Sunday, March 8, 2009



By Fred Khumalo
Mar 07, 2009

"Vigilantes are not the saviours of the community they claim to be"
"The police have effectively given us the go-ahead. They only come around to collect corpses"

When people take the law into their own hands — even when it’s because crime is out of control — the result has been lawlessness

The township I grew up in was, unlike your cliché of a township, not sleepy, dusty or rancid. The streets were clean, we had running water, water-borne sewerage, functioning schools and churches.

Our major problem was the horrific level of crime — especially over the weekend, when my lovely Mpumalanga township in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands resembled an overturned beehive with the revelry which, unfortunately, brought with it stabbings, rapes, muggings and general mayhem.

That was until the late-’70s, when the gatvol community sat down and decided to deal with the crime problem.

To this end, they set up a club, for lack of a better word, of men who carried knobkerries and sjamboks and patrolled the streets at night.

A curfew was set, and if these men, who were called oqonda — literally, this means “straighten up” — met you in the street after the curfew hour, you had to explain yourself. But in many cases, the sjamboks spoke before you could even say “I am.. .”

As a result of this intervention by oqonda, the township could breathe a sigh of relief. There were no dead bodies on the streets on Monday mornings when we walked to school; there were no reports of rape.

Burglaries dropped noticeably.

With the crime threat gone, oqonda’s hands itched for action. So, whenever there were murmurs that a man was abusing his wife, oqonda would be called in to “straighten up” the wayward man.

So far, so good.

But oqonda soon assumed a life of their own — powerful, armed and respected by members of the community, they started terrorising young people who were suspected of holding in disdain the person of Mangosuthu Buthelezi, then chief minister of KwaZulu.

What had started as an important intervention assumed political overtones.

This was to culminate in a violent clash betwee n oqonda and members of the Mpumalanga Residents’ Association (Mpura), a civic organisation that raised concerns about the stranglehold that Inkatha had on the affairs of the township.

I was a young boy, but I recall vividly a Saturday when a convoy of cars driven by Mpura members, many of whom were businessmen, was waylaid by oqonda who, it was said, were out to protect the integrity of the KwaZulu government against “political upstarts”.

In the skirmish, I saw a very prominent businessman, whose name I will not mention, shoot a member of oqonda.

Fortunately, he didn’t die. But that skirmish indicated that oqonda had become too powerful and outlived their usefulness.

No one officially dismantled the oqonda outfit, but one noticed that the skirmish had shaken them. Soon , they were no longer patrolling the township. Gradually, criminals reclaimed the streets.

Back to square one.

Until another outfit of “law-keepers” took over. They were the so-called Comrades. Soon, they metamorphosed into something even scarier, seeing that they packed guns — they became oComtsotsi (comrade tsotsis). Again, they were beaten out of existence, only to be replaced by yet another outfit.. .

The pattern was to repeat itself a number of times, not only in my township, but in many others, including Umlazi, where oqonda started out doing noble things, then their power went to their heads and they became a terror to the community they were meant to serve.

I found myself traipsing down memory lane when I visited the township of my childhood last weekend.

In my telephone interactions with my siblings over the past few months I had been told that crime had reached scary levels in that township once again.

When I went back , people told me in excited voices how the community had set up a structure to deal with crime. Tired of reporting criminal incidents to the police, who were ineffective, members of the community were “dealing directly” with the criminals.

I was told by neighbours that, last week alone, four criminals had been stoned to death in the streets, just about a kilometre from the police station.

One of the more articulate young men from the neighbourhood tried to explain the situation to this disbelieving scribe: “The police know about these things, but they are powerless. They arrest these punks, only to see them walking the streets. There is no political will on the part of our authorities to deal decisively with criminals. So the police have effectively given us the go-ahead. They only come around to collect corpses.”

This is scary stuff, you will agree.

It’s doubly scary if you keep in mind that many communities have been through these cycles of vigilantes helping to arrest crime, only to turn to criminal acts themselves.

Desperate township dwellers might celebrate the fact that someone is taking care of the crime problem — but history shows us the celebration won’t last long.

Vigilantism only breeds pig-headedness among those who have taken it upon themselves to take the fate of our communities into their own hands.

Community policing forums , working with the police, coupled with civic-mindedness among members of the public who should take our policemen to task, can go a long way towards ensuring that our streets are patrolled, the thugs arrested. Vigilante short cuts are anathema to law and order.


First of all, thanks for a great column. But I’m very surprised about your preoccupation, not to mention the press’s, with Malema. You were celebrating over the fact that Helen Zille reacted to the moron’s comments. .. yet you then went on to write three columns about this inkwenkwe.

Julius Malema has something on his side that makes him understandably “uncouth”. It is his youth. He has never served in parliament or on any serious government body. Even when he was enlisted as a candidate for parliament, he declared himself “unavailable”.

Clearly, as Shakespeare’s Hamlet would put it: “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.”

As to what a woman old enough to be Malema’s grandmother is doing exchanging below-the-belt diatribes with him is beyond human comprehension.

Clearly “something is rotten in the state of South Africa”. — Trapstar

If South Africans think the uneducated rantings of Malema are something serious, they should know that it could be worse.

In Kenya, in the ’80s, one Kariuki Chotara, a chairman of one of the Kenya African National Union district branches, called for the immediate expulsion of none other than Karl Marx from the ruling party.

This is how it unfolded: the students of the University of Nairobi regularly rioted and blockaded access to the all-important Uhuru Highway.

Every time this happened, those who had been to school blamed the unrest on the teachings of Karl Marx.

In time, Chotara got fed up, called a press conference and asked the ruling party’s national disciplinary committee to expel Marx from the party and throw him in detention. — Bantu Wachanga