Vigilantism in Johannesburg and Welcome to our Hillbrow

In 2008, Louis Theroux traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa to make a documentary about the private security situation there. As the government is unable to provide adequate security to its inhabitants, private groups emerge to reinforce the order, however, by means of crime and violence. In a short clip called “Brutal Interrogation”, Louis Theroux met a group of vigilantes who punished an accused criminal using a method called “sjambok,” in which they whip the victim with a long and heavy stick. One of the vigilantes claimed that the violence is “good for the community” because the criminal would not dare to do it again.

Is violent execution in Welcome to our Hillbrow a counterpart to the vigilantism shown in Theroux’s documentary? The Tiragalong people punish those that are accused of causing unexpected deaths, perhaps also to eliminate threats and protect their community from harm: “cleanse the village.” (43) However, it is interesting that although the punishments are not an official entity’s decision, it is a collective decision, as a story is constructed by a person, and then it is passed on, transforms, and the villagers collectively decide to kill the accused person. No single person is to blame for one’s death, just as the interconnected web between the main characters in the story. And although the villagers’ aim might be to reinforce order in the community, their actions are more driven by prejudice and gossip rather than concern for the common good.

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  1. I quite agree with your last sentence about vigilantism being more driven by prejudice rather than common good. Although the South African justice system is broken (as Mpe notes in his book that the police picks up African immigrants and illegally extorts money from then [21]), mob justice does more harm than good. Seeing the dangers of storytelling, that Mpe points out in his book, one cannot be too sure if an accused is actually a culprit.

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