Theory and Society

, Volume 45, Issue 3, pp 239–263 | Cite as

Vigilante violence and “forward panic” in Johannesburg’s townships

  • Mark Gross


Vigilante violence tends to take place in areas or situations in which the state is unable or unwilling to provide for the safety of certain groups. Crime control vigilantism can be understood as an alternative means of controlling crime and providing security where the state does not. The violent punishment inherent in vigilante activity is generally with the ultimate goal of providing safety and security, and thus should theoretically “fit the crime” and not be excessive. However, in many acts of vigilante violence this is not the case, and vigilantism takes on an extraordinarily violent character. This article examines vigilante violence in three South African townships through the micro-sociological perspective of violence developed by Randall Collins (2008), “forward panic.” Forward panic is a process whereby the tension and fear marking most potentially violent conflict situations is suddenly released, bringing about extraordinary acts of violence. Based on data from eighteen interviews gathered from the Johannesburg townships of Diepsloot, Freedom Park, and Protea South, I analyze respondents’ accounts and experiences with vigilante violence using the framework of forward panic. The data confirm that many acts of vigilante violence in South Africa’s townships can be clearly categorized as episodes of forward panic and that although Collins’s conception of forward panic focuses on the individual, the conditions that create the emotional potential for forward panic in an individual can be structural and thus create the potential for forward panic in entire groups or parts of communities.


Community justice Emotions Informal social control Policing Security South Africa 



First, the author wishes to thank the African Population Studies Research and Training Program at UC-Boulder and the Hewlett Foundation for their financial support of the research that went into this project. Additionally, the author would like to a number of people for guidance and feedback on earlier versions of this article. In particular, Randall Collins, whose guidance helped clarify the theoretical framework early on; Dana Fisher, for her help as I developed this article as part of one of her courses; Sangeetha Madhavan for her input and continuous direction throughout the writing and submission process; and Aviva Tevah for reading countless drafts and her ongoing support. Finally, I would like to thank Bongani Xezwi, whose assistance in navigating the townships where I conducted this research was invaluable.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyUniversity of Maryland-College ParkCollege ParkUSA

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