Day of the Leopard

Mapogo a Mathamaga, the vigilante group that metes out justice the African way, is admired by some, loathed by others.

John Magolego and Dan Madiba both come from the Northern Province, both are fed up with rampant crime, ineffectual policing and paralysed justice. Their responses to this breakdown of law and order, however, put them on opposing sides in the growing battle between vigilantes and the state.

Magolego, 54, is a businessman-cum-preacher with a booming voice and many disciples. He is the founder of a vigilante group that metes out justice the African way, with a good sjambokking. In just three years his organisation, Mapogo a Mathamaga, has grown from a handful of rural businessmen in the Northern Province to South Africa’s largest and most notorious vigilante group with its latest branch in Pretoria.

Madiba, 35, is a high school teacher and an ANC stalwart who believes that the government could triumph over crime given time and resources. He speaks in slow deliberate terms about his abhorrence of jungle justice and corporal punishment. In his quiet, lonely battle to rid his region of Mapogo and other vigilantes, he yearns for Western ideals of due process, speedy trials and fair punishment.

This is the tale of two men who seek the same goal: an orderly society, free of crime. They have adopted widely divergent paths in their effort to arrive at this end.

Magolego and about a dozen other men are currently on trial at the Groblersdal Regional Court for murder and intent to inflict grievous bodily harm , with the national and international press looking on. The trial will resume in November. This is a far cry from his unpretentious beginnings.

This portly man grew up in Ga-Malaka on a farm nestled among the brown boulders and hills south of Pietersburg. Magolego attended primary school in nearby Glen Cowie and earned his matric at a high school in Mooifontein. His first job was as a clerk at the Jane Furse Hospital. In 1971 he became a telephonist at the local post office where he perfected his English and made use of his fluent Afrikaans, Northern Sotho, Zulu and Tswana. After seven years, Magolego says he “saved a few cents” and built a restaurant in Glen Cowie.

A National Party candidate in 1993, Magolego concedes that crime has always been a problem. Unlike Madiba, however, he blames the new government for making it worse. “People believe that democracy means anyone can do anything,” he says. “Before 1994, we admit there was no order. People were struggling for their rights. Immediately after the elections, we all believed and thought and hoped for peace.”

Instead, burglaries and thefts at his businesses became routine. “At least twice a month, criminals would break into my business and the police never solved any of the cases,” Magolego says. “Nothing ever happened.” Rural shop owners were vulnerable because they could not employ security, he explains. “They would carry a knobkerrie but people were not afraid of them. The criminal element could see there was no law enforcement.”
The last straw was a dreadful four weeks in July and August 1996 when eight businessmen in Sekhukhuneland were killed. One victim was a colleague, Johannes Selepe Masha. “His death provoked me a lot. It was really intolerable.”

Sickened by the slaughter of his neighbours and the uselessness of the police, Magolego decided to take matters into his own hands. “If you have a kitchen and you don’t keep it clean, you find cockroaches,” he says. “The government could not stop crime. Hence Mapogo had to be born.” He called a meeting of the Nebo Chamber of Commerce and appealed to them to exercise their rights as citizens. “I said, ‘Let us put our feet on the floor and say enough is enough. No other businessman should be killed in this manner.’”

So on August 25, 1996, the day after the burial of the eighth local trader, about 100 local businessmen agreed to organise Mapogo a Mathamaga. The name, which means colours of the leopard in Northern Sotho, was Magolego’s idea. He points to the organisation’s logo, two leopard heads growling at each other, stuck on the tinted windows of his blue BMW. “The emphasis is if you are troublesome, I will trouble you back.”

Over the weekend of November 22 and 23, the leopard pounced for the first time. Members of Mapogo scoured the district for people they suspected of breaking into homes, says Superintendent Gerhard Coetzer, head of the Northern Province’s murder and robbery unit. The vigilantes beat them with knobkerries, sjamboks and iron bars and dumped eight bludgeoned bodies at the Nebo police station. Two died in hospital. The casualties included two members of the police whom Mapogo accused of being drunk on duty.

Magolego and about a dozen others were charged with murder and intent to inflict grievous bodily injury. “About 500 Mapogo members were involved,” Magolego says. “It was a mob. It was the first kick. It was very hard.”

Three years later, it is a crisp winter’s morning and Magolego is adjusting his gold cufflinks while one of his gun-toting bodyguards lingers in the background. Now proud and prosperous, he lives in Glen Cowie in a modern brick house behind his shopping complex including a supermarket, bottle store, butchery and a restaurant. A hotel he owns is just around the corner.

Today he is wearing an impeccable double-breasted olive suit and snakeskin loafers. His black military-style Mapogo uniform with its gold, black and brown fringed epaulettes is hanging in the closet. He refers to this costume as “my gown — just like a priest has his own gown”. He is preening himself for a rally, part of the preparations for an upcoming festival “to celebrate our third year of being Mapogo, being strong and lovely.”

