Why we kill – the explosion of violent vigilantism

People hold weapons as they stand at a road block in Phoenix on July 15, 2021, to keep looters at bay. Armed community members and vigilante groups have stepped in to tackle unrest. | GUILLEM SARTORIO/ AFP

People hold weapons as they stand at a road block in Phoenix on July 15, 2021, to keep looters at bay. Armed community members and vigilante groups have stepped in to tackle unrest. | GUILLEM SARTORIO/ AFP

Published Mar 17, 2024


July 2021 may tentatively be described as a watershed in the history of South Africa, although no actual manifest destiny was revealed, no executive Solomon came forth to cut the Gordian knot and lead the nation from its torpor and deadlock, to arrest its slide into ubiquitous, deep misery.

There were no falling dominos, no Arab Spring-type uprisings, no Sri Lankan-style raids on the president’s home. Yet the rioting and looting of July 2021 was new. If not in spirit, at least in scale. And it indicated a national eagerness to take matters into our own hands.

It seemed that everyone, from township-dwellers to the press, knew what was about to happen after former president Jacob Zuma’s arrest for contempt of court. There had, after all, been a veritable army of his supporters camped out in front of his Nkandla compound in the lead-up to the event. Many of them were armed, all had stated quite explicitly and publicly that trouble was coming. Everyone knew – apart from the state security cluster, apparently.

Why do so many South Africans prefer taking the law into their own hands rather than relying on the police? Why are those who do so often cheered? Of the 27000 murders in 2022, at least 1 894 – or 7% – were attributed to mob justice and vigilantism, more than double the number five years before. In the first nine months of 2023, a further 1472 mob justice deaths were registered. Mob justice is nothing new, but it has taken on a desperate, furious edge. Vigilantism – and the condoning of it – has never before captured the zeitgeist of South Africa so sharply. What has changed, and what does it augur for the future? Why We Kill explores the roots, realities and consequences of the crisis. This is an extract from the book.

Inevitably, on the night of 8 July 2021, the N3 was choked off by saboteurs at the iconic Mooi River Plaza. The artery between the export hub of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) and the industrial powerhouse of Gauteng was closed to commerce.

The next day, KZN was swamped from north to south by similarly violent shutdowns. These operations affected the N2, N3 and M7 – all key economic routes.

The looting began almost immediately. Twenty-eight were arrested in those first few days for public violence and malicious damage to property, the state proudly claimed, and there were no deaths. Then the violence spread to Gauteng and all hell broke loose.

What followed was a roughly eight-day period of anarchy in KZN and Gauteng. South African National Defence Force (SANDF) troops were deployed by 12 July (a total of 25 000 ultimately) to little effect.

The SAPS was so underprepared for the unclassifiable maelstrom that it quickly became apparent to the masses in the townships that looting season was open.

Malls, shopping centres, warehouse districts, spaza shops: the true casualties were not the infrastructural targets of the saboteurs but the commercial centres where consumer goods were stored.

And everywhere: running battles, innocents bunkered down, chaos in the streets.

The first tentative summaries of the damages started appearing in the press towards the end of July. In Durban, for example, the tally included 89 malls and shopping centres, 45 warehouses, 22 factories, eight banks, 88 ATMs, 89 liquor outlets, eight liquor distributors, 139 schools and 37 trucks.

A frame grab from an SABC broadcast of a chemical factory in Durban that was allegedly set on fire by looters.

As an attempt to tear out the political throat of the country and incite a focused revolt, it was a failure.

As a canary-in-the-mine for the discontent in the urban townships, however, it was a roaring success.

And to this day it is almost impossible to tease out when the political became the riotous, when the sabotage was simply replaced by the looting, or whether it was all the same from the beginning.

By 14 July, the first reports had started coming in of vigilante retaliation.

Taxi drivers, shop owners, private security, ordinary folks – almost a week of looting and the obvious failure of the SAPS to get a grip on the situation brought about a predictable response.

On 15 July, the cops confirmed that 15 people had been shot dead in Phoenix – an Indian area with a storied past, caught up in the historical racial tensions of Durban.

Reportedly, the Indians had been stormed by a large group of rioters from across the small bridge separating the Indian and African sections of the township. The ultimate death toll from that area alone would exceed 30.

“South Africa is ruled by mobs,” a political analyst told the AFP, whose reporters on the ground must have been stunned by the spread and scale of events.

“When you have so many unregulated security companies and arms floating around … who’s going to be in control when the country ignites?”

