Mob Justice: An Injustice or a Solution for the Helpless?
Mob justice occurs when people or groups feel more endangered as crime levels rise. It is exacerbated by growing assumptions that the authorities are unwilling or unable to suppress crime. Civilians’ faith in the police is low, laying the foundation for the growth of mob justice. In 2021, 471 people were hospitalised due to mob violence, with 23 dying - a 5% mortality rate over a period of 10 months (Heywood, 2022). The frequency of mob attacks on suspects in South Africa is of great concern to justice stakeholders and South African communities.
Mob aggression is more destructive and aggressive than individual action. According to Bello (2020), a group of people with identical goals, whether harmful or not, will commit heinous deeds without regard for the implications for their personal safety and security. Justice has become a more personal battle for South Africans, leaving plenty of room for error, as due processes are not considered.
Gillespie (2013) notes that township communities feel that the police do not address issues and that reporting crimes may result in the criminal walking free. However, mob justice results in the impoverishment of innocent victims’ families. In an ideal world, serving time in prison would be the preferable way to provide justice to innocent individuals and their families. However, this could exert pressure on an already overburdened criminal justice system.
The killing of Bolt driver Mr Abongile Mafalala carries undertones of racism as it occurred within a Coloured community. However, it needs to be examined from a broader perspective as vigilantism is motivated by an array of factors. In many communities, mob justice has become the trusted “language” to communicate a rejection of crime. It is fuelled by anger, hatred, or dislike of a certain group of people and in some instances rumours which identify “suspects” who are in fact innocent.
Mob justice can be organised or pre-planned, or spontaneously erupt among a group of passers-by who witness a crime and resolve to punish the suspected culprit. While people should be capable of rational thought rather than willfully joining the mob, they do not always stop to think of the consequences of their participation. This raises the question of morality which dictates that one does not harm others. According to Mpuru (2020), bystanders are afraid to intervene as they themselves might be attacked. Once a mob starts attacking, they do not listen to anyone who is trying to reason with them. Thus, someone who tries to stop the mob could become a victim as he/she is seen as condoning the suspected criminal’s behaviour.
Social media has perpetuated the discourse of mob vengeance by creating “viral content”. It enables public identification of suspects and provides graphic evidence of the punishments meted out. Such punishment aims to harm the “suspect” and to guarantee that the wider public witnesses the punishment and does not repeat the crime. However, the family of the suspect is left in anguish with a lifetime reminder of online social media streams.
While Community Policing Forums (CPFs) have a vital role to play in addressing mob justice this depends on their visibility and effectiveness. In the case of Mafalala, CPF members could have prevented the attack and called the police that are part of the CPF. A call from CPF members should be regarded as urgent by the police. Although communities have lost faith in the police, a better way to handle this case would have been to take Mafalala to the police. No one is allowed to take matters of the law into their own hands.
Bello, T.Y., 2020. Beyond the failing justice system: The emerging confluence of mob justice and the social media in Nigeria. In African Indigenous Knowledges in a Postcolonial World (pp. 183-195). Routledge.
Gillespie, K., 2013. The Context and Meaning of ‘Mob Justice’ in Khayelitsha - Report Prepared for the Khayelitsha Commission: Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of Police Inefficiency in Khayelitsha and a Breakdown in Relations between the Community and the Police in Khayelitsha.
Heywood, M., 2022. Death penalty returns to SA through mob murder - with spike in deaths due to blunt force injury, say doctors. 29 May 2022. https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2022-05-29-death-penalty-returns-to-sa-mob-murder-with-spike-deaths-blunt-force-injury-doctors/ (Accessed: 04/07/2022).
Mpuru, L.P., 2020. Narrative accounts of the involvement of victims and perpetrators in mob-justice related incidents: A Limpopo case study (Doctoral dissertation).
Dr Sazelo Mkhize is a senior lecturer in the Discipline of Criminology and Forensic Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. His research specialisation is in police culture, victimisation, crime prevention, community violence, as well as school violence.
Ms Khanyisile Berlinda Majola is an emerging researcher who is currently enrolled for a PhD in the Discipline of Criminology and Forensic Studies. She is interested in exploring African culture and its diversification within today’s society, as well as human rights and gender activism.
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of KwaZulu-Natal.