Just down the road, some 500 people from 50 villages are gathering in an open field in Jane Furse (this village, the transportation hub of Sekhukhuneland, was named after the young daughter of Bishop Michael Furse of Pretoria who died of scarlet fever around the turn of the century). While waiting for Magolego, the crowd, mostly in their 40s and 50s, brandish sjamboks and sing “rights are destroying the nation”. When their leader finally arrives about two hours behind schedule, the members, many wearing their Mapogo leopard-head T-shirts, form a long reception line and greet their leader with loud cheers.

Magolego begins his speech in Northern Sotho and then Afrikaans before breaking into English — because “we’ve got to go international.” Then he launches into his diatribe against the country’s soft criminal justice system: “In South Africa all the talk is on human rights. But as Mapogo, we say criminals haven’t got rights. Human rights for criminals is a sjambok on the buttocks.”

Such strident hang ‘em, smash ‘em quotes have made Magolego famous, an object of fascination, ceaselessly profiled in newspapers and on television. He claims that his organisation has grown to 35,000, including about 10,000 white members, in 90 branches spreading from the Northern Province to Mpumalanga, the Northwestern Province and Gauteng. Members range from rural peasants and missionaries to big businessmen and right-wing political figures, including Gaye Derby-Lewis, wife of Clive Derby-Lewis the convicted assassin of South African Communist Party leader, Chris Hani.

Last month Mapogo opened an office in Pretoria, marking its expansion from rural areas into the city. Press commentators were sceptical about a rural organisation’s ability to take on sophisticated Gauteng criminal gangs, but Magolego was undeterred. With his inimitable turn of phrase he says this new office may become the group’s national headquarters because “all the big-headed blokes are there.”

In its rural base Mapogo appears to concentrate on “solving” burglaries, cattle and other thefts. Its methods include kidnapping, sjambokking, allegedly dangling suspects over crocodile-infested rivers or dragging them behind speeding bakkies. Criminals “who are naughty are well known in the community,” Magolego says. “If you put your ear to the ground, you get the right music.”

Gossip and neighbours’ whispers help to identify the alleged wrongdoer who is then taken to an open field and questioned, in most cases. If he does not admit to the crime, the truth will be coerced out of him with “my little bottle of medicine,” Magolego says. “I’m referring to the same sjambok system. We are confronted with people who are not well upstairs. They are sick. We should cure this disease so that they are well again.”

For this service to the community annual membership fees are levied on a sliding scale with poor families paying R50, small business owners R500 and up to R10,000 for large companies with fleets of trucks, “not one of which has been hijacked since they joined Mapogo,” Magolego says. In exchange, Mapogo members get stickers and placards bearing the two-headed leopard logo to warn off criminals. As well as covering petrol and other expenses while on the job, subscriptions have paid for two new Toyota vans and a sedan to be used as patrol vehicles. However most of the dues are being eaten up by fees to lawyers defending the growing number of assault charges brought against members.

Sometimes Mapogo gets the wrong man, Magolego admits, but for the most part, he insists that the system works excellently. Indeed, he maintains that the only murders committed in his area since Mapogo came into being were the result of political interference by the ANC.

Shortly after Mapogo’s first anniversary, Magolego signed an agreement with the provincial MEC for safety and security Seth Nthai to work within the parameters of the Community Policing Forum and hand over suspects unharmed to the police. Magolego claims that he only signed “to show that we had received the document. We never agreed to it. It was binding our hands, not the criminals’.”

A month later, five businessmen were murdered and Mapogo returned to the sjambok. “We went back and started to push harder again,” he says. “We’re using very rough methods of stopping crime, but it stops. In 1998, no businessmen were killed in this area. Can’t you see this is beautiful?”

Sjambokkings and beatings are a return to the “African-style of solving crime,” Magolego claims. If a man is jailed for committing a crime, he can no longer provide for his family and taxpayers are wasting their money on prisons, “another breeding spot for crime,” he says. “If our African style can be applied, you will find that there’s humanity inside, there’s warmth, a sense of building a nation. We don’t destroy. We would rather punish an offender right there on the spot and get it over with. He returns to the community and gets to his life. He will work for his children. He will have felt pain and that’s very good and effective.”

Magolego is persuasive. At first glance, it is easy to empathise with his crusade against crime. It becomes harder when you meet the victims. John Ledwaba, 40, lives alone in a one-room tin shack in Newlands, one of the many scattered villages in the flat, dusty Mashashane area, just north-east of Pietersburg. He is a tall man with broad shoulders who works as a labourer during the day, cleaning yards and dormitory rooms at the Setotolwane College of Education. At night, he runs a spaza shop. Last year he separated from his wife of five years. She had a relationship with a photographer, he says.

