GROBLERSDAL, SOUTH AFRICA — John Magolego is the founder of a vigilante group that whips, clubs, and says it at times kills criminals.
He himself currently stands accused of murder. Yet he is treated like a pop star. More than 300 of his most fervent supporters traveled to this small rural town recently to support "the leader," as he faced charges of assault and murder.
"We need a guard of honor!" one man yelled as Mr. Magolego stepped out of a BMW sedan and walked through a line of supporters to a quaint white courthouse here. They excitedly reached out to touch him.
For authorities struggling to enforce law and order in post-apartheid South Africa, Magolego's hero status underlines a disturbing fact: Mob justice has gained mass appeal. His group grew from a band of 100 frustrated businessmen in 1996 to an organization with three patrol cars, dozens of two-way radios, 90 branch offices, and some 40,000 members. And there are other groups like his in the country.
"The official justice system has such a low level of credibility," says Shadrack Gutto, a professor at the Centre for Applied Legal Studies in Johannesburg. "Court dockets go missing. Violent criminals get out on bail.... The public perception is that the system does not protect victims or punish criminals. So, they are taking the law into their own hands."
The group includes blacks and whites, young and old, conservatives and communists. In the days of apartheid, some of these white farmers and radical black-freedom fighters fought on opposite sides of the struggle. Now, Magolego says, they fight together against the new enemy - crime.
Tigers on the prowl
They call themselves Mapogo-a-Mathamaga, from a Sotho proverb. It says that when a leopard is confronted by a tiger, it turns into a tiger itself. In other words, fight violence with violence.
The vigilantes carry out public floggings with whips known as sjamboks. Beatings are supposed to be confined to a suspect's buttocks. But last month, members abducted and beat a suspected animal poacher - then tossed him into a crocodile-infested river.
But, "We are not madmen," Magolego declares. "We protect the nation."
That message sells because, even in an out-of-the-way burgh like Groblersdal, 155 miles northeast of Johannesburg, people live in fear of South Africa's violent criminals. Across the country, some 65 murders are committed each day. More rapes are reported in South Africa than anywhere else in the world. About 1,000 vehicles are hijacked each month, and some 184 robberies are committed each day. Police officers, increasingly seen as inept and corrupt, have lost the community's trust.
Tens of thousands of police officers, for example, have been charged with crimes since apartheid ended in 1994 - armed robbery, rape, corruption, and murder.
Quietly, some police officers will say Mapogo has succeeded in bringing down crime because it can work in high-crime squatter camps that are off-limits to officers. Officially, police condemn the group and refuse to cooperate with it unless it stops public floggings.
Pieter Ajtzianestis, owner of a Groblersdal convenience store, joined Mapogo after armed robbers hit him up three times. He was assaulted, lost a total of $10,000, and no one was charged.
Like dozens of other business owners in this town, Mr. Ajtzianestis paid Mapogo a membership fee - costs range from $9 per year for an individual to $1,600 for a business - and pasted the group's sticker with two snarling tiger faces in his store window.
"No one has ever bothered me again," Ajtzianestis says. "It's not that I necessarily like what Mapogo does," he hastens to add. "But I like my life."
When a crime is committed, Mapogo members can call "commanders" to "investigate" and search for the culprits.
"They arrest you on suspicion and rumors," says Kubz Sekhonyane, a Human Rights Committee researcher who is studying street justice. "There is an automatic presumption of guilt. Vigilantes do not solve crime - they make it worse."
The vigilantes have their roots in apartheid, when township "street committees" often punished criminals without involving the discredited police. But broad-based community involvement gave those structures some legitimacy. "These new groups out there are really just gangsters and thugs," Mr. Gutto says.
He points out that, while Mapogo boasts of its multiracial membership, the group dynamic actually reinforces racism. White businessmen may belong to the group for protection purposes, but they do not take part in the beatings. The Mapogo enforcers are exclusively black, and so are most of their victims. "These are black people who are acting as agents for rich whites."
In Mpumalanga province, Magolego and 11 of his top "officials" are now on trial for two murders and six assaults that allegedly occurred during a savage round of vigilante beatings in 1996.
Their day in court
The group maintains that fewer than three of its members have been convicted, although one police official recently said there are roughly 120 court cases involving Mapogo in the courts right now.
Despite - or because of - Magolego's much-publicized advocacy for beating criminals, he was elected to the provincial legislature in Mpumalanga in June. Out on bail, he walked down a street in Groblersdal recently and greeted a white well-coiffed woman who waved to him from behind the iron gate of her jewelry store: "We want to see you in [national] parliament!" she yelled.
Magolego - who often wears a black jacket with gold medallions and epaulets bearing the Mapogo tigers "to distinguish" the leader - contends this is evidence enough of broad community support.
Interviewed in the back seat of his BMW while his bodyguards paced the parking lot outside, he explained that followers think of him as "a father."
"They regard me as some sort of king ... some go to the extent of sobbing and crying, saying: 'if it was not for you, we would be killed," he says.
He also says Mapogo members want the government to introduce corporal punishment for petty crime. This, he reasons, would achieve the ultimate aim of rehabilitating bad people and turning them into functioning members of society. For killers, he wants the death penalty.
Meanwhile, human rights advocates are urging victims of crime to lodge complaints to the watchdog agencies that were specifically set up for that purpose. "This is a democracy that we said we want," says Mr. Sekhonyane. "Communities must work within the law - or the whole thing will just crumble."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society