When Crime and Disorder Feel Rampant, Violent Vigilantes Step Into the Breach

The crisis of neoliberalism fuels social breakdown and a backlash from violent “anti-crime” vigilante groups. It’s a destructive, authoritarian vision of order that the Left can directly challenge.

A private security guard patrols the Mount Moriah suburb of Durban North, South Africa, as armed community members and vigilante groups step in to tackle crime and unrest. (GUILLEM SARTORIO / AFP via Getty Images)

South Africa’s state and society have been stripped by vulture capitalism and predatory governance.

Rampant corruption within the energy sector, involving both South African politicians and international companies like Bain and McKinsey, has led to regular power and water outages across the country. Organized criminal syndicates have implanted themselves in almost every part of the economy, contributing to the virtual collapse of public health care, transportation, and the commercial freight sectors. Internal strife in the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has paralyzed government’s daily functioning, and ferocious struggles over access to outsourcing contracts and public funds have led to the sabotage of infrastructure and political assassinations.

In August, Cape Town gang members posted videos waving AK-47’s and demanding protection fees from government workers attempting to fix rail infrastructure. Meanwhile, the buses that working-class passengers have been forced to use as an alternative transport are themselves targets for robbery, with criminals brazenly holding up morning commuters. Attacks on long-distance passenger buses have become so endemic that a court ruling ordered Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula to intervene after failing to act on several years of escalating violence.

The daily reality of instability, danger, and rising murder rates, in a society where the police is widely regarded as both corrupt and incompetent, has led to cynicism about the government’s capacity to ensure even a modicum of stability and order.

This cynicism is aggravated by how political elites implicated in mass corruption, such as former president Jacob Zuma, have avoided accountability from the criminal justice system. In July 2021, Zuma’s supporters, including members of the intelligence agencies and police, organized looting and attacks on infrastructure in retaliation for his incarceration on charges of contempt of court. This was not a spontaneous riot but an insurrectionary effort to destabilize the state.

Despite high-profile Zuma supporters openly encouraging violence on social media, which led to hundreds of deaths, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government gave Zuma an early release while failing to prosecute the organizers of the most destructive political violence since South Africa’s transition to democracy in the early 1990s. At a recent court appearance, Zuma publicly thanked rioters for “standing beside me when times were tough.”

In contrast, the police are notorious for not standing by the citizenry when times get tough. South African Police Service (SAPS) officers regularly fail to respond to emergency calls and refuse to report criminal cases. In the lead-up to the 2021 violence, the police failed to act on intelligence about planned attacks; during the most severe rioting, state security forces were conspicuously AWOL.

Along with a gang-to-gun pipeline, where compromised officers sell weapons to criminal syndicates, thirteen police stations were robbed for arms and ammunition between 2019 and 2021.

According to Max Weber’s classic definition of the state according to its “monopoly on violence,” the modern state’s political legitimacy and power stem from its ability to control the use of force in a defined territory.

Contemporary South Africa is not in a state of formal war or facing territorial disputes from other powers. But rapacious self-enrichment and the collapse of basic services has led to a hollowing out of the state, where the government primarily functions to extract taxes and rent while offering its subjects nothing in exchange.

Against this backdrop of social disintegration, nonstate actors have emerged to offer extreme solutions to the crisis of public order.

In the midst of the July 2021 riots, groups armed with machine guns and machetes, and with links to both local private security companies and gangs, were implicated in a series of racialized killings in Phoenix, outside Durban.

In Soweto, Gauteng, a self-proclaimed activist named Nhlanhla “Lux” Dlamini, dressed in military fatigues, organized a blockade to protect the Maponya shopping mall from being destroyed. He was praised by Ramaphosa and wildly feted in the media — then used his platform to become one of the most prominent xenophobic demagogues in the country.

Over the following year, he would become a news fixture as leader of Operation Dudula (“force out”), a xenophobic social movement with a paramilitary element which has been regularly implicated in violence and harassment against foreigners. By August 2022, the organization was blockading public hospitals and denying access to people they accused of being migrants.

In September, vigilante groups in Limpopo burned three Zimbabweans to death for allegedly stealing cables, and chased other migrants out of their homes.

