KHAYELITSHA, South Africa (Reuters) - Beaten and set alight, Ncedile Gigi’s unrecognizable remains have not been buried since March, when a mob fed up with poor policing took the law into their own hands, torching the 26-year-old in a crime-ridden South African township.
Accused of theft, Gigi was one of three men who had petrol-laced tyres shoved over their shoulders in Khayelitsha, a shanty town 40 km (25 miles) east of Cape Town.
The heat fused his body with that of another and the charred remains were then left on a sandy patch of ground where children normally play soccer - a macabre warning to others and a grim reminder of the social problems that plague Africa’s biggest and most developed economy.
For South Africans, the violence also evokes the dark days of apartheid when suspected collaborators of the white-minority regime were executed by “necklace” - a car tyre wedged over the torso, followed by a can of petrol, and then a match.
Police removed the bodies a few hours after the attack but, five months later, have yet to release two of them for burial because they do not know which is which.
“The way my brother died is very painful. We are waiting for DNA tests,” Gigi’s older sister, Kholiswa, told Reuters in her home, a tin and wood shack. “Maybe if I was there I could try to stop them - maybe just a beating only and not go so far as to burn him.”
The death of Gigi and 10 other young men in the township since January reflects an alarming loss of trust in the police in South Africa’s slums, where rates of robbery, rape and murder are among the highest in the world.
“This is actually a deeply worrying trend for the police and government because citizens do not have faith in formal institutions and are resorting to violence,” said Hennie van Vuuren, director of the Cape Town office for the Institute for Security Studies.
“It is very possible that some of the victims may well be innocent.”
Mob justice has been an ugly part of township life for years, but the escalating violence in Khayelitsha - Cape Town’s largest black township of 750,000 people - has attracted the attention of prosecutors and the new national police commissioner, Riah Phiyega, who took office a month ago.
Phiyega, South Africa’s first woman police chief, is under pressure to restore credibility and boost morale in a scandal-plagued force. Sorting out Khayelitsha would be a step in the right direction.
Shiny new police vehicles are now patrolling the township’s potholed streets, part of a visible policing strategy intended to deter crime.
But residents are skeptical, accusing the “men in blue” of tardy responses, bungled investigations and corruption.
“The police don’t do their job,” said Telford Thanduxolo, tending a small vegetable patch close to where Gigi was killed.
“And if the police fail to do their job, then the community must take over.”
Most Khayelitsha residents live cheek by jowl in a squalid sea of shacks - unnumbered homes on nameless streets that are perfect for criminals, and a nightmare for police.
“What sets Khayelitsha apart is the disproportionately high level of crime to which its residents are subjected compared to other areas, combined with the failure of the police to prevent, combat and investigate crime effectively,” the Women’s Legal Centre, a rights group, said in a report in December.
With unemployment in Khayelitsha estimated at 38 percent - higher than the 25 percent nationally - it doesn’t take much for mobs of jobless men to form.
Word of a gang looking for a stolen mobile phone or wallet spreads quickly. Evidence is often an afterthought as the mob delivers its justice.
Foreigners from neighboring African countries or youths seen by the community as wayward are often picked out as suspects. Teenager Anele Gazi was one.
Seized on January 20, Gazi pleaded with the mob let him go because he was innocent, as rumors spread that he had been found with stolen goods. Incensed residents bound his hands and feet, put him on a couch doused with petrol and struck a match.
“Residents were singing. Some were chanting: ‘Let him die, die like a dog’,” an eyewitness told Reuters.
In this case, as with many of the mob justice killings, police rounded up a number of people suspected of the lynching, but the chances of securing any convictions is remote, with residents often refusing to cooperate with police.
“The difficulty often with those matters is there are a number of people involved and to link the individual suspects or accused to the actual killing from an evidentiary point of view is often difficult,” said Rodney de Kock, the Western Cape’s director of public prosecutions.
There have been some police breakthroughs in several of this year’s cases, with one woman and 12 men facing charges from assault to kidnapping and murder.
But the wheels of South African justice grind slowly at the best of times, and few Khayelitsha residents are going to go out of their way to put the agents of an accepted vigilante justice system behind bars.
Only the victims’ families want the killers brought to book.
“What they did is also commit a crime. There is nothing justifying what they did,” Gigi’s sister said.
“It’s totally wrong.”
Additional reporting by Nombulelo Damba; Editing by Ed Cropley and Alastair Macdonald