The Case for Vigilante Justice

Vigilante Justice – A politically loaded term that is often mistaken for a bunch of illiterate hooligans bent on exacting revenge for criminal behaviour. More often than not, vigilante justice gets a bad rep as an answer to perceived criminal behaviour as opposed to actual criminal behaviour.

However, when the individuals or groups that exact this form of justice get it right, the results are astounding.

Vigilantes (from the Spanish word Guard or Watchmen), are driven by the apparent lack of criminal punishment in a society at large. This can either be due to a complete state of anarchy, an ineffective justice system, a personal experience or even meeting a social demand. To some extent Neighbourhood Watches (that work alongside the existing legal entities) are a very scaled down version of what Vigilante Justice stands for. Most common targets include people that blatantly flout a country’s laws or even members of corrupt institutions.

Although Vigilante Justice is something to be frowned upon, it has had some success in certain parts of the world  – a few notable examples:
  • Rodrigo “The Punisher” Duterte, Mayor of the Philippine City of Davao, is credited for transforming a city with the highest murder rate in the world to “the most peaceful city in Southeast Asia”*. He is suspected of being involved in the Davao Death Squad and is renowned for his tolerance for extra-judicial killings;
  • “Formed in 1977, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has been increasingly active against whaling and fishing vessels which they see as violating international laws, regulations and treaties, particularly where whaling is concerned. It endorses an active policy of scuttling fishing and whaling vessels while in harbor, and ramming and sinking vessels engaged in the killing of whales.”**
  • Nigeria’s Bakassi Boys are seen as the frontmen in lowering rates of crime in an area where police intervention is minimal and downright ineffective
  • Sombra Negra, or “Black Shadow”, is a group of retired police-officers / army personnel that has waged a private war against drug traffickers and criminal gang members in El Salvador.
Vigilante Justice, often seen as a Judge, Jury, and Executioner style of justice does have raise serious concerns, especially if the alleged criminal is indeed innocent. Moreover, the justice that gets meted out is routinely grossly disproportionate to that of the crime. Notwithstanding the aforementioned, justice delayed is justice denied. In a country where petty crime is rampant, jails are quite literally choc-a-bloc, savage crimes are met with little (if any) investigation and the police are by and large wholly incompetent, the question needs to be asked: Is Vigilante Justice the lesser of two evils? In a country with a failing justice system, is it ludicrous to look for ways to bring about justice in your own community even if it’s not sanctioned by the state? How would such a system look and who would operate it? Recently I was privy to a documentary on “Community Justice” (really just a synonym for Vigilante Justice) in Khayelitsha. In this case, a 17 year-old girl was gang-raped by 10 boys living on her street. She knew their faces and where they lived. After reporting it to the Police as the first port of call, the girl waited for the case to be investigated, for the culprits to be taken into custody and eventually charged / prosecuted with rape. Sadly, and more reflective of the South African Police Service today, nothing was done at all. No investigations. No arrests. No Charges. No Prosecution. No legally sanctioned justice. This girl, along with her family and fellow community members, met at the local taxi rank with the leader of a local taxi organisation as it’s widely known that they have the “muscle” in town. After discussing the incident with the local leader, the community apprehended all 10 of the boys in the dead of night. Confessing to the rape, the boys were stripped naked and tied to a pole. The community members, along with the 17 year-old girl, proceeded to beat them mercilessly with a Sjambok (a heavy leather whip) across their bodies. Bloodied and beaten raw, the boys were eventually let go. In a society that desperately needs a viable alternative to impose justice and punishment, is Vigilante Justice an answer? I believe it is, but you’ll have to burn the Bill of Rights along with it… Which, by the looks of it, is no problem for our neighbours in Khayelitsha.

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