Watching the Murder of an Innocent Man
The mob, desperate for vengeance, had found an unlikely guide to lead them into their dark work. Fifteen-year-old Siphiwe, short, round-faced and reliably smiling, declared, "I know where these criminals live."
He was a wayward teenager, a bad boy wanting to become a worse boy, and this gave him credibility in the matter of where vicious criminals might be found. A few men lifted him onto their shoulders so that the crowd, already in the hundreds, could see him better. Then an older man, wiser about these things, said to put the boy down. More than likely, they were about to kill someone. No one in the mob ought to be too conspicuous.
Diepsloot, in the northern reaches of Johannesburg, is a settlement of 150,000 people, the majority of them destitute. Crime oversteps even poverty as the most bedeviling affliction, and the night before, a gang of thugs marauded through one of the huge squatter camps in a subdivision called Extension 1. They were a methodical bunch, taking their time, shrewd about where to find stashes of cash amid the pittances, aware also of the police’s reluctance to enter the weave of shacks — the mokhukhus — where the narrow, unlighted pathways can be a fearsome labyrinth. The criminals killed two people, though the churning rumor mill put the number as high as 11.
Siphiwe himself claimed to have been robbed. “They took my cellphone,” he told the others. He was unaccustomed to feeling so important, and he walked cockily at the front of the mob along Thubelihle Street. It was close to noon on a cloudless Saturday morning in late January, the heart of the South African summer. The road abounded with township life: good music playing over bad radios, women pinning laundry to droopy clotheslines, storekeepers brushing aside plump flies in the butchery. People were curious about the mob’s intentions, and some followed along as if dutifully joining a militia.
In a few blocks, the pavement of Thubelihle gave way to hard-packed dirt and stones. A busted pipe had gone unrepaired for months, and the escaping water cut a trough in the ground that now carried a stream of garbage and sewage. The odor was bracing, but there was open air ahead, a large, marshy field that separated Extension 1 from the squatter camp in Extension 2. The mob took an undulating footpath across the terrain, and once it halted, Siphiwe pointed out an empty shack and a locked trailer. These belong to criminals, he said, and the structures were easily torn apart with a few tools and strong hands and then set on fire.
People cheered the crackling of the flames, but this minor demolition was hardly enough to bring their wrath to a cathartic finish. Mob justice is not uncommon in Diepsloot, and most often it involves the swift capture of a supposed criminal, the villain there to beat up, to stone, perhaps even to wrap in a petrol-soaked shroud. But this undertaking was something entirely different. The vigilantes had walked a long distance on a hot day in the uncertain pursuit of unspecified thugs — all on the word of this talkative boy.
The crowd eventually migrated from the cramped lanes of the mokhukhus to a clearing used as a soccer field. A meeting began, and several women from Extension 2 shouted angrily about crime: the shootings and the rapes and how they have to hide their children under the beds. One claimed that criminals hung out in front of a tiny store, what’s known as a spaza shop. The business’s entire stock consisted of two bags of Simba cheese snacks, she said scornfully. “How can you have a spaza that sells only two Simbas?”
Siphiwe led the way, back along the dusty paths between the shacks to the edge of the marshy field. The spaza shop was locked, and though empty of people, it was actually well supplied with soft drinks, biscuits, beer, toiletries and paraffin. The mob nevertheless busted through the walls, and Siphiwe rooted around in a back room, collecting for himself two pairs of sneakers, a Nike track suit and a nylon jacket. The shop was set ablaze, again to the noisy approval of the crowd, though this, too, seemed scant retaliation against murderous thugs. Where were those despicable people?
As the restless mob milled about, a 26-year-old Zimbabwean immigrant named Farai Kujirichita emerged from one of the narrow passageways that led to the field. He was wearing a carefully pressed, lilac-colored shirt and talking into his cellphone. By then, many people were coming and going; his arrival was nothing remarkable. And yet some men from the crowd confronted him.
“Who are you talking to?” they wanted to know. “Who are you warning?”
Then came a more complicated question. “Where are you from?”
Foreigners, especially Zimbabweans, are blamed for much of the crime in Diepsloot. Farai must have decided that it would be safer to lie. He said he was a South African, and his response was in Sepedi, a South African language. This was risky. Nationalities can be easy to surmise, telltale from accents, the style of clothing, the shape of a face, the rhythm in a walk.
The men grabbed the phone. Stored in the list of contacts were many Zimbabwean names and numbers. “This means you are a criminal,” one of them insisted. Most of the mob could not hear this terse conversation, but from a distance they assumed one of the thugs finally had been caught.
