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'Out of control': Vigilante justice grips impoverished South African slum

Streams of sewage and garbage run through the streets of Diepstloot, South Africa.
Streams of sewage and garbage run through the streets of Diepstloot, South Africa.F. Brinley Bruton / NBC News
Ethiopians Ersido Ayele, left, and his uncle Areg Aroso were devastated when a mob rampaged through their shop in Diepsloot, South Africa, last month.F. Brinley Bruton / NBC News

DIEPSLOOT, South Africa – Ersido Ayele is still wearing the same pants, shirt and sweatshirt he had on when some 40 looters broke through the corrugated iron roof of his corner store almost three weeks ago.

“They burned all my clothes,” the 33-year-old Ethiopian said. “They burned everything.”

“Everything” included plastic bags of rice, beans and flour; bars of deodorant and soap; bottles of detergent, shampoo and cooking oil; a refrigerator full of soda. Everything equaled around 180,000 rand ($17,000) worth of stock and savings that he and his uncle Areg Aroso had built up over two years trying to make it in South Africa. 

Nobody has been prosecuted in relation to the looting, which swept through other parts of this dusty patch of land crisscrossed by rivers of open sewage.  And it was not an isolated incident – like many thousands of others, particularly foreigners, Ayele and Aroso fell victim to violence shaking Diepsloot with increasingly frequency.  

Diepsloot has become synonymous with so-called "mob violence," or vigilante justice.  Crowds of residents are known to attack and sometimes kill those they believe are responsible for crimes, from burglaries to murder.  And of course there is no telling if the vigilante mob has actually captured a criminal, as the Ethiopian shopkeepers can attest to.

Such attacks perpetrated in the name of retribution go hand-in-hand with runaway crime in the settlement – rape, assault, murder and arson is common here. 

Police stand guard outside a foreign-owned shop in Diepsloot, South Africa, on May 27 after a mob of looters targeted outlets amid simmering anger toward immigrants.AFP - Getty Images, file

“This violence in South Africa is currently out of control,” said Stella Mkiliwane, the director of Refugee Ministries Centre, which was set up to help the influx of refugees flooding into South Africa. “It is so violent, you wonder if this is been done by another human being to another.”

While Diepsloot lies within an hour of Johannesburg’s malls, tony restaurants and wide, gracious avenues, it feels like a different country. Much of the settlement is a slum crowded with shacks lacking electricity and plumbing.

Government services are non-existent in some parts of Diepsloot. A lack of proper roads makes it difficult for police to access some areas and a lack of street lights means many of its roughly 380,000 residents refuse to visit the latrines after dark because they’re afraid of being assaulted or worse.

Reported incidents of arson in Diepsloot jumped from 260 percent in 2011/2012, according to police statistics.  Murder rose 41 percent and violent assaults increased by 380 percent.

The violence can be extreme. 

Golden Mtika, a journalist who works and lives in Diepsloot, has filmed and photographed dozens of examples of residents taking the law into their own hands.  

One video shot in September shows a Zimbabwean man being beaten to death with sticks and rocks in broad daylight “like a snake,” Mtika said, after he was accused of trying to rob a nearby shop.  In another, police struggle to hold back dozens of screaming bystanders as ambulance workers try to come to the aid of a man beaten senseless by the same crowd. 

Another photograph from May shows the body of a man cut in two by residents, according to Mtika.

“This is instigated by a number of people who are unemployed,” he said.  “When someone is not working they will do anything.”

Samuel Maira, local representative for the ruling ANC party, says growing joblessness and desperation are behind the violence in Diepsloot, South Africa.F. Brinley Bruton / NBC News

Samuel Maira, local representative for the ruling ANC party, says growing joblessness and desperation are behind the violence.

“People are angry about food,” he said, pointing out that a small minority of residents are involved in violence.  “When you’re hungry you can do anything, even kill someone.”

He said the government of President Jacob Zuma must concentrate on creating jobs: “That would help people not commit crimes.”

With unemployment rates of around 30 percent, and youth unemployment at over 50 percent, the issues faced by authorities in Diepsloot mirror those throughout the country, said Prince Mashele, a political analyst and director of the Centre for Politics and Research in Pretoria.

“People are becoming more and more impatient with the government,” he said. “We are dealing with a deeper problem of unemployment.”

The government’s so-called Youth Wage Subsidy and millions of dollars promised towards job creation have not worked, and the consequent anger all too often spills over into xenophobic attacks, he said.

Streams of sewage and garbage run through the streets of Diepstloot, South Africa.F. Brinley Bruton / NBC News

“The nearest target is poor Somalians who are running a corner shop,” Mashele said.

Martin Manganye is a local South African businessman who says his corner shop in Diepsloot was driven out of business by immigrants who charged less than he did. 

The government should help South Africans, and not immigrants, he said.

“A lot of South African shops closed” as a result of immigrants opening theirs, he said.  “Every day they are building a shop. If we don’t reduce immigration there will be more attacks.”

Resident are indeed becoming fed up, said Lizzie Chauke, a community leader in Diepsloot.

“There has been no changes since 1996,” he said.

People are so poor and desperate that they don’t even have the money to bury their dead, which has resulted in a backlog of unburied bodies in the morgue, she said.

“People come to us and we take them to (ANC officials),” she added. “I am angry because we report things and they do nothing.”

“They keep on promising but nothing,” Chauke said.

Meanwhile Ayele, the shop owner, has nobody to appeal to or go to for help. He fled hunger in Ethiopia and cannot go back there.  He has no rights or protection within South Africa.

“We had no food, no work so we came to South Africa,” he said.  “But here there are lots of problems.”

“I do not have a solution,” Ayele added.