City Press, 5 April 2008

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Residents of Diepsloot have turned judge and jury as acts of vigilantism against suspected criminals spiral out of control in a community terrorised by criminals. Stoning people to death, beating them to a pulp or setting them alight is common in this north-western Johannesburg informal settlement. Even community policing forum (CPF) members are loath to intervene as they fear the rage of the mobs could turn on them. “We live in fear,” said one member of the Extension 1 CPF who declined to be named. “When the mob is attacking somebody there’s nothing we can do because if they find out that we even called the police, they will burn our shacks.” His statement followed last weekend’s stoning to death of two men for allegedly stealing a woman’s cellphone. A third man was burnt for threatening to shoot patrons at a local shebeen. While CPF chairperson Nkukeng Legodi was adamant this week that patrol teams dispatched at night were helping to contain crime, residents have vowed to carry on with their vigilante acts. “We do what we do to teach these criminals a lesson and to stop others like them from terrorising us because when we call police, they treat them to five-star luxury until the courts release them after six months to terrorise us again,” said Vusi Ndaba. At a shebeen near Ndaba’s shack, a group of men spoke in hushed tones when asked about the vigilante attacks. “We don’t want police coming here and demanding answers from us. We all know about the incident but no one will tell you because they don’t want to be called to testify,” said one man. Like Ndaba, Thabiso Mokoena said he believed vigilante acts were the only way of getting rid of crime in their neighbourhood. “We can’t walk freely in our own neighbourhood. People always have their cellphones taken or their shacks broken into,” he said. Priscilla Mamabolo, a hawker who trades near the shebeen, said she had been attacked in her own shack earlier this year. “Some thug got into my shack through a window while I was sleeping and took my cellphone and hard-earned cash. I don’t condone the killings but these people should be beaten up,” she said. A shrill whistle is all it takes to get residents’ blood boiling. Whenever someone is attacked, all he or she does is blow a whistle and community members come out in numbers, baying for the criminal’s blood. Last year alone, three men were killed and a fourth was seriously injured at the hands of angry mobs. Despite these incidents, local police spokesperson Constable Patricia Simelane says vigilante acts are not common in Diepsloot. “We can’t say the problem is rife, it happens once in a while like in all other squatter camps and we are trying to control the situation,” she said this week. “We have patrol cars throughout the day and we encourage people to follow proper channels instead of taking the law into their hands.” It appears xenophobia is behind some of the attacks. “These foreigners are troublesome. They cause all the trouble and we will be regrouping again soon to burn their shacks,” Ndaba said. Simelane could not confirm if last weekend’s victims were foreigners but said shacks belonging to foreign citizens were destroyed following the killings. “They have not yet been identified so I can’t say they were foreigners,” she said. David Bruce of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) said some of the incidents could be traced to people’s loss of hope in the police. “Part of the problem could be the fear of being let down by the criminal justice system,” said Bruce. “People don’t think they are protected by the system.” But spokesperson for the Soweto police Inspector Kay Makhubela urged members of the community to be patient and allow the police to do their work. “We condemn such acts because the law says people are innocent until proven guilty, so they should give us a chance,” Makhubela said.