Farai was being pushed and pulled. His captors ordered him to throw himself into the flames of the burning shop. The shouts of those wanting him dead were louder than the pleas of the few who said, We know him; he’s innocent.
Farai broke free. He ran until he fell, and then the mob was upon him.
My friend Golden Mtika, who lives in Diepsloot, called me about an hour later. He had recorded the scene on video, which was perilous. Mobs prefer to be thought of as an anonymous horde rather than as a collection of individuals; those landing the deadlier blows don’t wish to be identifiable. Golden was shaken by what he saw, and he spoke so fast I could barely follow. I heard the words “mob justice.” Then he said: “They hit this man again and again. They killed him like they’d kill a snake.”
Golden is the son of a Malawian father and a South African mother. When I met him, he owned a small tavern in Extension 1. This was an unusual business for a Mormon who had never tasted spirits, and after thieves one night carried off every bottle in stock, he closed up for good and began to rely entirely on his other source of income, taking photos and calling in stories to The Daily Sun, a tabloid well stocked with crime. By his count, he has photographed about 200 murder victims. Golden, who is 39, is among the best-known people in Diepsloot; as an American journalist, I sometimes hire him to translate for me and help with introductions. He is reliably plugged in, able to connect me with the settlement’s devils and angels and everything in between. His two cellphones seem to ring every few minutes. Many consider him their Good Samaritan of choice, and being his friend is an expense, for he is often collecting money for some pauper’s funeral or the care of an orphan.
I live in much different circumstances, renting a house in the Dainfern Golf and Residential Estate, one of dozens of gated communities built in a city overwrought about crime. The perimeter is fortified with high walls topped by electrified wire; guards patrol the landscaped roadways and roundabouts. Houses are large, and many front entranceways are ornamented with waterfalls and fish ponds. Though safe, Dainfern is rather claustrophobic, and its location is so far north that it seems inconvenient to everything but my son’s private school and Diepsloot. South Africa is thought by some economists to be the most unequal society in the world, and in just 10 minutes I can drive from one end of the great disparity to the other. In the mornings, the maids and gardeners of Diepsloot walk to their jobs in Dainfern. I often go the opposite way.
This time, I went to watch the video, which was barely three minutes long. Fearful of being seen by the mob, Golden had stopped his camera at several key moments. He also paused to phone the police, calling the direct lines to a small substation, a cluster of trailers that is the only police presence in Diepsloot. No calls went through. He then tried a general emergency number for the region and pleaded with a dispatcher for help.
The video shows Farai already on the ground, using his left leg to try to block the blows of a man swinging a heavy piece of wood. Others are pelting him with rocks from behind and hitting him with sticks. At this point, it is still possible to imagine the young man’s escape. He can speak; his movements are spry; there is barely a smudge on the lilac of the shirt. But by the next scene, he is sapped of strength and badly injured. His frantic efforts to get away have failed, and he has landed in a filthy, water-filled ditch. As he crawls out, his hands groping at the dirt, a man in blue pants kicks him in the chest, and Farai flops backward with a splash. Some in the crowd, including children, scoot around to get a better look.
The video then jumps ahead. Farai is again on dry ground, lying on his back, seemingly near death but still breathing. Blood is leaking from his head. He barely raises his left hand, and this trivial movement somehow becomes a cue for the beating to resume. A man wearing a white cap wallops him seven times in the face and neck with a plank, the assailant’s arms reaching high to amplify the force of his swing. Another man repeatedly punches Farai in the groin. For some nearby, these final devastating blows are too awful, and a boy holding a soccer ball looks away. Others are celebrating the mob’s triumph. A slender young woman in a tight pink top has been in and out of the picture in several scenes. She is as petite as the men are brawny. Her smile is girlish. Before Golden again stops the camera, the woman lifts a large block of cement above her head, preparing to heave it at the beaten man. A good bit later, the police finally arrive. They keep the mob from setting Farai alight and are there for his final breaths.
Golden and I sat in my car as we watched the video on his camera. He repeated what he said earlier: “They killed him like he was a snake.”
South Africa, rightfully extolled as a country of spectacular beauty and a beacon of democracy, is also well known for crime, though not so much for the amount of lawbreaking as for the violence that comes with it. Comparisons between nations are problematic; the integrity of statistics varies greatly from one country to another. But the global bookkeeping for murder is considered relatively accurate, and South Africa has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, seven times higher than those in Kenya or the United States. The frequency of rape is utterly shocking. A rigorous study recently showed that 37 percent of the men in Gauteng Province, which includes Johannesburg, admitted to forcing a woman into sex.
