“They say we are assaulting people. We say we are blessing them.”
Part two of a three part series on vigilantism in South Africa
Pantsi Obusitse, the chairman and one of the founding members of Operation Wanya Tsotsi, does not like the word “vigilante”. He prefers to refer to the movement that he leads, which started in the Kimberley township of Galeshewe in March 2015, as a “community anti-crime initiative.”
Similarly, the group’s Operations Manager Spencer Plaatje has told GroundUp: “I am an activist, not a vigilante” before proudly invoking his famous ancestor Sol Plaatje, one of the founders of the African National Congress (ANC).
Sitting on a green couch in his lounge on a sunny day in late July, Obusitse, routinely smartly dressed and bespectacled, insists that Operation Wanya Tsotsi “does not want to do things in a vigilante way.”
“Our understanding,” he goes on, “is not to assault you, but to give you a lesson that you can pass on to others. We do it in a way that is not inhumane. They [the state] say we are assaulting people; we say we are ‘blessing’ them. We are not trying to do serious harm.”
But both Obusitse and Plaatje concede that this was not always the case: “Back in the early days, we’d beat the living daylights out of you. I think we’ve matured a lot since then,” says Plaatje.
Obusitse adds that after the first mass community gathering that sought to confront Galeshewe’s rampant gang problem, and from which Operation Wanya Tsotsi was born, it was “only by the grace of God” that no one was killed.
“That first day we were carrying knobkerries, pangas, spades, whatever we could find, because of the anger,” Obusitse recalls. “The idea that day was to show these gangsters that if you kill someone, you will also be killed. An eye for an eye. Fortunately, we did not find any of those boys that day.”
When the gang leaders were eventually tracked down by the community over the subsequent days, Obusitse admits they still received a “brutal” beating. “They were seriously assaulted by a lot of people in a way that you couldn’t believe that humans could do something like this to another human,” he says.
Obusitse, like Plaatje, insists that Operation Wanya Tsotsi has become much more “disciplined and structured” since then. However, some of the group’s methods of extracting information from suspected criminals and meting out justice undoubtedly are illegal and are unlikely to ever be overtly condoned by official state organs.
But Obusitse insists that it is the laws that need to be changed, rather than Operation Wanya Tsotsi’s methods: “The laws of this country were written by us. They are our laws. If we feel that criminals have an upper hand over the police and over us, we need to change those laws. We are trying to show government that we find ourselves in a situation that is abnormal. Therefore, our approach must also be abnormal.”
Sjamboks are an integral part of that approach, routinely used by both male and female members of Operation Wanya Tsotsi to administer justice. GroundUp has also witnessed suspected criminals being struck around the face, shocked with Tasers and kicked. One Operation Wanya Tsotsi member described how in winter the group liked to hold suspects under a cold tap until they gave up whatever information was being sought from them. “You should see how fast they talk when we do that,” he said with a laugh.
Similar tactics have been used to lesser or greater degrees by various vigilante groups across the country, most notably Mapogo A Mathamaga, a notoriously violent movement that achieved nationwide fame after it burst onto the scene in Limpopo.
Mary Nel is a Public Law Lecturer at the University of Stellenbosch who has researched vigilante groups. She says that before the end of apartheid the phenomenon of vigilantism was generally a “conservative, state-supported movement, where the idea was that these groups were basically maintaining the status quo for the apartheid government.”
But even in democratic South Africa, the term is still often associated with the mob justice killings that occur across many crime-afflicted and underserved townships, although Nel says that vigilantism has become much more of a “grassroots crime-fighting” trend. In such instances, alleged criminals are often beaten or burnt to death by large crowds, a grizzly throwback to the political violence of the 1980s, when many suspected apartheid collaborators suffered the same fate.
Mapogo is a compelling case study in that it combined aspects of both the pre- and post-apartheid manifestations of vigilantism mentioned by Nel, while also bearing a few striking and uncomfortable resemblances to Operation Wanya Tsotsi. Barbara Oomen wrote in a 2004 academic paper about Mapogo, that the group, who came to be known by the media as the “sjambok vigilantes,” was formed as a “forceful response to rampant crime…and the incapacity of existing institutions to deal with it.”
Mapogo gained rapid and widespread support, boasting thousands of members and scores of branches nationwide in 2002. From the outset, Oomen says Mapogo was premised on an ideology of “social conservatism” that veered towards outright apartheid nostalgia and centered around reasserting the control of “the elders” and “putting the youth in their place.”
Mapogo’s former leader, a charismatic and divisive businessman named John Magolego, was a member of the National Party in 1993, though he would later repeatedly and flippantly change his political affiliations. It’s been alleged that to acquire a business in the former Lebowa homeland where Mapogo originated, support for the National Party was a prerequisite. The Mapogo movement was initially spearheaded by a group of local business owners like Magolego, placing a firm emphasis on protecting their own kind from spiraling youth criminality.
Although Operation Wanya Tsotsi’s membership has a much broader age and employment demographic (many members are both young and unemployed), the rhetoric of its leaders often displays a conservatism and nostalgia similar to that of Mapogo.
Tsepho Mathloko, a well-known 42-year-old painter and Operation Wanya Tsotsi’s deputy chairperson, has remarkably rosy recollections of his childhood in Galeshewe in the 1970s and 1980s, a time when most South African townships were besieged by extreme levels of political violence. “Life was very different back then,” Mathloko says, “When I was a kid, you could go anywhere at any given time and you knew you were safe. Your parents knew you were safe. Back then, we as young kids used to respect our elders. It’s not like that now. Now people have to worry about these young guys. That’s why we as a community had to take a stand.”
