Lunch with vigilantes

Fifteen years ago, when studying law at university, I’d saved enough money for two weeks’ travelling during my summer break.  At first I thought of Italy, but took a friend’s advice and joined her in Northern Ireland instead. We volunteered for an NGO working with Catholic and Protestant teenagers, hopelessly failing to build cultural bridges between them. They despised each other, of course, and if they weren’t swearing at us it was only because there was religious fighting to be getting on with. Why choose sunny Rome over teaching teenagers filled with hate in the Irish rain?  It was every bit as dreadful as it sounds.


In Belfast the leader of our happy group of naïve volunteers told me that, years earlier, he’d been a victim of an IRA knee capping. Men arrived at Sean’s house, bundled him into a car and drove him to a field. One of the gang dialled 999 and explained where an ambulance should be sent. Then Sean was told to lie down and was shot, once through each knee.

The IRA thought Sean was a drug dealer, the knee capping was his punishment. The IRA weren’t anti-drugs, they thought Sean was competing with their own racket. This IRA gang of masked men were the most clichéd of vigilantes. I remembered Sean when I was 10,000 km south of Northern Ireland and met some vigilantes two weeks ago, in South Africa’s Eastern Cape.

The vigilantes I met couldn’t have been more different to the IRA version. They were charming Xhosa ladies who work at a children’s drop in centre. At the end of the interview they worried about me leaving for a long drive with no food, so made me a peanut butter sandwich. I don’t physically abuse women though, so I suppose I had no reason to be afraid of them.

The local police 

The ladies explained the local issues and gave an example. Recently they were worried when children at the drop in centre were acting unusually and so they, together with the NGO working with them, looked into it. They discovered that the children’s father (let’s call him Vuyani) was abusing their mother and their siblings. He’d even stamped on their one year old brother’s head. The mother and children were taken to the clinic and then to the police. When they arrived at the South African Police Service (SAPS) station, to lay charges, they were told that it was too late to lay charges, it was gone 9 pm after all. They could come back the next day. They did, and the next day too, but SAPS have refused to take action against Vuyani. One of the ladies told me “SAPS don’t care about domestic violence around here”.

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Their first operation

Last year a friend of the four ladies was murdered. They knew she was being physically abused by her husband and when he disappeared on the day of the murder everyone assumed it was the husband who’d shot his wife. The police hadn’t found him (or hadn’t tried to), so the ladies decided to. They soon tracked him down, confronted him and beat a confession out of him with their bare hands. You don’t need to be a lawyer, as I used to be, to know that beating confessions is not the right way to do things, but as these dignified ladies told me their story I admired their bravery.

Some men heard the commotion the women had created. When the men heard he’d confessed to a murder they wanted to know where he’d hidden the murder weapon. After another beating, this time from the men, the location of the gun was revealed and then the village chief phoned the police. The husband was arrested and the police recovered the gun from where the man had said he’d hidden it.

The ladies remained worried. They say that when someone is arrested in their area that release or bail almost invariably follows soon after. They were frightened he’d return to their village so wanted to make sure bail would be refused. In this rural region with very limited transport options, and even more limited finances, they arranged for every local car and minibus taxi to take women from the area’s villages into town to protest at court on the day of the bail hearing. They guess that, at the absolute minimum, 500 women descended on court. Whether down to their actions or not, bail was denied. 

When domestic violence is your norm

The ladies told me that that the majority of female villagers are abused and the truth in their part of rural South Africa is that the authorities often have no interest in dealing with domestic violence cases. It’s not the law which needs to change, but rather attitudes. 

I don’t blame these women for becoming vigilantes. Their motivation is very different to the people who knee capped Sean. If you’d told me when I was studying law fifteen years ago that one day I’d applaud the actions of vigilantes I wouldn’t have believed you. These women (and the NGO which introduced them to me) are the only people in the area acting against domestic violence. The police must start undertaking their job but if they don’t I wouldn’t be surprised if these ladies take action again. If Vuyani attacks his wife and children once more, I think he should expect a knock on the door from someone other than SAPS.

The only name I have used has been changed. I was asked to describe the location in no more detail than "Pondoland".