The topic of crime is a national preoccupation. In 2007, the government gave $500,000 to a policy group to explain why lawbreakers committed misdeeds with such ferocity. Many legislators and public officials were disappointed by the study’s conclusions. There was no unified field theory of South African violence, just “a variety of factors” sounding overly familiar: too many guns, too much poverty, the warp of history.
Most researchers begin their analyses with apartheid, the sin among sins, the one cause that ripples into a hundred more, its legacy like some vestigial defect in Nelson Mandela’s 17-year-old rainbow nation. Violence, after all, was the medium of white domination: uprooting people from their homes, forcefully exploiting their labor, beating the disobedient into compliance. Torture and murder were deemed necessary to maintain the racist equilibrium, and in apartheid’s aftermath, there remains not only the pent-up rage of the once-subjugated but also the perverse effect the system’s wicked strictures had on family life, education and labor markets.
South Africa, a nation of 50 million, is the richest country on the continent but has one of the world’s lowest levels of employment. Most of the jobless have never worked, and a third of the employed earn less than $150 a month. Whites, who make up 9 percent of the population, have an average income seven times that of blacks. But poverty is not necessarily a predictor of crime, and while apartheid was horrific, other nations have suffered long histories of oppression, writes the South African criminologist Antony Altbeker, whose book “A Country at War With Itself” examines the common explanations for the nation’s violent bent and finds most of them pertinent but none entirely adequate. However you weigh the impact of apartheid, he asserts, violent behavior has somehow become a “cultural phenomenon” for a significant minority of young men, “an expression of their selfhood.” Violence now feeds off its own energy.
To protect themselves, wealthy South Africans compete in an arms race with their neighbors, the elevated walls of one leading to even higher walls next door. One in 14 newly created jobs is for a security guard.
But it is the impoverished who are most vulnerable to crime, poor people living in the midst of poor criminals. Under apartheid, the police were enforcers of state repression, and they are yet to be fully trusted as protectors. Mob justice is most likely to occur in the nation’s informal settlements. In Diepsloot, where a sea of shanties covers much of the expanse, police officers are often derided as bunglers at best and crooks at worst. Courthouses are a journey away, and the due process of law seems an impractical ideal. Many of the poor, living without electricity and using communal taps and toilets, feel the necessity — the burden — to police themselves. I was commonly told: The more horrible the death of a criminal, the better it deters the rest.
Golden and I had worked on an earlier article about mob justice. We both found these events enormously disturbing, but I had never seen vigilantes actually complete their ruthless mission. Now, viewing the video, I was flooded with discomfiting emotions: horror, disgust, sadness, pity. These responses weren’t going to be momentary. By watching, I had unwittingly made an agreement with myself. Farai’s gruesome death was going to endure in my memory, and I would have to answer certain questions about what I saw or leave them to trouble me forever. I was obligated now, to myself and to him.
I asked Golden: “Who was this guy? Had he really done anything wrong?”
The next afternoon, I met three of Farai’s four brothers, each a working man, all living in Extension 2. “Why weren’t you with him?” their mother cried when they phoned Zimbabwe with the news. This was a terrible question, and they were asking it of themselves, not because they could have saved Farai from the mob but because they felt vaguely ashamed they had not died at his side.
The brothers — Clemence, James and Washington — were unfailingly polite and kept thanking me for my interest. Clemence, the eldest, spoke the best English. He was able to afford an $80-a-month room in a U-shaped building away from the teeming shacks. “Even now I am not believing,” he said as we sat on a bed that took up nearly the entire space of his home. “It’s hard to find someone who can really explain what happened, because people are afraid, and I am powerless, I am weak, I am exhausted.”
The brothers were very close, and Clemence, who is 31, was already busy with the logistics of getting Farai’s body back to their home village, Mukukuzi, in Zimbabwe’s rural southeast. He works in the office of a tourism company and said his boss agreed to lend him a vehicle. Still, he would also need to rent a trailer, buy a coffin, pay the mortuary fees, feed people at the funeral. It would cost a daunting $1,000 or more.
Money, of course, is what brought the brothers to South Africa in the first place, Clemence coming in 1998 and the others following one by one; Farai arrived five years ago. Neighboring Zimbabwe was once the breadbasket of the region, but its leader for the past three decades, the 87-year-old Robert Mugabe, grew more eccentric and tyrannical over time, pushing the country into calamity. Millions fled — as much as a quarter of Zimbabwe’s population — as the food supply dwindled and inflation evaporated people’s savings.