But for any initial overzealousness, Operation Wanya Tsotsi has never threatened to reach the same level of violence as Mapogo. In November 1996, just months after Mapogo began, a mob marching under its banner beat two prison escapees to death. Between 1996 and 2000, there were a total of 139 charges for common assault, 82 for serious assault, 23 for kidnapping, 19 for attempted murder, 13 for murder, nine for theft and six for robbery, laid against members of Mapogo. A total of 300 Mapogo members were arrested during this four-year period, including John Magolego, who has himself faced multiple murder charges.
Operation Wanya Tsotsi has repeatedly prevented the kind of mob justice attributed to Mapogo from exploding in Galeshewe. In 2015, their members stopped an angry mob from burning down the house of a sangoma who had allegedly abducted a young girl for a ritual killing. They also protected local foreign-owned businesses from being looted and razed to the ground when xenophobic violence in Gauteng threatened to spill over into Galeshewe that same year.
In a particularly compelling case in March 2017, Operation Wanya Tsotsi went so far as to chase down two of their own members who were among five men suspected of murder; one had attempted to flee Kimberley by train bound for Cape Town. The organisation used its expansive community network to apprehend him when the train pulled into Hopetown, then turned him immediately over to the police.
Plaatje concedes that Operation Wanya Tsotsi has occasionally been infiltrated by “certain criminal elements,” but insists that the group has always “managed to get rid of the deadwood.”
But none of this stopped the magistrate in the murder case from taking a stab at Operation Wanya Tsotsi, saying it was “ironic” that two of the accused “belong to a group that is meant to protect the community. They work with the police but are now the perpetrators, accused of taking the law into their own hands.” The magistrate made no mention of Operation Wanya Tsotsi’s role in apprehending the suspects, nor that members of the group had gathered outside the court on the day of the trial to oppose bail for the suspects.
Increasingly frustrated and disillusioned with police management in Galeshewe, with the courts and with local government, Obusitse has been trying to use Operation Wanya Tsotsi’s considerable online presence to draw attention to the group’s plight at a national level. In July, the group helped to lure Deputy Police Minister Bongani Mkongi to Kimberley to discuss the lack of police resources in Galeshewe and other surrounding areas. However, Mkongi predictably joined the chorus calling on Operation Wanya Tsotsi to join the Community Policing Forum (CPF) – only then would the group be supported by the government, he said.
Back in the late 1990s, Mapogo found itself in a similar situation. Nel says, “Initially the state wanted to engage with Mapogo, wanted to incorporate different branches into CPFs, but the stumbling block was always their insistence on the use of force.”
In 2001, Mapogo took a different path, becoming a registered private security company, with its various nationwide branches operating like franchises. According to Oomen’s academic paper about the trajectory of the group, this move was largely an “indication of the failure of the state to address Mapogo’s demands.”
At this time, a former private investigator called Barry van Zijl formed a close relationship with John Magolego. Van Zijl’s son Renus Muller says his late father played an important role in urging the Mapogo founder to make this unprecedented transition from vigilante group into private sector business.
In those early years after apartheid, Muller says: “I think white people felt ‘What are we going to do? Everything has changed, we’re scared. Now here’s Mapogo with a black face. These guys might protect us.’ The brand spread like wildfire.”
Even today, Muller says the Mapogo brand is “still something that has a lot of power … People when they have a certain problem, they say ‘who were those people who didn’t take any shit? Oh yes, Mapogo.’ Then they’ll phone us.”
However, Muller says the brand name has also been dogged by the more negative associations from its past, which still lead some clients to expect a violent approach. “It’s been very difficult for me,” Muller concedes, “because I want to do things by the book. I’m trying to do the right thing, the legal thing, look after my people well, that sort of thing.”
According to Nel, Mapogo in its more modern manifestation has largely left behind its original mandate: “It’s like Mapogo almost became too popular for its purpose. This drive to help protect the community, which was their first motivation, it’s now something different. It’s now about profit.”
If Operation Wanya Tsotsi continues to resist being co-opted into existing state frameworks like the CPF, could the group end up being forced to follow Mapogo’s example and become a private business? With satellite branches of Operation Wanya Tsotsi having opened up in other towns including Ritchie and Kuruman, the movement is certainly gaining traction. Such questions about how best to continue that growth and sustain the movement’s future will only become more widespread.
Patsy Alley, spokesperson for the Northern Cape Department of Transport, Safety and Liaison, maintains that her department is set on finding a way of working together with Operation Wanya Tsotsi and says “this could come to serve as a benchmark for other parts of the country in terms of crime fighting.”
Obusitse agrees that “the government needs to invest in Operation Wanya Tsotsi as a pilot project to see how best to use this model countrywide. Even if we are not perfect, even if we can’t eradicate crime, we have created hope in our community.”
When the legal recourse fails the people have natural law to protect them. We have had a breakdown in leadership in the police. Because of political connections I daresay people get into a leadership position. Some of these guys were never in the police yet they are supposed to enjoy respect and credibility e.g. Jackie Selebi and a known crook such as Khomotso Phahlane. How can a stooge provide leadership when these guys have as a vision only self-enrichment?
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