When police arrested a gang leader last month on charges of raping and murdering a 14-year-old girl, his neighbors did not hesitate to take up a collection for one of their own. Within hours, residents of a hardscrabble shantytown just north of here raised $670 and bailed Johannes Manamela out of jail.

Then they stabbed him, doused him with gasoline and set him on fire.

"The idea of paying bail for criminals and then killing them is liked by everyone," said Johannes Motaung, who gladly donated $22 for Manamela's bail. "We want them to know that we will get them in the end. We do it in public so that the would-be criminals know what to expect if they get caught."

This is South Africa's version of "community policing." With polls showing that fear of crime is greater here than in practically any other nation, vigilantes of all colors are bypassing police and courts with increasing frequency and meting out their own rough justice, according to police officials, academics and other professional observers.

Frustrated by the often lengthy interim between crime and punishment, otherwise ordinary men and women here are tracking down suspects on their own, prodding confessions from them by dangling them over crocodile-infested rivers or beating them with rawhide whips -- even executing them, in a country where capital punishment is barred.

South Africa does not collect statistics on crimes committed by vigilantes, but analysts say that vigilantism is clearly on the rise as the public's impatience with crime and an overwhelmed criminal justice system grows. This year, according to provincial police and press reports, at least 16 people have died at the hands of vengeful mobs, including eight during a one-night roundup and killing spree by the fed-up residents of a Johannesburg slum.

Hundreds more have been seriously injured. One man suspected of raping a 5-year-old girl in a Johannesburg squatter camp was seized by a mob and castrated with a kitchen knife.

Vigilantism is hardly new to South Africa. During the struggle against oppressive white-minority rule, suspected police informants often were tortured and killed by mobs of blacks. At the height of the resistance movement in the 1980s, the most popular method of execution was "necklacing," in which a gasoline-filled tire was placed around an informer's neck and set on fire.

But mob violence in South Africa has never been so organized or so broad-based. Since vigilantes in Cape Town gunned down a notorious gang leader, then set him on fire while a crowd watched, "private security," as it is euphemistically called here, has spread to virtually every city. Rough estimates indicate that vigilantes could soon outnumber the country's 90,000 police officers, but there are no figures on whether the surge in community retribution has had a deterrent effect on crime.

The largest vigilante group, Mapogo a Mathamanga -- which means "the leopard changes its spots and becomes a tiger" in the Northern Sotho language -- estimates that its membership is nearly 50,000, a figure police do not dispute. Mapogo's founder, John Magolego, is black, but he estimates that a quarter of the group's members are white. Other vigilante groups tend to be more segregated -- one made up mostly of white ex-police officers, another mostly of Muslims, another largely of rural blacks -- but almost every ethnic group appears to be involved in some form of vigilantism.

Created three years ago following a rash of robberies and murders in the area, Mapogo has become the brand name of anti-crime crusaders in South Africa. Its members use sjamboks -- large leather whips -- to "heal" criminals.

"We are just defending ourselves and our families," said Magolego, 54, a business owner, who along with 11 other Mapogo members is awaiting trial in connection with a mob attack on eight burglary suspects in his home town of Grobersdal in Northern Province. Two of them died.

"In 1996, during July and August, we lost eight businessmen in our area -- shot and killed by criminals," Magolego said. "Our last man was buried on the 24th, and the next day we met and said that we were going to build an organization to fight back. . . . We wanted the criminals to see an awful thing. We wanted them to be afraid. The criminals do not fear prison. They get three meals a day there. We say that if they must sit in jail, let it be on very sore buttocks. The government says that we are primitive. But is crime civilized?"

At least 75 Mapogo members across the country have been charged with assault or murder. In May, a mob dangled a suspected thief by his feet over a crocodile-inhabited river until he confessed. The following month, police here say, two Mapogo members who own a gas station electrocuted a man with a welding machine. The man allegedly had stolen about $165 from them.

"They do their own investigations, and sometimes they arrest the right people, and sometimes they don't," said Phil DuBryn, a Northern Province government spokesman. "When they arrest people, they assault them, and we end up not only having to investigate the crime that they're investigating but the assault that follows it. They're doing a lot more harm than good."

South Africa's soaring crime rate and the do-it-yourself response to it are largely the legacies of apartheid, the defunct system of racial separation, academics here say. Consigned to lives as gardeners, maids and miners by the ruling whites, blacks were provided with inferior educations. When apartheid ended five years ago and South Africa's protected markets were opened to global competition, unskilled black workers were hardly in demand. Unemployment soared to nearly 40 percent, followed by a predictable rise in crime.

Compounding the situation, academics say, is that the apartheid-era police were more concerned with suppressing political dissent than catching criminals, and are poorly trained to handle the current crime wave. "Clearly, this surge in vigilante activity is a message that people have lost confidence in the police," said Antoinette Louw, a senior fellow with the Institute for Security Studies here. "Most South Africans don't support the vigilante efforts, but most of them do understand why it's happening."

Stroll down Main Street in Grobersdal, a farming community 190 miles north of Johannesburg, and the appeal of Mapogo is difficult to miss. Virtually every other storefront has the Mapogo emblem, a black and yellow tiger, in its window. But not everyone feels safe.

In December, six Mapogo members visited Braam Pretorius in his building supplies shop. They accused him of stealing a computer, fax and fan from a doctor's office and forced him into a truck. "We drove a long way, and as we approached the doctor's [office] they shouted to people that Mapogo had caught another criminal," Pretorius said.

Pretorius was taken inside and surrounded by what appeared to him to be nearly 100 people. "The next thing I knew was a pain across my back. You feel the first two or three strokes of a sjambok, but after that you go numb." He passed out. His kidneys were damaged in the beating. Police say they have no evidence he was involved in the theft.

Others, like Manamela, the gang leader, have fared worse. Days after he was bailed out of jail and killed, police arrested another man, Sifiso Nkuna, and charged him with being Manamela's accomplice. He refuses to leave jail.

"It's safer in prison," he told local reporters. "I'd rather rot here than be killed when I am out on bail."