The analyst underestimated just how many of the vigilantes were ordinary folks, however; people who took the furniture from their homes to blockade their streets, and stood guarding them with their own firearms, particularly in KZN.

South African Police Service officers watch rioters looting the Jabulani Mall in Soweto, south-west of Johannesburg, on July 12, 2021. | GUILLEM SARTORIO/ AFP

The way it was reported, it seemed as if a switch had been thrown and theft legalised for a week. Looters took time off between raids, so conspicuous was the lack of state response.

One of the country’s foremost journalists, Jacques Pauw, would later muse that Police Minister Bheki Cele had boasted about the newly capacitated Public Order Policing (POP) units a mere three months before the riots broke out.

In 2014, Pauw wrote, POP had around 4 700 members. By March 2021, after spending R598 million on better resourcing and capacitating POP units, that number had allegedly increased to 6 324.

Where were these extra recruits? Those that we saw were spread thinly, engaged in running battles with looters and rioters.

The roads between major malls and warehouses in the central business districts of KZN and Gauteng became new supply chains as everyone took advantage of the lawlessness.

The looting was patently disconnected from any politically minded insurrection.

A number of images from that period will forever remain in the minds of South Africans, and two in particular: that of a beatific looter, stolen camping chair in hand, hamming it up for the camera, burying his face in a whole supermarket cake as the looting rages around him, and that of a man jogging from a Woolworths with a basket of groceries, only to get into his expensive Mercedes.

There were many meme-able moments, but instances such as these tempered some of the nascent national sympathy for the impoverished black people of the kasis, said to be rioting because of hunger and despondency.

The predominant theme was simple lawlessness, a species of mob justice on a national level.

Factories ablaze in this file photo from July 14, 2021. | DOCTOR NGCOBO/ Independent Newspapers

Alexandra was a hotspot, naturally. A photographer who’d kept pace with the looting from Mamelodi to Alex would later say that he had spent “hours” covering the lawlessness without seeing a single cop.

“The only people that I saw at the time who were doing something – and even they couldn’t really do much – were private security.

‘It was a hopeless situation, entirely. The people on the ground were left without any police response. The fact that there were no police rang true everywhere I went.”

How the orgy came to an end remains a mystery. It does not seem that the SANDF or the SAPS did anything decisive.

For weeks afterwards, South Africans would have noted the poorly trained army troops lolling about on business park lawns or hanging around mall parking lots.

But it petered out, and the rest of the country did not breathe a sigh of relief, for there seemed no way that the chaos was anything other than the beginning of the end.

The widely cited and reported damage toll was as follows: more than 340 deaths, R50 billion in economic loss, 150 000 jobs lost.

Property damage alone was expected to cost the South African Special Risks Insurance Association (Sasria) between R15 billion and R20 billion in insurance claims.

The state, for its part, hastily assembled a panel to produce a reflective report.

The resulting document is threadbare and notable for its complete lack of access to confidential security intel.

Chaotic scenes unfolded across KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng during the July 2021 riots. The roads between major malls and warehouses in the central business districts of KZN and Gauteng became new supply chains as everyone took advantage of the lawlessness. Picture: Motshwari Mofokeng/ Independent Newspapers

The panellists must have been acutely aware of how hollow their task was, and it is reflected in the text. Perhaps vexed thereby, they attempted to castigate the government in a self-critical manner rarely seen:

“The looting, destruction and violence have come and gone, but we found that little has changed in the conditions that led to the unrest, leaving the public worried that there might be similar eruptions of large-scale unrest in future.

“The question, many argue, is not if and whether more unrest and violence will occur, but when it will occur.”

To add insult to injury, the head of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) publicly declared her doubts that the NPA had the skills and capacity to “deal” with the more than 1 000 arrestees and, ultimately, the alleged instigators.

The implication could not have been clearer: the state cannot protect the public.

You are on your own.

And while the Phoenix killers were singled out for castigation by the state, around braais and dinner parties in the less volatile parts of the country, they were applauded.


Karl Kemp is a South African writer with an LL.M in public international law from the University of Amsterdam.

As a journalist, he has covered drug trafficking, gang violence, separatist movements, globalisation, nationalism and cultural identity, among other topics, for various publications, including Rolling Stone, VICE and Vrye Weekblad.

After completing his law degree, Kemp interned at the International Criminal Court, working in the investigations division as an analyst in the field of international criminal law. He is the author of “Promised Land: Exploring South Africa’s Land Conflict”.

Independent on Saturday