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There’s a new way to understand vigilantism in South Africa

‘Contradictions of Democracy’ is an accessible, compelling read about an important subject.

- June 28, 2019

After the transition to democracy in South Africa and transformation of its legal system, why do citizen vigilantes regularly take justice into their own hands? This week’s African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular review is of “Contradictions of Democracy: Vigilantism and Rights in Post-Apartheid South Africa” by Nicholas Rush Smith, a professor of political science at the City University of New York — City College.

The broader goal of “Contradictions of Democracy” is to understand why citizens turn to other forces — beyond the government — to protect themselves. Smith’s book studies in particular the sources of vigilantism or extrajudicial punishment. Vigilantism is a serious issue in South Africa. Smith cites statistics that suggest over 800 people in South Africa die in a given year as a result of vigilantism.

Smith draws on 20 months of research in South Africa, mostly spent in two townships: KwaMashu, which is 15 kilometers (about 10 miles) outside Durban, South Africa’s third-largest city and manufacturing hub; and Sebokeng, which is 60 kilometers (37 miles) outside Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city.

While existing scholarship points to government failure or civic failure as sources of vigilantism, Smith argues that vigilantism in South Africa is “a response to processes of democratic state formation fostered by dense civic networks.” In other words, Smith’s book makes two counter-conventional claims: that state formation (not decay) is a source of vigilantism; and that social capital can facilitate (not reduce) violence.

How is state formation a source of vigilantism? Smith points to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), often celebrated — and replicated — as a model for moving forward from violence and conflict. In chapter 3, he shows how the TRC failed to anticipate citizens’ suspicions of a neutral arbiter such as the TRC that gave strong procedural rights to suspects. Examining one case in detail, Smith conveys a community’s dissatisfaction with the TRC as it treated the mother of a known criminal as a victim of violence (her house was burned in reprisal of her son’s violence).

A common understanding of vigilantism is that it emerges as a result of a breakdown in trusting communal bonds — but Smith argues that close-knit relationships in township communities may actually facilitate vigilantism, not suppress it. Citizens who fight crime — even if sometimes using force — felt that doing so meant they were “being a good community member.”

Uncharacteristic of most academic work, Smith’s book presents his analysis using compelling narratives. Whether he means to be and without detracting from the rigor of his analysis, Smith is an effective storyteller.

For example, chapter 1 of “Contradictions of Democracy,” which lays bare the puzzle of vigilantism in a transformed South Africa, opens with the famous case against Paralympian Oscar Pistorius (convicted of the 2013 murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp). Not widely reported during the trial, but relevant to Smith’s book, the prosecution in the Pistorius case invoked the threat of vigilantism before sentencing as a reason the judge should give Pistorius a harsh sentence. The prosecution argued that without sufficient punishment from the government, citizens could take matters into their own hands.

Smith’s ability to transform his analysis into readable nonfiction is probably successful because of how he did much of his research — through ethnographic fieldwork. Smith learned to speak IsiZulu, the predominant language in the townships where he conducted research. Working with three research assistants, he participated in activities in both KwaMashu and Sebokeng. In addition to engaging in everyday activities in the townships such as sharing meals and attending celebrations and funerals, Smith also “patrolled with anti-crime groups, attended anti-crime protests, and observed community justice initiatives.” His interview subjects included community policing officials, traditional healers, former police officers and small business owners.

“Contradictions of Democracy” is an accessible, compelling book about an important subject that offers readers new arguments about what drives vigilantism in South Africa. Smith’s book will appeal to readers who follow South African politics and society. It will also appeal to readers more broadly interested in understanding the implications of declining citizen trust in the police and the judicial system to keep communities safe.

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Previous posts in this year’s series: