Death By Tire Fire: A Brief History Of “Necklacing” In Apartheid South Africa

Published May 19, 2018
Updated February 27, 2024

Necklacing was reserved not for the white men who supported the apartheid system, but those deemed as traitors to the black community.

Necklacing Death

FlickrA man being necklaced in South Africa. 1991.

In June 1986, a South-African woman was burned to death on television. Her name was Maki Skosana, and the world watched in horror as anti-apartheid activists wrapped her up in a car tire, doused her with gasoline, and set her on fire. For most of the world, her screams of agony were their first experience with the public execution South Africans called “necklacing.”

Necklacing was a horrible way to die. Mbs would put a car tire around the arms and neck of their victim, wrapping them up in a twisted parody of a rubber necklace. Usually, the massive weight of a tire was enough to keep them from running, but some took it even further. Sometimes, the mob would chop off their victim’s hands or tie them behind their back with barbwire to ensure they couldn’t get away.

Then they would set their victims on fire. While the flames rose and seared their skin, the tire around their necks would melt and cling like boiling tar to their flesh. The fire would still burn on, even after they’d died, incinerating the body until it was charred beyond recognition.

Necklacing, The Weapon Of The Anti-Apartheid Movement

Man In Tire Before Necklacing

David Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty ImagesA man suspected of being a police informant is almost ‘necklaced’ by an angry mob during a funeral in Duncan Village in South Africa.

It’s a part of South African history we usually don’t talk about. This was the weapon of the men and women who fought against apartheid in South Africa; the people who rose up in arms with Nelson Mandela to turn their country into a place where they would be treated as equals.

They were fighting for a good cause and so history can gloss over some of the dirty details. Without guns and weapons to match the strength of the state, they used what they had to send their enemies a message — no matter how horrible it was.

Necklacing was a fate reserved for traitors. Few, if any, white men died with a car tire around necks. Instead, it would be members of the black community, usually ones who swore they were part of the fight for freedom but who had lost the trust of their friends.

Maki Skosana‘s death was the first to be filmed by a news crew. Her neighbors had become convinced that she was involved in an explosion that killed a group of young activists.

They grabbed her while she was mourning at a funeral for the dead. While the cameras watched, they burned her alive, smashed her skull in with a massive rock, and even sexually penetrated her dead body with broken shards of glass.

But Skosana wasn’t the first to be burned alive. The first necklacing victim was a politician named Tamsanga Kinikini, who had refused to resign after accusations of corruption.

Anti-apartheid activists had already been burning people alive for years. They gave them what they called “Kentuckies” — meaning that they left them looking like something off the menu at Kentucky Fried Chicken.

“It works,” one young man told a reporter when he was challenged to justify burning a man alive. “After this, you won’t find too many people spying for the police.”

A Crime Overlooked By The African National Congress

African National Congress

Wikimedia CommonsOliver Tambo, president of the African National Congress, with Premier Van Agt.

Nelson Mandela’s party, the African National Congress, officially opposed burning people alive.

Desmond Tutu, in particular, was passionate about it. A few days before Maki Skosana was burned alive, he physically fought off a whole mob to keep them from doing the same thing to another informant. These killings made him so sick that he almost gave up on the movement.

“If you do this kind of thing, I will find it difficult to speak for the cause of liberation,” Rev. Tutu said after the video of Skosana hit the airwaves. “If the violence continues, I will pack my bags, collect my family and leave this beautiful country that I love so passionately and so deeply.”

The rest of the African National Congress, though, didn’t share his dedication. Other than making a few comments for the record, they didn’t do much to stop it. Behind closed doors, they saw necklacing informants as a justifiable evil in a great fight for good.

“We don’t like necklacing, but we understand its origins,” A.N.C. President Oliver Tambo would eventually admit. “It originated from the extremes to which people were provoked by the unspeakable brutalities of the apartheid system.”

A Crime Celebrated By Winnie Mandela

Winnie Mandela

FlickrWinnie Madikizela-Mandela

Though the A.N.C. spoke out against it on paper, Nelson Mandela’s wife, Winnie Mandela, publically and openly cheered the mobs on. As far as she was concerned, necklacing wasn’t just a justifiable evil. It was the weapon that would win South Africa’s freedom.

“We have no guns – we have only stone, boxes of matches and petrol,” she once told a crowd of cheering followers. “Together, hand-in-hand, with our boxes of matches and our necklaces we shall liberate this country.”

Her words made the A.N.C. nervous. They were willing to look the other way and let this happen, but they had an international PR war to win. Winnie was putting that in jeopardy.

Winnie Nelson herself admitted she was emotionally harder than most, but she blamed the government for the person she’d become. It was the years in prison, she would say, that had made her embrace violence.

“What brutalized me so much was that I knew what it is to hate,” she would later say. “I am the product of the masses of my country and the product of my enemy.”

A Legacy Of Death

Burn Victim In Zimbabwe

FlickrZimbabwe. 2008.

Hundreds died this way with tires around their necks, fire searing their skin, and the smoke of burning tar choking their lungs. During the worst years, between 1984 and 1987, anti-apartheid activists burned 672 people alive, half of them through necklacing.

It took a psychological toll. American photographer Kevin Carter, who had taken one of the first pictures of a live necklacing, ended up blaming himself for what was happening.

“The question that haunts me,” he would tell a reporter, “is ‘would those people have been necklaced if there was no media coverage?'” Questions like it would plague him so terribly that, in 1994, he took his own life.

That same year, South Africa held its first equal and open elections. The fight to end apartheid was finally over. However, even though the enemy was gone, the brutality of the fight didn’t go away.

Necklacing lived on as a way of taking out rapists and thieves. In 2015, a group of five teenage boys was necklaced for getting in a bar fight. In 2018, a pair of men were killed for a suspected theft.

And those are just a few examples. Today, five percent of the murders in South Africa are the result of vigilante justice, often committed through necklacing.

The justification they use today is a chilling echo of what they said in the 1980s. “It does reduce crime,” one man told a reporter after burning a suspected robber alive. “People are scared because they know the community will rise against them.”

Next, learn the grisly story of the last man to die by guillotine and India’s ancient practice of death by elephant trampling.

Mark Oliver
Mark Oliver is a writer and teacher, and father whose work has appeared on The Onion's StarWipe, Yahoo, and Cracked.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.