South Africa is the main terminus of the Zimbabwean diaspora, and some of its own poor despise these newcomers for accepting wages so meager that they bring down the pay scale for everyone. In May 2008, paroxysms of anti-immigrant violence erupted in one South African city after another. Farai and one of his brothers retreated to Mukukuzi until the bloodletting passed. At least 60 people, many of them Zimbabweans, were murdered by mobs. Some 35,000 foreigners were hounded from their homes.
Farai was among those immigrants who landed decent jobs. He worked as a house painter, earning $100 a week. His boss, Don Myburgh, is a cantankerous old man with unruly white hair. “He pinched paint from me, and I should have fired the bastard,” he said of his recently murdered employee. As we talked, he produced a green notebook that supposedly contained Farai’s penitent confessions of thievery, but while I found an admission about “talking back,” the other entries were merely ungrammatical descriptions of disputes with his boss. One read: “I say to him why you grab me like this remembering is not time for apartheid. He shout me. And after that he chase me.” I asked Myburgh why he continued to employ Farai for two and a half years. “With these blokes, one is as bad as another,” he said.
Farai was married, and last August his wife, Caroline, gave birth to their second child, a girl they named Nancy. The young family visited Mukukuzi around Christmas, but at the time Farai was deeply troubled. For weeks, he had been afflicted with nightmares in which he and his brother Washington were fighting enemies they could not recognize. According to their traditional beliefs, these dreams meant that someone might be practicing sorcery to bring them misfortune. “Witchcraft” was the English word the brothers used in explaining this. They did not mean to suggest anything of the occult, but rather the everyday possibility that one person could employ medicines and charms against another.
Farai returned to Diepsloot on Dec. 29; his wife stayed behind with the children, planning to rejoin him later. Alarmed by the portentous dreams, Farai and Washington, who is 21, joined a church that accommodated both witchcraft and Jesus, trying to ward off harm under the guidance of two congregants said to be prophets. On Jan. 21, the day before he died, Farai spent the night under the stars, fasting and praying well into the predawn with a few dozen others of the church. The squatter camps of Diepsloot may be an unsightly conflux of scabrous shacks, but to the east, on the other side of a busy avenue, lie the rolling hills of the open veldt. Worshipers gather there in the bush, the ritual boundaries of their outdoor churches demarcated with rocks on the ground.
The two brothers, dressed in white robes, danced and chanted in a marathon of devotionals, returning to Diepsloot just before sunup. Farai napped in his shack, a 7-by-10-foot hovel, its space cramped with a lumpy bed, a tiny table, old paint cans used to store water and clothes piled in a wicker basket. The only light came from a long white candle stuck into a Coke bottle.
When he awakened at about 9 a.m., he cooked porridge on a paraffin-fired hot plate. Washington came by to share this breakfast, and the two brothers walked back toward the main road, where dozens of peddlers sell old clothes under the ragged canopies of crude shelters. The brothers then split up. Washington went to watch pro wrestling in a tavern. Farai headed back toward his shack in Extension 2, and along the way he met Precious Mbedzi, a Zimbabwean friend. He asked her if she would do his laundry, she said, and the two haggled about price without agreeing. They heard the noise of the mob, and each took a separate path toward the summoning smoke.
Precious recalled, “When they were beating him, I ran over and said, ‘This man is not a criminal,’ and they asked me, ‘Do you want to die with him?’ ”
Two days later, the police arrested seven suspects in connection with the deaths of Farai Kujirichita and Patries Zonke, an earlier victim of mob justice who died a horrible death at the hands of a different mob. The killings occurred about 11 hours apart, and Golden Mtika’s story about them made it to Page 1 of The Daily Sun. Another newspaper, The Star, sent a reporter to do a follow-up. While he was collecting information, a protest broke out against the police. Some of the angry demonstrators viewed the arrests as an affront to well-intentioned vigilantes; others simply believed that the cops had rounded up the wrong people. The Star’s headline atop the front page was a hyperventilating declaration, “Anarchy in Diepsloot.”
In my experience, things were hardly more lawless than usual. The streets were ordinarily safe during the day and extraordinarily dangerous at night. But the gust of publicity provoked a visit from a member of the provincial cabinet, Faith Mazibuko, who spoke in a tent meeting. An empathetic speaker, she tried to win over the huge crowd by acknowledging a fair list of the settlement’s complaints about crime: the police never patrol on foot; they don’t respond for hours; they prefer bribes to arrests. She was amply applauded until she bravely condemned mob justice, citing the Ten Commandments as a supporting text. Surely many people agreed with her, but from then on the boos and catcalls prevailed. Living in squalor was bad enough; living unprotected from crime was unbearable. When people were asked to step forward with comments, the biggest ovation went to a man misquoting Jesus about “an eye for an eye.”
