The attack was supposed to be just another case of mob justice by Botswana’s “public morality” vigilante, but it quickly snowballed into international outrage after it was captured in a video footage that went viral.
The social media video, shot two years ago depicted a transgender woman being brutally beaten and abused by a mob while she sprawled exposed helplessly on the ground outside Trekkers night club in Gaborone.
Local LGBTIQ rights group Legabibo issued a statement explaining that “the perpetrators are illuminating the most intimate parts of her body, in addition to beating, slapping, kicking, verbally attacking and filming the incident.”
While the video footage focused the world’s attention on Botswana’s homophobia, the country’s “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” peccadillo was allowed to fall through the cracks.
Although Legabibo in its statement condemning the attack pointed out that, “all the while people were looking on, laughing and making derogatory comments”, no one called out this national tendency to turn a blind eye at crime.
This was not an isolated incident. The bystander effect is part of Botswana’s national psyche. It plays itself out in public robberies, GBV and other in your face attacks.
Dr Kgomotso Jongman of Jo’Speaks in Gaborone says, “We have all found ourselves in similar situations: the times we’ve seen someone harassed on the street and didn’t intervene; when we’ve driven past a car stranded by the side of the road, assuming another driver would pull over to help; even when we’ve noticed litter on the sidewalk and left it for someone else to pick up. We witness a problem, consider some kind of positive action, then respond by doing nothing. Something holds us back. We remain bystanders. Social norms are powerful determinants of our behavior as well as being crucial for a group’s existence. Given that, it is not surprising that individuals generally conform to group norms and try to make everyone else do so too.”
The transgender woman’s attack incident also illustrates the influence of social media on the bystander effect; it not only diffuses responsibility, but allows bystanders to take it to the next level by actively watching victims suffer, so they can record the situation to post on their social media later.
The attack is one of many documented cases of crimes or acts of cruelty occurring while large crowds of people simply watched and did not even attempt to intervene, and in some cases, people can be heard laughing as an individual is being brutally attacked or killed. Today, more so than ever, bystanders lack empathy and are largely desensitized to violence and crime scenes. Bystanders who do not intervene range from those who actively encourage the bad behavior, to those whose silence and failure to intervene tacitly encourages the perpetrator and allows the behavior to continue. Unfortunately, failures to come to the aid of someone in need are not unique or new. Help is not always forthcoming for those who may need it the most.
“Dr Poloko Ntshwarang, senior Social Work lecturer at the University of Botswana says, “The presence of others influences people’s helping behavior in an emergency situation. For instance, in a situation where a couple is fighting, some may fail to realize that an actual crime is going on, they may claim they think it is a “lover’s quarrel”, whereas others realize they are witnessing a crime, but fail to report it because they assume that someone else has already called the police. A major reason why eyewitnesses fail to intervene is that they do not even realize they are witnessing a crime. When we are in a puzzling situation and we are not sure whether there is an emergency or not, we often look to others to see how they are reacting. We assume that others may know something that we don’t, so we gauge their reactions before we decide how we will respond. If those around us are acting as if it is an emergency, then we will treat it like an emergency and act accordingly. But if those around us are acting calm, then we may fail to recognize the immediacy of the situation and therefore fail to intervene.”
People tend to feel less responsibility to intervene when many other people are around, as well as fear acting inadequately when being observed. It may also be that if no one else seems to be reacting or taking action, then we fail to perceive the situation as an emergency. People are more likely to take action in a crisis when there are few or no other witnesses present. It’s natural for people to freeze or go into shock when seeing someone having an emergency or being attacked. This is usually a response to fear—the fear that you are too weak to help, that you might be misunderstanding the context and seeing a threat where there is none, or even that intervening will put your own life in danger. From the point of view of a victim, this bystander effect often makes the situation seem even more harrowing, as nobody steps forward when they need help. This is seen in attacks in crowded areas, where people scream for help but nobody does anything about it.