Shortly after 9 pm on February 3, 1999, about two dozen men surrounded Ledwaba’s tiny dwelling, pounded on its walls and pulled him out, he says. They covered his face with a balaclava, shoved him into a car and drove to the open veld. Then they ordered him to strip. When he resisted, “one used the butt of a gun and hit me in the face and threatened to shoot me.”

He complied. Then the vigilantes handcuffed him and shoved him onto the ground. For the next two hours, groups of four took turns beating him. “They assaulted me with sjamboks,” Ledwaba says. “Some were smoking cigarettes and putting them out on my body. When they left me, they left me for dead.” Ledwaba says he crawled naked for about a kilometre until he reached the road. His nephew who was driving around the bleak flatlands looking for him, spotted him, picked him up and drove to his mother’s house. An ambulance and police van were waiting. “When Mapogo takes you, the police and ambulance are called immediately,” he adds.

Ledwaba, who filed assault charges against Mapogo, told the police that he recognised about half of the people who sjambokked him, including his ex-wife’s cousin. The assailants had accused him of rape, a charge he denies vehemently. “It would appear that I have been punished because I separated from my wife. It might be revenge because I pulled out of the marriage,” he says.

I met Ledwaba through Dan Madiba, the teacher who campaigns against Mapogo and its brutal methods. He also introduced me to another victim, a man from his village — confusingly also called John Ledwaba (a common family name in Mashashane). He is a tall, thin man living in Pietersburg, where he works as a clerk for a financial services firm. He carries a colourful knobkerrie covered in electrical wire in his black attaché case. Last September, shortly after midnight, a Mapogo mob of 15 abducted him from his grandmother’s house in Doornspruit. On an open field about 15 kilometres away, eight people held him aloft by pulling on his wrists and ankles while the others beat his backside to a pulp with plastic sjamboks. After more than three hours of unrelenting torture, he confessed to cattle theft.

“They were pressuring me to give a statement that was untrue,” Ledwaba says. “Because of the pain and the sheer massiveness of the punishment, I had to surrender and submit, hoping they would leave me alone.”

Ledwaba, still protesting his innocence, filed charges against Mapogo. He does not understand why Mapogo attacked him. “Personal grudges or maybe even jealousy, I don’t know,” he says of his beating. “In my mind, I can’t come to grips with it.”

Madiba doesn’t understand either. He grew up near these men in Doornspruit in traditional dwellings with a breathtaking view of the Mashashane mountains. When he was eight years old, his father left his mother to raise him, his sister and two brothers on her meagre salary as a cleaner at the nearby Catholic mission. Somehow she managed to send him to the local Catholic boys’ school where he learned discipline, diligence and courtesy.

After matric, Madiba won a scholarship to Setotolwane College where he qualified as a teacher. In 1988 he enrolled at the University of the North and became very active in politics. Armed with a degree in history and psychology, he started teaching maths, English and biology at Jaelsipasa High School in Mashashane. He is now regional chairman of the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union and a respected community leader.
About two years ago, Madiba started hearing stories about late-night beatings and kidnappings. “Then one person from our village was beaten severely,” he says. The vigilantes act on untested accusations, often triggered by petty jealousies. The upshot is injustice, barbarity and disorder. “They victimise an individual without evidence. They beat him severely and leave him for dead. The issue of dehumanising people — that bothers me a lot.”

Madiba’s homestead lies up the hill from the Motse-Maria Mission. He showed me the mission’s church and graveyard and spoke to me about its priests and nuns, mostly from Belgium. They ruled the area, he says. They provided the community with a hospital and one of the nation’s best girls’ schools with matric rates in the high 90s. “All the virtues and morals of the Catholic Church were upheld by the people here,” he says.

Now Mapogo’s two-headed leopard placard hangs on the mission’s gate. Madiba is deeply perturbed by the church’s alliance with what he perceives as the evil forces of violent reaction. An African National Congress stalwart, he sees the mission’s move as an implicit vote of no-confidence in the government’s ability to control crime. The missionaries “are condoning the very abuses and dehumanisation we fought against” during the struggle, Madiba argues.

We put these charges to Sister Cecile. Originally from Flanders, she has lived at the mission for 21 years. A Sister of Charity, she recalls many of the burglaries that have taken place at the mission since 1994, including two incidents where the perpetrators attacked old Father Andreas. The second time he was assaulted, they “hit him unconscious, took his money and left him for dead. He was around 90.” After the murder of 75-year-old Father Alphonus Petrus Peleman at another nearby Catholic mission last February, all the missions signed up with Mapogo.

Sister Cecile seems perplexed by criticism of Mapogo. “They give criminals a good hiding, not innocent people,” she says. “Why would they go for innocent people? Why are so many in favour of them? There must be a reason. Why should we do away with them when they are so helpful and prevent crime?”