Whatever the police’s faults, for a time they energetically pursued Farai’s killers. Golden had not shared his video with detectives. “If I’m seen as a snitch, I am a dead man in Diepsloot,” he told me. But the investigators were given another video, taken with a cellphone, and it provided much the same evidence. The seven initially arrested were released, but four others — two of them teenagers — were taken into custody and charged with murder.
The new suspects did not include the three main assailants seen in the video. These men ran off as soon as the police began poking around. But the young woman in the pink top, the one heaving a hunk of cement, was under arrest. Given her appearance in the footage, there was no point in a denial. “I hit him because I heard people saying he was a thug, and I wanted to participate,” she said flatly in one of our talks, her words translated from Tswana.
Her name is Dipuo. She is 17, though she looks younger when wearing the white shirt and gray vest of her secondary-school uniform. She was regretful about being arrested; in fact, she collapsed from nervousness at one court hearing. But she was incurious about the man who died at her feet. “My friend’s mother said she’d heard the person killed was not the right one,” she told me, adding with a shrug, “I don’t really know.”
Less remorseful yet was the other teenager, Siphiwe, the boy at the front of the mob. I interviewed him seven times, more than enough to know that he and the truth were only casual acquaintances. “How can I get him to stop lying?” I asked his mother, Oniccah. “Before he’ll tell the truth, he has to be beaten up,” she said with commiseration. Siphiwe is the oldest of her three sons, each from a different father. She said she long ago lost control of him, and he was now off in a delinquent world of ganja smoking, petty thievery and who knew what else. He rarely slept at home.
The two teenagers were released into the custody of their mothers, and the expectation was that, as minors, they would submit to counseling and serve no prison time. But the other two suspects, Walter Baphadu and Evens Matamisa, were locked up in Pretoria. I had known these men for two years and had doubts about the extent of their involvement, if they took part at all. Vigilante justice was surely among their enthusiasms, but they were wily about it, seemingly too clever to kill a man as hundreds watched.
Baphadu once headed Extension 1’s community-policing forum, a citizens’ group legally empowered to help the police. These organizations operated nationwide, though the way they interpreted their powers varied widely. In Diepsloot, people were as likely to report crimes to these vigilantes as to the police. Forum members rounded up suspects on their own, and while they sometimes turned the accused over to the law, they more often judged the cases themselves and meted out beatings, fines and banishments. These quasi-legal prerogatives could lead to temptation, and some groups used them as moneymaking schemes, operating as protection rackets or functioning as housing authorities, divvying up the shacks. Baphadu, 40, worked as a plasterer but considered his higher calling to be something like a volunteer sheriff. He and the police had a quarrelsome history. In 2009, he was arrested for his forum’s supposed excesses, which made him so angry that he quit his unofficial law-enforcement duties. One time he refused to intervene when a mob set a man on fire after compelling his “confession” by making him swallow sewer water. “If I see burning now, if I see raping, I look the other way,” he said huffily back then.
Matamisa, 39, was another sort of vigilante entirely, a leader of a group in Extension 1 calling itself the Comrades. Members like to present themselves as servants of justice but were nothing more than hired muscle. People sometimes paid the Comrades to retrieve stolen property, and while they solicited fees to beat up thieves, they also accepted cash to throttle unfaithful wives or anyone else their customers found annoying. This work was not always lucrative, and the group accumulated unforgiving enemies as well as satisfied customers. Last year, Matamisa nearly died after being attacked with a lead pipe. I saw him soon after he was released from the hospital. The humbled bully pulled off his knit hat and parted his dreadlocks to show me the dents in his head.
I visited the two men in jail. We spoke through a pane of thick glass, and they denied any part in Farai’s death. Baphadu, as usual, lamented the violence in society. “The killings, the rapings,” he said morosely, “I guess it’s coming to the end of the world.”
Golden Mtika, too, was weary of crime. He wanted to live like most South Africans, far from the troubles of the shacks, and he was saving money to move his wife and their 5-year-old son away from Diepsloot. The police, the vigilantes, mere acquaintances: they phoned him at all hours to inform him of murders, rapes, even simple break-ins. This benefited him as a reporter and depleted him as a human being. “The victims all want me to help them, and I cannot help everyone,” he said.
