Crime Wave in South Africa Spurs Fierce Vigilante Justice

Murder of reputed drug lord by mob reveals depth of public anger

It was a horrific scene even by South Africa's exceptionally violent standards.

The furious mob trampled reputed drug baron Rashaad Staggie, shot him, burned him, and then shot him some more. Then they jeered.

What made the act in the miserable Cape Flats outside Cape Town last Sunday so terrible was not just its brutality. It was also that the crowd - tired of police inaction over gangsterism and intimidation by drug dealers - felt it had no choice but to take the law into its own hands.

All over South Africa, people of every race have lost faith in those entrusted with enforcing law and order. Police officers report a disturbing rise in vigilante actions cutting across all social and racial lines.

"It's a measure of the frustration people are feeling with the police's ineffectiveness in investigating and stopping crime," says Amanda Dissel, a researcher at the Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg. She says researchers at the center have noticed a change in the nature of vigilante behavior. Under apartheid, black and mixed-race communities formed "self-protection units." These were linked to paramilitary groups and tended to murder police spies or enemy factions. Now vigilantes mainly target criminal activity.

Ms. Dissel sees vigilantism as going hand in hand with an increase in community-protection units in neighborhoods that are discontent with the police. "Some then go out and take the law into their own hands, and things go beyond mere patrols," she says.

The government of President Nelson Mandela, which came to power in April 1994 elections that ended white minority rule, says it is doing its best to instill faith in the poorly paid, understaffed police in what is widely believed to be one of the world's most violently criminal societies.

South Africa has a legacy of brutal white minority rule, in which the security forces largely repressed the 5-to-1 black majority. As a result, many black communities still lack confidence in the police. Myriad other woes, such as millions of unlicensed weapons and a culture of violence left over from apartheid, keep the 142,000-strong multiracial police force from doing what it should: protect the populace.

According to National Police Service statistics, South Africa had approximately 87 murders per 100,000 people in 1995, a rate nearly 10 times higher than in the United States. In 1995, 18,983 murders were reported in South Africa, up from 18,285 the previous year.

South Africans recount tales of police inefficiency and even corruption and apathy. One white man, for instance, who had considered himself a pacifist, describes with rage how he gave evidence of a break-in to Johannesburg police, who waited a month to investigate and then failed to apprehend the suspects.

"I immediately gave the police the car license registration and the telephone number of the suspect. They did nothing, even when the robbers came back a second time a month later. I want to get a gun, so that if they come back again, I'll shoot them myself," says the man, who requested anonymity.

His reaction is increasingly common: arm oneself, ignore legal channels, and resort to personal justice. The rich hire private security firms, which at the press of a panic button send armed guards to deal with intruders.

The poor rely on kangaroo courts and lynching or other killings. In the Cape Flats on Sunday night, Mr. Staggie was murdered by members of People Against Gangsters and Drugs. The group, a Muslim vigilante organization, has declared a "holy war" against gangsters who terrorize this mixed-race community outside Cape Town.

Reg Crewe, spokesman for the National Crime Investigation Service, a unit of the national police, says some community groups have helped the police by handing over suspects. But the police do not condone vigilante action.

He concedes that violent crime is "unacceptably high." He hopes better results will be coming from new efforts by top police officials to shake up the force and reallocate resources to areas that most need them. "There has been criticism, and we are trying to address it," he says. "But, of course, I would like to see more results."

Meanwhile, Thami Mazwai, editor of the respected black business magazine Enterprise, defended the actions of Staggie's killers, saying "decent, religious, and law-abiding people can tolerate rampant thuggery up to a point, and no further....

"This is not taking the law into one's hands, it is doing one's duty as a conscientious and public-spirited citizen. Our society must be free of criminal misfits, and the environment made safe for tourists and investors," he wrote in an editorial in the influential Johannesburg daily Business Day.

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