Last Thursday’s horse attack at the stables of Port Elizabeth’s Fairview racecourse didn’t result from a community production of Peter Shaffer’s 1973 play Equus, which revolutionised Western theatre. This butchery was perpetrated by an “aggressive” mob of 150-200, including previously employed staff from a neighbouring informal settlement.

A mob occurs when a group transfers individual moral responsibility for their actions to a ringleader who has an emotionally commanding personality. Though easier to form among those with little schooling, Adolf Hitler achieved much the same effect with one of Europe's most educated populations. Elements of differing types of mob behaviour can be seen at raves, football matches and emotionally charged religious services.

As the Fairview rampage took place at about 6am the mob probably formed during the night, aided by alcohol, raised emotions and sleep deprivation. Feelings of injustice at low living standards became focused on the racecourse stables, specifically the defenceless horses as representatives of the “oppressor”, especially as one community member had been dismissed earlier in the year for stabbing a horse and several others had left in solidarity.

Mobs, lacking any individual moral control, can be extremely brutal and sadistic. Here former grooms were able to use pangas on animals they had previously cared for. The female trainer involved, whom they knew, was at extreme risk. I remember two soldiers being beaten to death by an “expressive” mob who had just attended a funeral in late 1970s Belfast, and was myself confronted by one on the same city’s Springfield Road.

The striking miners at Marikana became either an “aggressive” or an “escape” mob. Poor management led to a terrible loss of life, but I can understand the terror experienced by the police and why they opened fire. As local levels of extreme poverty, together with anger and resentment, can increase, police must receive appropriate training, as recent examples of crowd control appear to have been wanting.

James Cunningham, Camps Bay

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