Our investigation of Farai’s death was itself exhausting. At first, we simply went to the squatter camp where he was killed and questioned those living nearby, each day widening the arc of our meander. The shacks are usually built from scraps of metal and wood and often sit one against another. Roofs are secured with the weight of large rocks or old tires. Heat thrives in the trapped indoor air, and with the weather sultry, people were often sitting outside. They told us assorted versions of what happened that Saturday, nearly all the accounts mistaken, some outlandishly so. People were not lying. But the scene had been chaotic. It was hard to see in that big a crowd, harder yet to hear. Many witnesses turned their backs to avoid the grisliest moments. In the aftermath, people repeated various story lines. As such things often go, even the most central of details mutated with each telling.
In one version, Farai’s photo had been found in the burning shop, and that was how the mob knew he was guilty. In another, he was caught hiding in a large plastic tub and then admitted to everything. In yet another, he was slapped by a pregnant woman who fingered him as a thief or a rapist or both. There were alternate subplots to this account. In one, she was his jilted lover. In another, she was a prostitute, and he had shortchanged her by $2.
My interest was less in who delivered the fatal blows than in why the mob settled on Farai as a target. Those with solid information were hard to locate and, when found, hesitant to talk. Within the week, Golden and I had become a marked pair: the tall, slender man from The Daily Sun and the bearded white guy. Perhaps a few dozen people threw a rock or landed a blow during the beating; the police already had made arrests and maybe they would make more, if the culprits could be found. Our inquiries were consequently a threat, and even many of those people willing to speak with us were frightened to be seen in our company.
I recruited a small staff of go-betweens, and they would arrange for us to meet witnesses away from the squatter camp, and then we would all drive a distance from Diepsloot to talk. This went on each day for several weeks. For every interview, there were two no-shows; for every person who really knew something, there was a pretender who did not.
On occasion when I met with people, they expressed sorrow that the mob turned so violent; they would be appalled to learn that Farai was at church on the night he was supposedly marauding.
“From church?” Katlego Matheta, 29, a security guard, said softly. “It means he was a Christian. That means they killed Jesus.”
Farai’s family was also trying to understand how the mob arrived at its murderous presumptions. James Kujirichita, 29, was the most religious of the brothers. He was also the one most interested in retribution. “The spirit of God will take them; they will not live,” he said of those who attacked Farai. “What I am wishing is that everyone involved is going to be died.”
He wanted to organize a special ceremony where prayers of vengeance would be recited. It was God’s intention, he said, that within 40 days all his brother’s murderers would perish. “They should be died violently, maybe hitted by a car,” he said.
James is a man of peculiar intensity. He considers himself a prophet, a Christian with powers to communicate with the divine. When I told him that Dipuo, the 17-year-old girl, had collapsed in court out of fear, he concluded that a retaliatory spirit had entered her body.
“God is already showing his greatness,” he said.
Clemence, the oldest brother, also spoke angrily of the mob, about not only its blind rage but also its bizarre rejoicing: “Why do people celebrate like this? These are brutal killings. They learned it in old times, I think. They get it in their minds that a person’s life is not so important. Some people, when they see blood, they cry. Some people, when they see blood, they suck it.”
I would visit with the Kujirichita brothers on Sunday afternoons, most often sitting in Clemence’s room and sharing a large bottle of Coca Cola. Once, we went to Farai’s church, taking off our shoes and socks and praying on our knees. God was asked to shield us from evil, or at least that is what I was told. The worshipers were Shonas, which is Zimbabwe’s dominant ethnic group, and Shona was the language being spoken.
By then, weeks into the reporting, I had finally realized that the brothers saw Farai’s death through a different metaphysical lens than I did. Time and again, they repeated phrases that I dutifully wrote in my notebooks and then heedlessly forgot. They called the killing “bad luck”; it occurred “on a natural day of harm”; it was a result of “bad muthi,” bad medicine.
Eventually my listening sharpened and my questions changed. To the brothers, the mob was only the instrument of their brother’s murder. The deeper cause lay in forces set loose in the rural depths of Zimbabwe by a powerful n’anga, a traditional healer. A “witch doctor,” they called him. His secret knowledge connected the world of the living with the world of the spirits. This man was their father, Wilson Kujirichita.
By Shona tradition, when someone dies, whether young or old, the family seeks an underlying explanation for the death — not the medical cause but some person’s misconduct that may have prompted the failed health or accident. Christians are likely to ask a prophet for this information; African traditionalists visit a n’anga. These consultations often reveal that a relative of the deceased is to blame, and this person is then asked to make restitution, commonly livestock. Early last December, Washington’s wife gave birth to a boy, but the infant, seemingly healthy, cried without stop on his fifth day and died. A prophet said that Wilson, the baby’s grandfather, was responsible for the death, a notion that the n’anga rejected as an indignity. He refused to take part in any family discussions about the situation and warned his sons to drop the matter or face “consequences,” Clemence said.
