chapter  7
18 Pages

Vigilantism and Popular Justice after Apartheid

South Africa has a long history of vigilantism and popular justice. In both rural and urban areas, African people have regularly sought to maintain order - however defined - through policing the streets or hills, operating court-like institutions for dispute settlement, and meting out sentences and punishments as they deemed appropriate. At times these initiatives enjoyed the tacit and even active support of the state; at other times they were denounced as ‘vigilantism’. Many of these variants of vigilantism and popular justice were tied to the system of racial discrimination that, after 1948, was known as apartheid. The state invested little effort in policing African townships, or in settling disputes, unless there was a clear threat to overall political stability. In rural areas, the state delegated authority to chiefs as part of its policy of establishing different political systems for different racial groups. The transition to democracy in South Africa might therefore have been expected to have led to a sharp decline in these forms of extra-state social ordering and control. But there is little evidence of any such sharp decline. Participation in and support for vigilantism of one kind or another remains very widespread.