IN A savage act of street justice, three Uitenhage men allegedly doused a suspected burglar with paraffin and set him alight, claiming he had stolen their television.
Rudi van Rooyen, 26, from the Moeggesukkel informal settlement on the outskirts of Uitenhage, died in his shack after the men carried out their own investigation that led them to his shack – about 2km from their house.
Three men, aged between 33 and 38, have been arrested and are due to appear in the Uitenhage Magistrate’s Court today.
The incident has prompted police to warn residents who commit vigilante-style justice that they will be prosecuted.
By late yesterday, police were still unable to confirm if Van Rooyen had stolen the television or if the wrong man had been attacked.
When a Herald reporter visited the house in Chico Street, Kamesh, which was allegedly burgled, the packaging box of a 51-inch plasma television set was seen outside.
Police spokesman Warrant Officer Basil Seekoei said the suspects claimed they had returned home on Saturday night to find their television missing.
“The men gathered their own information which led them to Van Rooyen,” he said.
“It is believed they then took him to his shack, but did not find the television there.
“Shortly before 10pm, the three men allegedly threw paraffin on Van Rooyen and set him alight inside his shack. They then ran off.”
Seekoei said police at that stage had not yet been notified about the alleged burglary.
“After the fire was extinguished and the man’s body found, people came forward with information on what had transpired,” he said.
“On Sunday morning, the three men went to the Kamesh police station to report the burglary, but were arrested instead.”
Moeggesukkel residents said Van Rooyen was innocent.
“I was there and helped put the fire out,” one woman, who did not want to be named, said. “When we saw the fire, a group of us went to look. The door was closed and we kicked it open.
“He [Van Rooyen] was in flames, lying curled up on the ground. I think he was already dead because he was not screaming or moving.
“It looked like his hands were tied together.
“He worked as a gardener and did odd tiling jobs. He was a good guy and never stole anything. He was not a thief.”
The woman said the shack was burnt to the ground within minutes.
“It was a big fire and most of it [the shack] was built with wood. It burnt very quickly and we could not stop it.”
Provincial police spokeswoman Brigadier Marinda Mills said vigilante attacks would not be tolerated. She appealed to residents not to make emotional decisions in haste.
“It shows total disregard for the criminal justice system and results in those participating in revenge attacks becoming crminals themselves.
“We have had a number of incidents in the past where it later came to light that an innocent person had been killed due to emotional decisions,” Mills said. “There is always a very real possibility those attacked are innocent as no time was allowed for the investigation and verification of information by the police.”
University of Fort Hare’s Alice campus criminology lecturer Mike Earl-Taylor said: “People take the law into their own hands when there is a serious mistrust in the police.”
He said people were quickly getting tired of suspects being arrested only to be released by the courts a few days later.