Danger: When being vigilant turns into vigilantism

18 January 2018 - 12:54 By Matthew Savides
An alleged rock-thrower was arrested by vigilant civilians in Amanzimtoti, south of Durban, on Wednesday.
An alleged rock-thrower was arrested by vigilant civilians in Amanzimtoti, south of Durban, on Wednesday.
Image: Yusuf Abramjee via Twitter

On Wednesday a “citizen’s arrest” took place in Amanzimtoti, south of Durban. A black man — his race does matter — was taken into custody and later handed over to the police. The men who apprehended him believed he was involved in hurling rocks from a bridge — a trend, often fatal, that has hit Durban and parts of Gauteng in recent weeks.

But the man did nothing wrong. In fact, the police told TimesLIVE, he was released not just without charge but without warning. There was, according to the police, a “misunderstanding”.

“No rock was thrown and the person was released,” SAPS spokesman Brigadier Jay Naicker said.

This series of events raises an important question: What happens when being vigilant turns vigilante? It also raises a second equally important and more controversial question: What role did the man’s race play in the saga?

The picture that accompanied the viral posts about the man’s detainment tells a story in and of itself: white legs surround a black body, pinning the man up against a yellow road marker. None of the men appear to be police, private security or law enforcement of any kind. One can’t help but wonder what happened leading up to — or after — the picture was taken. Twitter users raised this almost straight off the bat.

The motorists who arrested the man are clearly operating out of fear. You could argue that this is a rational and understandable fear. Already rock-throwing has claimed lives. It appears to be on the rise and spreading. The risks are high. But does that mean that any man — or any black man in particular — on a bridge should be apprehended? Surely not. Being black on a bridge is not a crime.

No rock was thrown and the person was released
SAPS spokesman Brigadier Jay Naicker

It’s important to be vigilant, but when that turns into a kind of kangaroo court vigilante justice, it exposes a dark underbelly that exists in South African society. The risk with vigilante justice is that it plays into preconceived world views. In this case, one has to wonder if the mindset of “the black man is always a suspect” — or the “swaart gevaar”, if you like — played a role.

South Africans need to do better, and be better, because when we take the law into our own hands we run the risk of treating an innocent man like a criminal. And that goes against everything we should stand for.

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