisclosed third — had gone missing in the space of less than a week in early August. The would-be kidnappers, naturally, were thought to be involved in those abductions.

Having failed to obtain the girls’ location from their first two victims, the mob descended on the SAPS station in Siloam to demand the release and interrogation of the third suspect. A public order policing unit had to be called in to disperse them.

The alleged kidnappers were apparently two Botswanans and a Zulu. Elias believes it’s unquestionable that they were after kids for muti, because in the car — before it was burned, presumably — they found sweets and candies. And that the occupants were criminals, because they also found three different number plates.

How much of this story is true?

That a car was burned there is unmistakable. Anyone who visited the scene after the fact could see that; the detritus, the shattered glass, the inner tubing and wiring of the tyres, the boulders and stones … and the rectangular scorch mark, and there, yes, there is a Toyota Etios badge, crumbled and black but very clear when the letters are reassembled.

And there is the video, of course, in which the carwash can be seen, as well as the roadside signs and terrain.

But that’s it. One can only state with absolute certainty that two men were burnt to death along that stretch of road on or about August 17.

Was the catalyst merely a robbery, or was it an attempted kidnapping for sinister, occult purposes? The local papers would report that the 23-year-old woman had somehow been magicked — literally led like a zombie from the queue at the mall to the car out in the parking lot, where she suddenly came to her senses. The police, in their statement, did acknowledge that a charge of kidnapping, along with robbery, had been brought against the sole survivor, who was remanded in custody. And they added that suspects were being sought for two counts of murder. Provincial commissioner Lt-Gen Thembi Hadebe, in her statement, warned people against taking the law into their own hands: “The tendency of some community members to take the law into their own hands will be dealt with mercilessly and those responsible will be hunted down and brought to book."

There is, of course, no mention of the allegation that the cops deliberately left the two to die.

But also: who cares?

Why We Kill is available at takealot.com for R265.

♦ VWB ♦

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