“It’s extremely dangerous”, says Nkwame Cedile. He refers to his act of speaking out against the practice of necklacing. Necklacing (killing someone by putting a burning tyre around the neck) emerged in South African townships under apartheid as a way of killing residents suspected of collaboration with the state security forces. It has recently re-emerged. Mobs of angry and frustrated residents of crime ridden townships, who feel the police and the justice system have failed them, have taken the law into their own hands. Since the beginning of this year, eleven suspects of crimes have been necklaced in Khayeltisha, Cape Town’s biggest black township. Speaking out against it is a brave act, as it is not guaranteed that the whistleblower will not become the next victim of lawlessness.
Necklacing just a symptom
It is noon and Cape Town’s winter is treating us on a splendid sunny day. Around fourteen people – mainly white youngsters – have gathered in front of the gates of Parliament, situated in the heart of Cape Town’s city centre. Nkwame Cedile (a black Khayelitsha resident and activist) and Carina Conradie (a white Cape Town University student) are amongst the organisers of today’s protest against necklacing, backed by organisations such as the Right2Know Campaign and the Social Justice Coalition.
Conradie hopes 67 people will turn up today. It’s the 18th of July, declared Nelson Mandela International Day by the United Nations in 2009, in recognition of South Africa’s former president’s 67 year long contribution to the culture of peace, freedom and human rights. On this day, all South Africans are asked to dedicate 67 minutes of their time to helping others.
“There is no better day to protest against the brutal issue of vigilante killings”, says Conradie. “Although what we are really protesting against is inequality. Necklacing is just a symptom.”
A bundle of old tyres have been piled up against a tree – waiting to be used by the protestors. Conradie and her friends sit around the tree and are scribbling protest slogans on posters as the first journalists arrive. “Poverty Kills”, “End Inequality in Our Townships” and “A Parent Does Not Use an Axe to Discipline a Child” are the preferred tag lines.
“Some people say I’m protecting criminals”, says Cedile (45), who started a hunger strike in May against the practice of necklacing. “But innocent people also get killed”. At least one victim of the vigilante killings was an innocent youngster from Gugulethu township, who was killed by a mob of boys while patrolling his community to safeguard it from gangsterism.
Media accounts state eleven people have been necklaced so far this year, but residents believe the number might be higher, as the murders in the township are not always reported. “The issue has been receiving very little media attention”, says Cedile.
On the 14th of June, the Social Justice Coalition, one of South Africa’s newest and fastest growing social movements that campaigns for safe, healthy and dignified communities in the country’s largest and dangerous townships, sent an open letter to the Western Cape Premier Helen Zille, pleading her to start an inquiry into the crime situation in Khayelitsha. However, until the provincial and national government agree on who is responsible for handling the crisis, the vigilante killings continue, exposing township residents to shocking scenes of cruelty.
Reservoir for cheap labour
As the afternoon progresses, a number of township residents arrive to join Conradie and her friends. Patrick Sikhumbule Mnyaka (21) from Khayelitsha is one of them. According to Mnyaka, the government needs to invest more in education and the future of the township children. “There is no inspiration for the kids at all”, he says.
“When someone is killed by necklacing, the community is cheering and celebrating”, explains Cedile. “Since the advent of democracy in 1994, South Africa is supposed to be the country of forgiveness and reconciliation. But eighteen years down the line black people are murdering one another. There is no reconciliation happening on the ground. We have the most liberal constitution in the world but there is anarchism on the ground. If this doesn’t stop it will result into chaos! The government needs to realise that we are not safe in the townships. People are burning each other because the level of crime is too high.”
Yet, only focussing on crime will not be enough. “I believe crime is bad, yes, but living in poverty is even worse”, emphasizes Cedile. “By killing each other without focussing on the underlying issues, we are destroying the future of South Africa.”
In order to address the crisis, Cedile believes the education system needs to change drastically. “Much like under apartheid, the township youth is still being trained to become security guards or tellers (cashiers) at the Pick ‘n Pay (supermarket) or worse, they end up as criminals. We are just a reservoir for cheap labour.” Housing is also an issue. “People live without the minimal privacy in townships. We are all squashed together. People want to be good parents but because of the amount of hardships they face, the often don’t succeed.”
Poor service delivery from government’s side can never be an excuse to take the law into one’s own hands though. The township residents also have to change their behaviour, believes Cedile. “How many mob killings have we seen this year? And yet I have never seen people protesting against police corruption in Khayeltisha.”
Time for a revolution
Dennis Kofi (22) from Gugulethu came down to the protest from Woodstock, where he is in training to become a radio DJ and producer. “I don’t even know why I’m here. My colleague convinced me to join her, she is the real revolutionary.”
“I’m not really against necklacing”, says Kofi. “I’m not for it either, because they can get the wrong guy. But if someone is caught in the act they must feel the full force of the law. And what is the force of the law in the ghetto?”, he asks. He indicates the answer by knocking on the tire around his neck. “The community will have to do the job until the police arrives.”
Ngcwalisa Magekeza (24) a member of Soundz of the South, a network of Hip Hop activists, is fiercely opposed to the necklacings. She believes that the time for a revolution has come. “If people have lost faith in the justice system, they must rebel against the government. They should not start killing each other. They are completely missing the point!”
It’s half past one when the protesters line up to pose for some photographs. They have not succeeded in stopping any traffic on the busy roads that surround Parliament. Four curious policemen observe the protest from a respectful distance. It is getting hotter and hotter in the fierce winter sun. “Are the 67 minutes done?” asks Kofi. “This necklace is hurting me.”