This was a momentous word choice, for when the mob killed Farai, the brothers considered it a fulfillment of their father’s threat. Before taking the body home for burial, they hurriedly sought out diviners of the truth, who confirmed that “problems within the family” led to the death. When I heard the story later, this seemed a flimsy corroboration of Wilson’s culpability. But the brothers were so wedded to their conclusions that on the very afternoon they arrived with the body in Mukukuzi, they attacked their father with fists and feet and a golf club. Villagers had to stop the assault to save the 57-year-old man’s life.
Then, as if to assemble further proof of their father’s evildoing, the brothers visited additional prophets and n’angas, traveling hours to meet some of them. These other seers, I was told, also blamed Wilson, and the speculation was that the renowned healer, in possession of objects with arcane powers — perhaps even human body parts — had used this muthi to demonstrate his continuing hold over his family. “He’s a witch,” Clemence said firmly.
To punish their father, the three brothers decided he must give up being a n’anga and dispose of all items used in his esoteric practices. The chastened patriarch reluctantly agreed, gathering his medicines, bones and animal hides and packing them into two sacks. The sons took Wilson 30 miles away, where the items were thrown into the swollen waters of the Sabi River to be carried through the remote scrublands and into Mozambique.
The Kujirichita family grows corn and cotton on a small plot, but Wilson lives separately on a sugar plantation, where he works as a fumigation officer. I hired a Zimbabwean reporter to speak to him. (In April 2008, I was jailed for “committing journalism” while covering the Zimbabwean elections, and though a magistrate dismissed the case, the police threaten to rearrest me.) Wilson welcomed his visitor, confirming most of what his sons said but disputing his role as villain. His practice as a traditional healer was something he did as a sideline for two decades, and the extra earnings paid the school fees of the very children now berating him. He said he was suffering not only heartbreak over his son’s death but also the lingering pain of the physical beating, which left scars on his head, thighs and ankle.
Wilson regretted the loss of his precious objects, the things that had allowed him to cure the sick: the black-and-white cloth he wore while contacting the spirit world; the bones and stones he customarily threw on a mat to fathom the meaning of events; the sheep fat he burned to chase away evil spirits; his beads and impala horns; his potions, herbs, roots, bark and snuff.
His side of the story was far more mundane than the version inhabited by spirits. Envy lay at the core of his family’s rancor, he said. His wife and children began to “hate me with passion” after he took a second wife, a much younger woman who now received the benefits of his attentions.
At age 17, the Republic of South Africa is still young enough to be appreciated as a marvel. The “skunk of the world,” as Nelson Mandela called the apartheid state, has been peacefully transformed into a constitutional democracy. There are disappointments, without question. The optimism of the early years — the glorious idea that South Africa would be an inspiration of enlightened leadership — has long faded. The frail, 92-year-old Mandela may remain the most beloved and respected man on the planet, but during its years in power, the organization he championed, the African National Congress, has become, in the words of the historian Martin Meredith, “just another grubby political party on the make.”
Whatever the A.N.C.’s failings, the poor have benefited immensely: the government has built two and a half million homes, brought electricity to eight and a half million households, tripled the number of people with access to potable water. Progress would seem greater yet if the need wasn’t multiplying so fast. People are pouring into the cities, and since 1994 the number of informal settlements has increased tenfold to 2,700. More than 1.2 million families are living in shantytowns.
In Diepsloot, nearly everyone is from elsewhere — another settlement, a village, a foreign country. Roots are shallow, and the most coveted possession is one of the 5,000 or so government-built R.D.P. houses — two bedrooms, a living room, a bathroom and a kitchen — connected to utilities. More than mere shelter, these homes sustain the beneficiary with an ongoing income. Owners normally build a cluster of shacks in their yards, renting to tenants who can then tap into the water pipes and electricity. In one swift step, the landless become landlords, the aristocrats of the shanties.
I asked the mothers of the two accused teenagers if they had applied for R.D.P. houses. Oniccah said she put her name on the list in 1998; Rosina, Dipuo’s mom, had been waiting since 2004. This conversation was in February, after a court hearing. I had taken the teenagers and their mothers to lunch at the Spur Steak Ranch, a restaurant in the Fourways Mall, on my side of the rich-poor divide. Sirloins and spareribs were eaten, and the waitress had just served chocolate sundaes and brownies. Siphiwe was feeling jolly and boastful that afternoon. Farai, he said, was the second man he had been involved in killing. There was another act of mob justice a few weeks earlier, the comeuppance for “a boss of all the thieves,” someone else guilty of “stealing” Siphiwe’s cellphone.