Madiba cannot accept this argument, particularly from fellow Catholics. He points to a photograph of the grated back of a Mapogo victim. “Take this photograph and show it to them and then ask them, ‘how do you feel as a Christian? Then why do you affiliate with an organisation that dehumanises people like this?’”

Madiba, like Magolego, yearns for order and stability. Both believe in discipline and hard work. The chief difference is that Madiba considers the vigilantes to be part of the problem. He wants to see them eliminated. “If only they could just ban them,” Madiba cries. “I am so obsessed that they should not exist in any way.”

He is not the only one who would like Mapogo to disappear. Charles Van Wyk, head of detective services in the Northern Province works in an office festooned with standard-issue photographs of Mandela and provincial ANC leaders. Originally from the Eastern Cape, Van Wyk was a security policeman before being transferred to the former homeland of Venda.

The police are doing their job, Van Wyk insists. The real problem lies with the justice department, he says. Clever defence lawyers exploit the constitution to delay trials until someone slips up on procedure and the judge throws out the charges, he argues.
Despite its evident shortcomings, Van Wyk stoutly maintains that the criminal justice system is not so far gone as to justify reverting to the laws of the jungle. “I would say if it was working with the police like Crime Watch or the Community Policing Forum do, Mapogo would be a good thing,” he says. “But taking the law into its own hands is totally unacceptable.”

He then produces a list of 120 assault, murder and robbery cases pending against Mapogo members, fruits of a crackdown mandated by safety and security MEC Seth Nthai in September 1998. Irked by the snail’s pace at which investigations were proceeding, Nthai ordered all cases against Mapogo suspects pulled from sleepy rural police stations and placed in the hands of a crack murder and robbery unit.

Nthai vehemently denies that this was an ANC ploy to smash Mapogo, insisting that he was responding to community pleas for protection. And yet, in almost the same breath, he claims that Magolego was using Mapogo as a political springboard. “He was launching branches for political reasons,” Nthai says.

“My affiliation with the UDM provoked the whole fire,” Magolego charges, referring to his unsuccessful run on the United Democratic Movement list in the June 1999 elections. “The UDM approached me. They were looking for membership,” Magolego says. “The ANC could not approach me. As Mapogo, we’re clashing with their way of controlling crime.” Magolego insists that Mapogo is independent, even if he is not. “We’re only concerned with crime. We’re not worried with ruling the country.”

Van Wyk is reluctant to be drawn into politics, but points out that the Mapogo cases were assigned to murder and robbery several months before Magolego declared his UDM candidacy. Be that as it may, the ANC remains keen on putting Mapogo out of action: informed sources confirm that top provincial justice and police officials met last June to consider treason and sedition charges against Magolego and his henchmen.

That particular idea was dropped, but the wheels of justice and the crackdown continue to grind, albeit slowly. Only one case in the Northern Province has been finalised against Mapogo. In June, three Mapogo members were convicted of assault and illegal possession of firearms at the Groblersdal court and were sentenced to three months imprisonment and R10,000 fine.

In recent weeks, accusations against Mapogo have escalated and South Africa’s new FBI-style Special Operations Directorate, “Scorpion”, plans to investigate vigilante groups such as Pagad and Mapogo. In late June, Mapogo members allegedly dragged a woman from a church service in the Northern Province and whipped her as a suspected thief. In July, Mapogo was accused of beating farm workers and kidnapping a suspended police constable in Mpumalanga, also for theft. Mapogo is rumoured to be involved in the electric shock torture and subsequent death of a garage worker in the Northern Province. If this last allegation proves to be true, Magolego has threatened to take disciplinary action against Mapogo members.

These latest events signal a complete breakdown as frustration with both mob justice and the police reaches a breaking point. South Africans appear to be caught between the empty rhetoric of an incapable government and the brutal solutions offered by vigilantes.

On the one hand there is Madiba in his mid-30s who represents a generation of revolutionary idealists who yearn for a future in which Africans govern themselves in accordance with progressive western norms. He has never been a victim of crime and dreams of a non-racial, gender-sensitive culture that guarantees equal rights for everyone, including criminals. Madiba and others say the solution is to reverse unemployment, reform the justice system, provide courts and the police with more resources and better training.

On the other hand there is Magolego in his mid-50s, a man who grew up in a time when life in South Africa was ordered and regulated. It may not have been democratic but at least it was safer. He blames the new liberal constitution and its foreign ideas for destroying African traditions based on community participation and respect for chiefs, elders and the police. “We say to criminals, ‘if you don’t listen, if you don’t use your ears, you still have skin that can feel.’”

Both men agree on the desired end: a peaceful, crime-free society. Mapogo’s methods may be effective in the short term, but the moral price seems high and in the long run may contribute to escalating anarchy. Madiba’s solutions are noble, but the government has not shown much political will to adopt them. All that is clear is that the debate between these two poles will continue well into the next millennium.