'Over a period of less than two weeks, we had about six incidents of this kind'
It was one crime too many for New Brighton. Two men broke into an elderly woman’s home, stole her television, and then stabbed her tenant to death when he tried to protect her.
So the next morning, neighbours tracked down the thieves, put tyres around their necks, doused them with petrol and set them ablaze.
“These boys had been causing problems in the community for a long time. They terrorised us,” said one resident of the township in South Africa’s industrial city of Port Elizabeth.
“People were shouting, emotions were high. Everything happened all at once,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“I just saw tyres being put around their necks, petrol was poured and they were set alight. When they were burning people were shouting all sort of insults and then it was done... The whole thing was so fast, like in a movie.”
“Necklacing” is one of the grisliest legacies of the violence that rocked South Africa’s townships in the 1980s, a punishment meted out to perceived sell-outs in the fight against white-minority rule, or sometimes to common criminals convicted by ”people’s courts”.
Since June, necklacing has re-emerged in Port Elizabeth as a new form of vigilante justice, which is common in townships where poor policing spawns deep frustrations.
“Over a period of less than two weeks, we had about six incidents of this kind,” said police spokesman Dumile Gwavu.
“In three incidents, police couldn’t save the victims and in other incidents officers arrived on the scene just in time before people were killed... Several victims had petrol all over them others were severely assaulted with stones.”
Police statistics show that of the 46 killings committed on an average day in South Africa, 5% are the result of vigilantism.
The necklacing in New Brighton created few doubts in the community about either the guilt of the two men or the justice of their punishment. The witness who spoke to AFP said that one of the men was wearing the dead tenant’s clothes.
“We report these criminals to the police. They come out the next day and commit the crimes again, so we got tired of opening cases that never go anywhere,” he said.
“If the situation remains like this, then we will do this again because we got rid of the problem for good.”
Gwavu said no arrests have been made in any of the necklacing cases because residents were protecting each other.
“We have been having community meetings trying to explain to people that they can’t take law into their hands, but so far these meetings have been tense as they community is still angry and don’t trust the police,” he said.
According to police statistics, about 80% of violent crime happens in poor neighbourhoods, usually by people who personally know their victims.
That has helped fuel a rise in what researchers term “collective violence”, said Nomfundo Mogapi, acting director at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, a think-tank.
“Our concern is that society is trying to organise themselves around violence when they feel frustrated” that the justice system is failing them.
“Because of our violent history people feel violence is the only way to make politicians, officials or police to listen to their grievances,” she said.
“What we see in these cases is the same pattern of violence used during the apartheid era, the burning of government buildings, stoning of police cars and barricading of roads.”