Nicholas Rush Smith (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the City University of New York–City College. Thanks are due to Rita Abrahamsen, Nic Cheeseman, Lindsay Whitfield and two anonymous reviewers for helpful suggestions on improving the article. Thanks are also due to R.B. Bernstein, John Comaroff, Adam Dean, Yanilda Gonzalez, Sheena Greitens, Anne Holthoefer, Emma Stone Mackinnon, Lauren McCarthy, Jonathan Obert, Suzanne Scoggins, Dan Slater, Lisa Wedeen, Steven Wilkinson, Manuel Viedma, and Deborah Yashar for equally useful comments on much earlier iterations of the paper. Mxolisi Motsepe provided fantastic research assistance and translation work. Previous versions were presented at the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, and the annual meetings of the African Studies Association and the American Political Science Association. The Social Science Research Council funded the fieldwork upon which this article is based through its International Dissertation Research Fellowship programme.
Academic and policy interest in the emergence, development, and efficacy of rights has increased substantially over the last twenty years. One particular effect that scholars have recently identified is the connection between the spread of rights across the globe and large-scale reductions in violence. While the expansion of rights may enable reductions in violence, the evidence in this article suggests the opposite may also be true. Drawing on ethnographic research on vigilantism in South Africa, a country deeply invested in the twentieth century rights revolution, the article shows how vigilantes have used the state's expanding rights regime to justify violence. Specifically, it examines the growth and spread of what was at one time South Africa's largest vigilante group, Mapogo a Mathamaga. Mapogo first emerged shortly after the country's transition to democracy and rapidly grew as its leadership preached a gospel that rejected rights, claiming that rights enabled crime and allowed immorality to proliferate. By assaulting suspected criminals, Mapogo's members claim that they are correcting the criminal, the post-apartheid state, and the flawed rights regime on which it is based, an outcome which the existing literature on rights and violence has difficulty explaining.