Growing up in Africa in the fifties and sixties, it was commonplace to witness what was called “Instant Justice”. The last time I saw it happen was almost fifty years ago in Lusaka, Zambia, but I believe it still happens today.
The term refers to a group of men (they were always men) who had witnessed – or been alerted to a crime – who take it into their own hands to have justice prevail, instantly. This sounds like common sense, I know, but these men were vigilantes, largely out of work, hungry, living in poverty, often criminals themselves and with what I realise today possessed an understandable rage which sought an outlet.
When the hapless individual, often a child, was spied stealing – perhaps a purse, or what we consider a triviality - a loaf of bread or a piece of fruit from the sellers on the sidewalk – a shout would ring out which immediately alerted everyone in the area of a theft. That shout would immediately be magnified by several others, a chilling ‘baying for blood’ sound which still reminds me of films I have seen of hounds chasing foxes in the English countryside. Suddenly there was a frenzy of action as the thief realised his mistake - he had been seen - and he runs wildly through the crowds, knocking people and baskets everywhere, running, running – running to escape what he now knows he cannot escape, being pursued by a mob of wild eyed men, whose numbers increased all the time by others who just stopped what they were doing and joined the mad chase. A mob of men wielding sticks and sjamboks and knob kerries and anything else which could be used as a weapon, men who were determined to use them, men who now had an excuse and an outlet for violence and brutality.
My mother would take our hands and pull us in the opposite direction, saying “Don’t look, don’t look …” and hurry us away, but there were times she wasn’t quick enough, there were times we were knocked over as the thief tried to escape racing past us, the terrified whites of their eyes a flash, followed by others in a truly grim pursuit. Then, as I grew older and was out unaccompanied, I witnessed the violent outcome three times.
The last time was the worst. The sound and how I felt has stayed with me more vividly than the bloody indelible photographs in my head. I was 19 years old and just married, shopping in Cairo Road, Lusaka. I felt a current of excitement gaining speed, a palpable danger crackling down the sidewalk like a bushfire, and a young shirtless man ran blindly through the crowd, then came the shout, more shouts, followed by an explosion of angry male voices, the sound of several pairs of bare feet slapping the ground, the gasps of onlookers – and then (and this I must have imagined, for the noise from the crowd had escalated) – I hear a sound similar to the way a small animal surrenders when it knows it cannot escape the larger beast - a sobbing plead for pity, and a small cry of surrender to its fate. He knew the inevitable, and lay, curled in the foetal position on the ground with his hands trying to protect his face. Then the mob, perhaps twenty or thirsty strong, closing in and the clubbing, the dense meaty sound of flesh smashing into other flesh, the rage of fists and feet and bones, of hysteria and angry shouts in Bemba and Chicabanga. He was done for; the beating was fast and furious.
Mercifully it came to an end. Men with torn clothing who still managed to swagger with a few angry warnings tossed over their self righteous bloody shoulders, men who pumped the air with a enraged fists and angry shouts, walking away and crowd began to disperse. The sellers spread out their cloths on the ground oce again and begin to rearrange their wares; people are shaking their heads in disbelief and saying ‘Aiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!!’ in the African way. People return to their daily business, to life as it was before. Instant justice has been done.
And he who is now the victim lies in a bloody pool, beaten, smashed, unconscious, and quite possibly dead on the ground.
I was paralysed in my role as observer, terrified by what I had witnessed and terrified that somehow this crowd would turn on me. I tried to become invisible, a lone white woman and I could not show him mercy.
Sickened and ashamed, I shamble back to my office, my life forever altered.
29th June 2016