40,000 vigilantes take bloody revenge

Click to follow
The Independent Online
SCRATCH JOHN Magolego's blue BMW and you could be dangled over a crocodile-infested river. Or beaten with a whip and a club. In South Africa, the world's most crime-ridden country, the 54-year-old vigilante leader is safe and, therefore, powerful.

He has two bodyguards and carries a 9mm pistol. But what makes him untouchable are the 40,000 people who have joined Mapogo, his vigilante group. Three years old, it is growing so fast that soon its members could outnumber South Africa's 90,000 police.

Yesterday the BMW carrying Mr Magolego and his bodyguards was due to pull up for the third day in front of the regional court at Groblersdal, 190 miles (300km) from Johannesburg. It is hearing claims that in November 1996 he and 11 members - all on 2,000 rand (pounds 200) bail - spearheaded a 28-hour mob attack on eight men they suspected of burglary, two of whom died.

There are at least 75 similar charges pending against Mapogo members at courts around the country. Even though Mr Magolego claims "I cannot be seen to be advocating the sjambok [whip]'', his members make no secret of their use of all manner of whips and knobkerries (clubs) as part of "the medicine'' they administer "to clean minds''.

In May members of Mapogo in the Northern Province, their stronghold, dangled a suspected thief over a crocodile-infested river until he confessed.

In Groblersdal, which is in Mpumalanga province, an ex- policeman has been held hostage for six days by Mapogo members who believe he has information about goods stolen from one of their members' shops. "He is co-operating and giving us information because he is terrified. So there has been no need for medicine,'' said Nkgau Molatudi, a welder and Mapogo organiser. Last week a Mpumalanga man died after three Mapogo members who own a diesel station accused him of stealing R200. They allegedly electrocuted him with a welding machine.

Mapogo is bigger than the law and its leader, a member of the Northern Province parliament, has cast himself as South Africa's hand of God. "I am doing a job which God loves, for the poor people of South Africa, who are the victims of police officers making a business out of crime and of the law, which is on the side of the criminals,'' said Mr Magolego, a divorced father of six who started as a hospital clerk and now runs a shopping complex.

His disciples - men and women of all ages and races - worship him. "John cares about us and about South Africa in a way that none of the politicians do, because he understands how to make life better for us by ending crime,'' said Mathilda Maloma, who runs a driving school. With 200 other Mapogo members, she turned up at court to support him.

Mrs Maloma joined Mapogo three years ago. "I have been nearly killed on three occasions. The first time, they wanted my car. They shot 17 bullets and one entered my head ... The second and third times, they wanted cash. When my husband shot one of the criminals, the police tried to investigate him. Each time, the police have been completely useless and have dropped the case,'' said Mrs Maloma, wearing a T-shirt with a photograph of Mr Magolego.

"Mapogo A Mathamaga", which in Northern Sotho means "The leopard changes its spots and becomes a tiger'', does not term itself a cult or even a vigilante group. "We are just desperate business people and responsible parents,'' said Mr Magolego, who belongs to the United Democratic Movement, a new party of disaffected African National Congress supporters. "The medicine is the only thing that works. Criminals like going to jail. They get three free meals a day. If they must go to jail then at least they must sit on very sore buttocks.''

Millions agree. Vigilantism is not new in South Africa. It was an everyday feature of townships during the struggle against apartheid. Today, to whites and blacks alike, punishment beatings are seen as a possible solution to a crime crisis exacerbated by an unreconstructed, overstretched and poorly trained police force and judiciary.

Around Groblersdal, Mapogo stickers - two tigers baring their teeth - are easy to spot on shops and cars. Many shopkeepers and pedestrians think Mapogo is bad but none will give their name for fear of "getting involved''. All agree that a Mapogo sticker is the best insurance against crime.

But Braam Pretorius, 26, will never stick a Mapogo logo to his building- supplies shop in Pieter Avenue. He suffered a five-hour ordeal in December at the hands of a Mapogo-led mob which accused him of handling stolen goods. "About six Mapogo came here, including the white doctor whose computer, fan and fax had been stolen. The doctor told me to go with them.

"We drove a long way and, as we approached the doctor's surgery in the township, they slowed down and they shouted to people that Mapogo had caught another criminal, a white man ... when we got to the surgery there were more than 100 people around me. The next thing I knew was a pain across my back. You feel the first two or three strokes of a sjambok but after that you are numb. You feel it later,'' said Mr Pretorius, who believes he received between 15 and 20 strokes before passing out.

"I remember people coming to look, then going away. The crowd was shouting things in an African language. The doctor watched the whole time. I honestly thought I would never see Groblersdal again,'' said Mr Pretorius, who had kidney failure after the attack.

Mr Magolego is unapologetic about punishment meted out by his members. He launched Mapogo in August 1996 after he was held up at gunpoint in his Mercedes. Most of his members are multiple victims of crime. They willingly pay the annual membership fee, which ranges from R50 for a pensioner to up to R10,000 for a business. The fees, said Mr Magolego, are used to pay lawyers and fines.

There are few rules, except that women should be searched and sjambokked by other women and that white members - who number several hundred - are not allowed to administer corporal punishment.

"These days in South Africa,'' said Mr Magolego, "the law is made for the black man. There is a danger that our white members would be accused of racism.'' He said the government "should be grateful for Mapogo'', because it is reconciling black and white, criminals and honest people.

Among new members, Mr Magolego counts Gaye Derby-Lewis, wife of Clive Derby-Lewis, jailed for conspiring in the murder of the anti-apartheid fighter Chris Hani.

"We do not turn anyone away. We want everyone to join hands and make peace. South Africa is not yet a first-class country. It does not value democracy. We are taming these people.''