In March 2015, amid spiralling violent crime in an under-served South African township called Galeshewe, a group of frustrated local residents formed a vigilante crime-fighting group called Operation Wanya Tsotsi.
The group is led by Pantsi Obusitse, an intelligent, charismatic and perpetually well-dressed 38-year-old who was born and raised in Galeshewe and works as a labour relations officer at the local Department of Education.
“We were dealing with a situation that was abnormal, therefore we had to take an approach that was abnormal,” Obusitse says of his group’s DIY approach to justice.
As Operation Wanya Tsotsi strives for legitimacy in the void left by South Africa’s floundering formal criminal justice system, Al Jazeera spent a night documenting this controversial vigilante group.
At the end of his working day, Obusitse returns to the whitewashed bungalow that he shares with his younger brother and changes out of a black pinstripe suit and crisp white shirt into his navy blue Operation Wanya Tsotsi overalls and combat boots.
He takes a moment to gather himself on the dark green sofa in his living room, checking through reams of WhatsApp messages and voicemails to familiarise himself with Operation Wanya Tsotsi’s outstanding cases.
“When a crime is committed, people always call us before they call the police,” Obusitse says. “Sometimes, even police officers will call us before calling their counterparts.”
When a crime is committed, people always call us before they call the police. Sometimes, even police officers will call us before calling their counterparts.
Beneath a rusty metal effigy of Nelson Mandela on an open patch of scrubland beside Galeshewe’s main shopping centre, approximately 20 members of Operation Wanya Tsotsi have gathered to prepare for the evening’s patrols.
Just before the meeting, a few members apprehended three young men suspected of breaking into a house and stealing a flat screen TV. They have brought the suspects along with them in the back of a silver Toyota Corolla.
The owner of the car leans over the front seat and alternates between slapping the suspects across the face and jabbing at them with a stun gun in a bid to extract a confession. The young men shriek and writhe in pain with each crackling burst of electricity. One of them starts to cry.
Spencer Plaatje, Operation Wanya Tsotsi’s operations manager, says that the group caught the same suspects with a stolen hard drive and mobile phone the previous night.
Today, he says, all three suspects were carrying knives, which have been confiscated and added to the eclectic collection stowed in the boot of the Corolla. Every few months, Operation Wanya Tsotsi hands over a substantial haul of confiscated weapons and contraband to local police.
“You see now what we are dealing with,” Plaatje says in his deep, booming voice. “What we are doing, it’s a necessary evil. If the police did their job, we wouldn’t need to exist.”
The boys finally admit to stealing the TV and selling it to a local Nigerian bar owner. They are pulled out of the car and told to lie face down in the dirt, where they are lashed over the buttocks with sjamboks, stiff whips traditionally used on cattle.
This ritual is referred to as a “blessing” and is an integral part of Operation Wanya Tsotsi’s modus operandi. “We are blessing you so that you change to an acceptable behaviour in society,” Obusitse tells them.
What we are doing, it's a necessary evil. If the police did their job, we wouldn't need to exist.
A convoy of six Operation Wanya Tsotsi vehicles pulls up outside New Jack City Tavern, a popular hangout for Galeshewe’s small but burgeoning Nigerian population. A thorough search of the premises ensues.
While there is no sign of the stolen TV that the bar owner is alleged to have bought, Operation Wanya Tsotsi finds a bucket full of small quantities of cannabis wrapped in sheets of newspaper in a kitchen cupboard and a large machete hidden beneath an old mattress.
The bar owner is forced to pose awkwardly for mobile phone photos holding the machete and contraband.
These images will be uploaded to the Operation Wanya Tsotsi Facebook page, which has almost 15,000 followers and is filled with countless similar images.
Social media shaming is a powerful punishment in a close-knit community like Galeshewe.
The bar owner and the suspected thieves are then driven to Galeshewe’s central police station along with the complainant in the case, an elderly woman who is picked up from her home en route.
Operation Wanya Tsotsi shepherds everyone into the station’s reception area, then return to the car park outside to share a few soft drinks and cigarettes.
“We’ve given the cops everything – the complainant, the thieves, the buyer,” Plaatje says. “Those thugs will likely be out again tomorrow, but at least they’ll spend tonight in a cell.”
As Operation Wanya Tsotsi awaits further intel on a number of other open cases, the group’s convoy falls into its usual stop and search routine.
Members intermittently jump out of vehicles in twos or threes to frisk anyone they deem suspicious-looking. Obusitse says members are trained to identify specific characteristics: a particular gait, certain attire or handshakes, for example.
The main aim of these stop and searches is to keep knives off Galeshewe’s streets, he adds.
“We live in a knife-infested community,” Obusitse explains as he drives past a tightly-packed row of corrugated zinc shacks. “Most of the crime that is committed in Galeshewe is committed at knifepoint.”
Just as patrols are beginning to wind down, Obusitse receives a call asking him to come to a house where a 10-year-old boy has been badly assaulted by his inebriated father.
Operation Wanya Tsotsi was originally formed to combat gangs and the associated violent crime in Galeshewe, but having long since disbanded the two main gangs in the township, the group’s work has diversified.
As well as the routine stop and searches, drug busts and theft and robbery cases, Operation Wanya Tsotsi also regularly deals with rape and sexual abuse, domestic violence and even financial disputes in an area where policing problems are mirrored by a dearth of social services.
When they arrive at the house, the boy is being consoled by an aunt in the kitchen. One side of his face is bloodied, bruised and swollen. The father, who is found asleep in his room, is dragged outside into the courtyard, where members of Operation Wanya Tsotsi force him to the ground and pull his legs over his head.
Three of the women in the group repeatedly hit the father’s backside and genitals with sjamboks until their arms grow tired. Then they make their way back to the cars in a sombre silence.
“Imagine you have your own young children at home in a place where there is so little justice. What would you do if you were us in a situation like that?” Tshepisho Sekgoro, one of the women, asks as she watches the father lift himself off the dirt and stagger back inside.
According to Dr Mary Nel, a senior lecturer in the Department of Public Law at the University of Stellenbosch, who wrote her thesis on vigilantism in South Africa, it is precisely this kind of visible, instant justice that inculcates widespread support for vigilantism in poor communities that are routinely failed by the formal criminal justice system.
However, Nel insists that violence remains a “last resort” for non-state-sanctioned anti-crime groups like Operation Wanya Tsotsi. “It’s a form of desperation,” Nel says. “People would be happy to do away with the violence if they saw a viable alternative.”
The labyrinthine streets of Galeshewe are growing quieter and the number of vehicles in Operation Wanya Tsotsi’s convoy gradually wanes as members pull off the main thoroughfare whenever they’re in the vicinity of their respective homes, tooting their car horns to bid farewell to those remaining.
Eventually, it’s just Obusitse left. He looks tired, and admits that between his job, his family (he has two young children) and his commitments to Operation Wanya Tsotsi, he often feels stretched.
“But if I give up, this operation will not survive,” he says. “We are not here because we want to be heroes. The main objective is to see that our communities are safe, that’s all. Then we can go home and sleep.”