Rather than condemning such horrific violence, many of South Africa’s political parties give xenophobia legitimacy by painting migrants as the central cause of crime and using them as a scapegoat for their own failure to create social and economic stability.

Street Justice

South Africa has a long history of street justice. During apartheid, the police were almost exclusively focused on political repression, and they allowed violent crime to run rampant in grimly impoverished black townships and informal settlements.

This saw the rise of street committees and other popular vigilante organizations that delivered harsh and rapid sentences to people accused of robbery and assault. Some of these, such as the Western Cape Witdoeke (“white scarves”) became proxy forces for state-sponsored political repression.

Postapartheid, such formations have persisted. In many cases, they have been implicated in mob justice and public violence, such as xenophobic pogroms in 2008 and 2015.

Vigilante groups have also been formalized into the country’s massive private security sector. Mapogo A Mathamaga initially gained a reputation in the 1990s for hard-line tactics such as throwing suspects into crocodile-infested waters, but is now better known for its commercial services guarding homes and businesses.

The frequency and severity of daily crime means that vigilantes often operate with varying degrees of popular legitimacy and are seen as protectors who are prepared to go outside the law to protect communities from harm.

After members of an extortion racket called Boko Haram were killed in a drive-by shooting in Mamelodi in 2021, the media began to circulate the story that this was the work of a local “John Wick,” cleaning the streets like the fictional assassin played by Keanu Reeves. Despite little evidence to prove this figure’s actual existence, with the killing most likely being done by a rival operation, it resonated with the belief that South Africa needs ruthless defenders to stem crime and disorder.

Crime, whether it comes in the form of interpersonal violence or property theft, is a profoundly disempowering experience. The idea of fighting back, of striking out at criminals in whatever form, offers the catharsis of taking back a sense of control.

The destabilization that underpins vigilante fantasies of individuals seeking harsh retribution is further fueled by both the government’s commitment to austerity, even in the midst of mass unemployment, and security policies that support militarized but ineffective policing in place of more effective and transformative public safety measures.

While the South African situation is especially extreme, it reflects a wider global context where neoliberalism has eroded the state’s ability to ensure social stability while also facilitating violence and predatory criminality.

Community members wielding machetes stand watch at a road block in Phoenix Township, North Durban, July 2021. (GUILLEM SARTORIO / AFP via Getty Images)

Latin America — a continent that was at the forefront of early experiments in economic shock therapy and deregulation — has experienced the rise of highly organized vigilante forces. Urban militias — often involving former police in Brazil, self-defense forces in Mexico, and paramilitary groups in Colombia — all emerged in the context of the violence associated with the narcotics trade and popular frustration with the authorities.

But these self-proclaimed defenders all revealed a much more ambiguous reality. In Colombia, paramilitaries functioned as death squads, which targeted street children and sex workers. Groups with names like “Death to Car Thieves” attacked alleged local criminals, only to then demand extortion fees from residents and businesses.

In Mexico, so-called defense groups emerged during intensified narco-violence. But while presenting themselves as enemies of the drug cartels, many of these groups were themselves heavily implicated in trafficking and working as gunmen for criminal organizations. In the state of Michoacán, the Los Viagras group started as a paramilitary wing of the Knights Templar Cartel, then switched sides to fight them as vigilantes, before evolving into a feared trafficking syndicate in their own right.

Vigilantism and the harsh worldviews that underpin it resonates with far-right ideology. Both Brazil’s Jair Bolsanaro and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duerte have presented themselves as the political equivalent of extrajudicial militias: hard men prepared to do whatever necessary to protect decent people.

In the United States, the rise of Donald Trump energized existing far-right movements and inspired a new generation of “border vigilantes” and anti-government militias. Members of groups like the Three Percenters and the Oath Keepers were instrumental in planning the 2021 Capitol attack.

During the riot, the skullshaped logo of the Marvel comics character the Punisher was noted on the clothes of participants. The Punisher was originally created to exploit the post-Death Wish vigilante film boom of the 1970s. In the comic and live-action versions, Frank Castle is a basically psychotic military veteran on a murderous lone war against crime.