We were just getting acquainted then. Both mothers wrote the names of their children on my notepad to make sure the spellings were correct. When I first met Siphiwe, he denied knowing anything of Farai’s death. But now, with him jovially confessing, I felt unsettled. The dialogue was too cheery for what was being discussed. To change the mood, I pulled out a photograph of Farai, and there he was, a smiling man in a T-shirt, his head fashionably shaved, posing with his left hand resting on the hip of his white pants. Everyone at the table asked to see it. “He looks like a gentleman,” Dipuo said. She was surprised by his handsomeness; the only other time she had seen his face, it was swollen and bloody.
Golden, who was translating, was eager to confront the young woman. “Dipuo, I don’t understand,” he said peevishly. “Why did you participate in mob justice?” She had no answer, and Rosina, usually too shy to speak up, was perturbed by her daughter’s apparent nonchalance and also upset with herself. She hadn’t been in Diepsloot that day. Dipuo “knows I don’t accept her going where people are fighting,” the mother said.
At that early juncture in the case, it seemed justice was moving apace. The police were saying the trial could begin within the month. But since then not much has happened. Every subsequent court date has been a pro forma affair that led to a continuance. The prosecution says further investigation is required. And, of course, the main perpetrators still have not been caught.
The case against Evens Matamisa was dropped. Witnesses had implicated a man with dreadlocks called Rasta. But Diepsloot has many men sporting that hairstyle, and a good many of them answer to that same nickname. Matamisa was merely the best known of the Rastas, and he was able to prove he was elsewhere that day. Murder charges remain against Walter Baphadu, however. Several witnesses, including Dipuo and Siphiwe, say he was at the scene, though no one claims that he actually struck a blow. When Baphadu was released on $150 bail, Golden and I tried to prod him into telling us what, if anything, he knew. At one point, I came on tough like a TV cop in the interrogation room. “We’ve got 13 witnesses who place you there,” I said, raising my voice and inflating the number. But Baphadu still denied he was present.
Dipuo remains in school, staying late sometimes for an extra lesson in her favorite subject, accounting. Did she ever weep any private tears about what she had done? I don’t know. She has a boyfriend now, which pleases her unemployed mother. Dipuo’s father is long dead, and he had run out on the family anyway. Money is a constant point of stress, and the new boyfriend is in his late 20s and earns the steady wages of a miner. Sometimes they do not see him for a month or so, but when he does visit he usually leaves $100. “He is very generous,” Rosina says gratefully.
Golden, too long a chronicler of dismal endings, predicts that this romance will lead to grief. “Dipuo will one day find a boyfriend her own age, and then the trouble begins,” he said. “The mother needs the money. The miner has made an investment. Someone will want to kill someone else.”
One recent Sunday afternoon, we found Siphiwe wandering the streets. His mother threw him out of the house a few weeks before. He had been stealing from her for a long time, but his latest offense went too far, taking her boyfriend’s sneakers. Siphiwe was wearing the misbegotten shoes, one with an orange lace, the other green. But he was without his usual bravado. Estranged from his mother, he had no one to watch the calendar for him and had missed two court dates. Scared now that the police would jail him, he spoke in barely a whisper, his head encased in a brown hoodie. He looked boyish. He seemed tired. He needed a bath.
It was early afternoon, and Golden was still dressed up from his morning at church, a solid pink tie knotted at his collar. The clothes seemed to enhance his rectitude. “You have to go to your mom on bended knee and ask for forgiveness,” he lectured. “The problem is you apologize, and then after a few days you do something else wrong, and she loses trust.” He paused to allow the words to penetrate. “In jail, you won’t like it, Siphiwe. It won’t be like Diepsloot, where you can run around.”
I wasn’t sure I would ever see the teenager again. Once, he told me that killing Farai had been “fun.” It angered me, but I said nothing. Mob violence wasn’t mindless; there were minds at work, and these minds were self-justifying. The murder, of course, was hardly Siphiwe’s fault alone. Others also guided the mob, others confronted Farai and struck the deadlier blows. But he was the culprit conveniently at hand. A surge of harsh words rushed into my throat, but I managed to say only, “You shouldn’t have killed Farai.”
The teenager had never shown any signs of feeling guilty, never a hint that he and his conscience were in a tug of war, and there were none now. English isn’t his first language, but even in a foreign tongue, his confidence seemed to resurface.
“This is what we do,” he said defiantly, content with what the mob accomplished, pleased with his new shoes.