Comment: Mob rule is not the answer


Over the last few days, things have happened which have left a sour taste in the mouth. It’s important for the political community to introspect and make amends. Plato, the Ancient Greek philosopher, warned of the dangers of mob rule. He worried about direct democracy, which he thought “could too readily degenerate into … mob rule, driven in unruly fashion by emotion, self-interest, prejudice, anger, ignorance and thoughtlessness into rash, cruel, destructive and self-destructive action” (Grayling, 2017).

There are two separate events in the last week to which this is applicable, but on this occasion, I will focus on one: the rape allegation and the responses to it.

First, an individual made what many thought was a ludicrous allegation against Nelson Chamisa, who is the main opposition leader in Zimbabwe. She accused him of rape at or near her gate in Norton after a jogging session. When the allegations were narrated to me, I did not imagine that any fair-minded person would place much weight to story.

While any allegation of rape must be taken seriously, the story sounded so absurd that no rational person could possibly believe there was any truth to it. Still, I did not think it wise to impose opinion on the legal process. I thought if there was a political hand behind it, it was extremely asinine and counter-productive.

Second, I also learnt that the individual in question might have a history of mental health illness and that she had been sent back from an overseas station where her husband is currently serving. I do not know the veracity of this claim but I thought if it was true, it probably explained the nature of the allegations. My thought was that if the state was aware of these circumstances, it had a duty to protect the individual. Mental health is a big problem that is often laughed at and is not given the attention it deserves. It’s important for the state to look after the vulnerable individual.

Third, the situation got farcical and totally out of hand when social media posted pictures of an individual alleged to be the accuser in this matter. I balked at this because it is both unprocedural and unethical to publish names or images in such circumstances. The general rule is to safeguard the identity of rape victims or at any rate, those who allege to be rape victims. Some people may question the fairness of this given that the accused are often named in the process. But there are sound public policy reasons for protecting individuals in such circumstances.

One is that victims of rape usually prefer not to report abuse on account of the public shame that is associated with rape and indeed, the public reprisals that might follow such reporting. The result is that they would rather suffer in silence than expose themselves through reporting. Consequently, abusers can get away with it and go on to do it again and again. It was wrong to share pictures of the alleged victim. Unfortunately, there are those who abuse this sound system and make false allegations which damages the name of the accused who must go to great lengths to clear themselves.

Fourth, it got worse because the shared picture of the alleged victim was actually wrong. This was a different person whose only “crime” was that she shared the same identity with the alleged accuser. It was this individual who became the subject of mob outrage and vilification. This is an all-too-familiar challenge of social media: innocent people can, through no fault of their own, be hung out to dry in the unregulated court of social media. They can be vilified and subjected to mob justice with no room for response or recourse.

What happened to this individual was utterly wrong and deplorable. If there is any to salvage, it is that the episode ought to be a lesson to everyone to exercise more caution on social media, especially when it comes to moral outrage and mob justice. This is important because it can have dangerous consequences. Some people have been driven to extremes, including suicide, on account of social media vilification and persecution. We ought to do better.

Fifth, that the vilification did happen was outrageous. It was even more deplorable because some of the worst came from senior political figures who ought to know better and lead by example. Some of the posts were later deleted and some apologised, but that was not before damage had been inflicted upon an innocent individual.

The issue goes beyond the effect on the individual. It is that as a society, we have to be more measured in how we handle those who claim to be victims of rape, even when we vehemently disagree with them or their claims. If their allegations are false, the legal process has ways to deal with it.

The treatment of the alleged victim in this case has consequences far beyond the present. A girl or woman who has actually been a victim of rape will probably think twice before they make a report. They will fear that their photograph could be shared on social media and they will be judged by the mob. They could be subjected to terrible body shaming, as happened in this case. Some comments which mocked the alleged victim’s looks suggested that beauty establishes eligibility for rape, which is vile.

It is utterly deplorable when an individual falsely accuses another of rape. It hurts the accused and those who stand by him. Individuals who make such false allegations trivialise the plight of real victims of rape and sexual abuse. Nevertheless, the judicial process has facilities to filter such cases, ensuring that genuine cases proceed to conclusion while false cases are thrown out. The inconvenience and hurt caused to the falsely accused is obviously bad but the judicial process is always better than mob justice. Mob justice is irrational and indiscriminate and it can hurt innocent individuals, as the present case revealed.

It is sad that Chamisa was put through this saga but he has handled it with dignity. It is also sad that an innocent individual was subjected to irrational mob justice. It is unfortunate that what happened could have the collateral implications on genuine victims of rape who might be dissuaded from stepping forward to report offences against them for fear of being subjected mob rule and body shaming.

I do hope all the individuals, in this case, get support and counselling and where necessary, mental healthcare. Those that said or did things in a rash manner ought to introspect and apologise to those that were hurt by their words or actions.

Those of us who believe in the rule of law must forever believe in and support the institutions and when they fail, we criticise and bring them to order. What we cannot afford is mob rule or mob justice. The damage it causes is far worse.