However, the logo has evolved from its popular culture origins, becoming a menacing symbol used by a variety of different forces claiming a stake in hard-line anti-crime politics. In addition to militias, police officers themselves have adopted it as a logo for the “Blues Lives Matter” backlash, and it also appears as the insignia of private security companies in the suburban badlands of Johannesburg.

It may seem ironic that the self-proclaimed side of strict law and order embraces a vigilante fantasy of lawless retribution. But this is reconciled in the conservative worldview by the ideology that the law is too liberal and soft on various criminals and imagined social degenerates. It therefore becomes necessary to break the law in pursuit of a higher moral order.

In an atomized world, where the concept of a wider public good has been subsumed into privatized stress and precarity, the fictional vigilante, represented in the ongoing popular cultural fixation with characters like Batman, offers a vicarious fantasy of individuals generating social order through the force of personal will.

Taking Crime Seriously

In contrast to the lone wolves of popular culture, real-world vigilantes are disturbingly sociable. They offer a sense of collectivity and meaning for their members and supporters. The online rhetoric of Operation Dudula, for example, presents it as a force of popular democracy, where ordinary citizens are taking back control from both criminals and an absent, disinterested state.

But this is an ideal of community that is fundamentally based on exclusion. Crime is seen as a foreign intrusion from the outside rather than a problem created by the structures of society itself.

This is a vision of democracy that ends at the border. The response to crime and violence becomes increased radicalization, such as when armed-robber-turned-xenophobic-politician Gayton McKenzie proudly announced that he would “unplug the oxygen” of foreign nationals in state hospitals.

The constant urge to purge society becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The profusion of armed anti-crime groups itself leads to more instability and conflict. In South Africa, xenophobic vigilantism has seen reprisals, such as when Somalians clashed with taxi operators in the streets of Gqeberha in 2021.

South Africa has become a grim exemplar of a future where the breakdown of societal and governmental institutions inspires a retreat into violently enforced ethnic and religious silos.

Rampant inequality, climate breakdown, and the widespread proliferation of weapons technology all point to a twenty-first century where existing state power will be challenged by increasingly destructive criminal and extremist groupings.

Intensifying conflict becomes a legitimation for vigilantes to tool up with more weapons and even more extreme tactics. But rather than wanting to end street crime, vigilantes thrive off worsening conditions because it creates new opportunities for power and profit.

Offering a progressive challenge to this phenomenon requires understanding not only its political and socioeconomic causes but the psychology of what the fear of crime does to both individuals and collectives.

The stress caused by a daily reality of risk and social collapse is interpreted by the body politic’s nervous system as anger, feeding the visceral desire to lash out at anything, or anyone, to restore a sense of coherence to the world. When channeled through authoritarian and domineering social values, such as the belief that crime is a phenomenon which can be forcibly removed in one fell swoop, collective violence becomes inevitable.

A leftist counter to vigilantism certainly requires acknowledging the anger and despair created by crime. As Benjamin Fogel observes, it is naive to view the fear of crime as just a right-wing shibboleth. Instead, the daily lawlessness of capitalism and the protection rackets and militias that emerge in response need to be understood as a form of oppression in itself.

One response is to use a materialist analysis to pour cold water on the overheated revenge fantasies offered by right-wing vigilantes. This entails framing the social misery that violent nonstate actors thrive off not as the result of supernaturally depraved outsiders but the direct consequences of exploitative power structures.

Whereas conservative understandings of crime treat it as an intractable human evil, a socialist counter needs to articulate how many current threats and harms can be reduced through greater social interventions and redistribution. A progressive approach to crime certainly would entail increasing general social stability through creating decent jobs, ensuring better housing and public spaces, and reducing the material deprivation that fuels disorder.

But it also means challenging patriarchal and authoritarian mindsets that normalize violence and abuse. And it means redefining popular understandings of crime to illuminate how so much risk and harm spring from the murky nexus between business and political power, and how white-collar criminals can cause as much social harm with a pen as bandits do with a gun.

Vigilantism thrives when people believe that the world around them has descended into a Hobbesian race to the bottom. Defusing its sinister allure requires offering people tangible proof of a better tomorrow.