On vigilantes  and mob justice

On vigilantes and mob justice

A FEW years ago in my home village, a middle aged man quarreled with his childhood friend at a local shebeen after a day-long binge drinking. Absurdly, the quarrel was over a cigarette. In our Basotho villages, it is not uncommon for two or more people to share a cigarette, pulling in a few ‘puffs’ and passing it on from one set of lips (however they look) to another until the cigarette is finished. The original owner of the cigarette had not lived by the code by refusing to share his. This proved to be a fatal mistake as this unfortunate incident ended in murder as the other man drew out a knife and stabbed his friend to death.

I cannot confirm this, but I understand more often than not, a drunken person would lose a lot of blood from such a wound more than he/she would if they were sober. I know that this type of a senseless fight over something trivial as a cigarette is not peculiar to my village. Similar occurrences, with slight differences here and there have been experienced in villages around the country. For fear of reprisal and a very possible forced restitution of some sort, the assailant fled the scene right away. Word about the incident spread around like wild fire and in no time, an irate group of people from the community armed to the teeth with sticks and other weapons had descended on the place.

When they could not find their target, the group went to the man’s house, where they of course did not find him. Using petrol, which I understood was initially going to be used to burn the attacker to death, the house was torched and reduced to rubbles. Fortunately, his family had seemingly fled in fear and trepidation too. Now of course people kill one another all the time and one may wonder if this is the reaction in my village each time someone is killed or generally take the law into their hands. Not necessarily so. This incident was distinct in that the killer had earned for himself a reputation of being a murderer and this time, he had killed someone who was considered by many to be a good man.

Again, this is not unique to Lesotho either. We frequently see these assaults in the news in our neighbouring South Africa and other African countries as well. In a country that claims to be ruled by law such as Lesotho, is this mob justice ever justified? We live in a country that has statutes, laws and regulations that not only prevent the previously discussed assailant and other killers from committing murder, but also prevent the law abiders too from taking the law into their own hands. Moreover, we have all (maybe apart from those who are mentally ill) also been equipped with the moral compass that makes it easy, or should make it easy for us to differentiate right from wrong.

I remember this one recent incident where a community in a certain region in South Africa attacked and assaulted to death a man whom they accused of raping a 13-year-old girl from the same area. The mother had apparently been part of the mob that sought jungle justice for the offender. After all the dust had settled, the police came over and arrested the mother of the 13-year-old and charged her with murder. The Bible prevented these people from doing what they did; the law prevented these people from committing this act; and morally, they were not supposed to do what they did. Were the mother and those other members of the community therefore in the wrong? In the eyes of the law as I have stated earlier, yes they were. Was arresting these members of the community and the mother rendering justice? Put in another way, was it fair? The readers can make up their mind on this one.

My high school teacher used to say that “even if the law is unjust, that is still justice”. Indeed, people like Nelson Mandela were during the apartheid era charged with committing high treason against the land. Using discriminatory laws, “justice” was still deemed by some to have been served, while to others, this was an inexplicable travesty of “justice”. Why then, if God Has clearly set us this narrow path for us to walk on, the laws of the land also prohibit us from breaching their provisions, and the moral rules dictate for us what is right and what is wrong: do people take the law into their own hands and resort to self-help to solve some societal problems?

Let me go back to the story I began with. The man killed his friend in 2005. He was eventually arrested and charged with murder. He must have been granted bail because a few weeks after the unfortunate incident, I met him in town and I learned that the community back in the village was already aware that he was out. He stayed away from the village, and fled to South Africa for a number of years, probably waiting for the anger in the community to cool off. Recently, not only is he still enjoying his freedom while some children somewhere no longer have a father by his hand, but he is back in the village and living within the same community.

Nobody seems to care about him anymore. Newspapers around the country run stories along similar lines where a certain family somewhere cries foul about these types of injustices. Someone commits a criminal act and weeks later, that same person is freely roaming our streets. What happens to the law and its enforcement? Are the police really failing our societies to the extent that people find that resorting to self-help is the best option? Make such an enquiry at the police stations and like the vacillating Pontius Pilate, the police wash their hands in public and would tell you that they as far as they are concerned do their job.

They arrest suspects and submit dockets to the prosecuting authorities. By law, the police cannot hold a suspected criminal beyond a certain number of hours in their cells without charging such an individual. There is a well-known and well documented backlog of cases in our judicial system. Does the mantra that says “justice delayed is justice denied” mean anything to those in charge of the judicial system in Lesotho? Because of this backlog, suspects often have to be released back into the already angry society; the society which has entrusted the police and the courts with the responsibility of finding these criminals unfit to live among them.

The correctional facilities on the other hand, also cannot hold a suspect who has neither been denied bail nor duly been found guilty and sentenced to serve time accordingly. In being forced to take the law into their hands, are not therefore these innocent members of the society turned into criminals by the justice system that is failing them? If one does not desire to get one’s hands dirty, how then does one live side by side with known criminals who neither repent; who are not forced in any way to pay some form of reparation for their criminal acts nor are they at least plucked out of the society structures?

You be the judge.

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