Crime and its reality in Africa

South Africa is the most interesting country in the world to live in. For almost eight years I lived in Paris and I could stroll to the Louvre, the Picasso Museum, buy cheap tickets at the Bastille Opera for what was then about R50, browse dozens of interesting little bookshops with names like “Letter tree”, “Foam of the pages”, “Doodles”, and so on. Unlike Anglo-American bookshops that contain mostly a mixture of bestselling trash and classics, the French love their quirky essays and novels by eccentric authors teeming with wayward knowledge and ideas.

I also attended lectures or ran into world-famous artists, philosophers and writers. I personally met or knew Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Jean-François Lyotard, Alain Badiou, Julian Schnabel and attended a packed lecture by the blind, octogenarian author Jorge Luis Borges. Netx to the Pompidou Centre with its collection of Dada and Surrealist art, the building being itself a work of art, was a literally underground institution called the IRCAM where you could catch Pierre Boulez conducting amazing, experimental pieces of avant-garde music.

Paris has so much culture you could spend a lifetime just scratching the surface. Johannesburg, on the other hand, has one art museum which is now in a slum area, Joubert Park. For a city this size, it is something of a wasteland. Parts of it look like a wasteland too. And, of course, it is notoriously crime-ridden.

Which brings me to the real subject of this piece: crime in Africa. I strongly suspect that the crime industry in Johannesburg might be bigger than the banking industry, represented by the big four banks, three of which are still headquartered in downtown Johannesburg, but then their employees hardly ever venture outside on the streets.

Recent crime statistics have placed Cape Town ahead of Johannesburg as the most dangerous city in the country, which shows you that the notorious Cape gang members are stealing the limelight from their Johannesburg counterparts. Johannesburg is very proud of its gangster or tsotsi tradition, which goes back to the days of Sophiatown when the “Americans”, the “Russians”, the “Gestapo”, the “Berliners” and the “Vultures” ruled the roost. Nadine Gordimer and many British authors have romanticized those glorious pre-apartheid times. The so-called “Sophiatown Renaissance” was the precursor to Mbeki’s African renaissance.

Also, I happened to read a very amusing “call for papers” on the website of the Southern African Historical Society recently. Sometime in March there is going to be a conference at the famous Yale University in the USA, on the subject of – you guessed it – crime in Africa.  Except that the international academics gathering at Yale have chosen a more politically correct title for their conference: Crime and its fictions in Africa.

According to the invitation from Yale:

“The story of Africa in the world is in some ways a history of crime: from the Atlantic slave trade to the Nigerian ‘419’ email scam, violence and illegality have often been the means by which the continent is inscribed in the Western imagination. On a more local level, crime has also served as the medium through which Africa and its peoples have negotiated engagement with globalization. Besides the obvious movement of illicit goods onto the global market, this is evident in the intricate international networks for smuggling people across the Sahara; in the prostitution rings that link parts of Africa to parts of Europe; and in the poaching syndicates driven by Asian demand for exotica such as rhino horn. The problematic role of law and/or its absence has long been the focal point of historical and social scientific work on Africa, though not without controversy over the line between voyeurism and observation.

Increasingly, fiction writers and literary scholars have also got in on the act. In South Africa, authors such as Deon Meyer and Margie Orford have topped the best-seller lists with their crime fiction, and the genre has gathered steam across the continent. What explains this development? What, if any, is the connection between the boom in writing about crime, and the problem of crime as it is experienced day to day? Finally, how can we both acknowledge crime’s dominant place in African narratives (and narratives about Africa), and question the limitations of this negative paradigm?”

I might have been tempted to go to Yale myself and deliver a paper there, except I have just missed the deadline and it would be an expensive way of causing controversy among a bunch of “tenured radicals” as American academics have been called, by arguing that crime in Africa, particularly South Africa, is no fiction.

All of us have been exposed to crime in some way or another. We know people who have fallen victim to the often sadistic acts perpetrated by the millions of criminals who roam our streets and farms. As someone tweeted the other day: “See South Africa: Home of the Big 5 ! Murder, Rape, Robbery, Hijacking, Theft.”

In the past week I have had two mundane run-ins with shop assistants that convinced me that even in brand-name emporiums in shopping centres you run the risk of being defrauded by the people behind the counter. In the one instance I was short-changed by sixty-nine rand. It was a fairly complicated matter as I had bought some shirts on sale and part payment was ensured by some points on my loyalty card. Afterwards in the car I kept on staring at the till slip as the amount did not make sense to me. Then I realised that the shop assistant had pocketed my loyalty points in cash, sixty-nine rand to be exact. My wife thought the shirts were a bargain anyway and it was too much trouble going back, but above all I felt insulted. My mental arithmetic has always been good and I felt that no dishonest shop assistant should get the better of me. The worst of it was: it was all done in such a casual way, “trying her luck” as it were. In the Old South Africa someone like that would have been fired on the spot. But with trade unions, labour laws and the legendary African tolerance towards things dishonest and criminal, she knew she would get away with it. And if caught, it would simply be shrugged off as a “mistake”.

The second incident involved a small payment of R39,99 but it almost turned into a loss ten times that amount. There seems to be a new trick. After putting your payment through your debit or credit card, the assistant would suddenly unplug the machine, muttering: “Oh, there’s a problem with this machine. Let me put it through again!” In your naïveté – all white people in Africa are naïve, I have come to think – you would tender your card again and this time around, a debit of ten times the amount would be put through your card: R399,90, to be exact. In your hurry to get over this tedious hiccup, you would blindly sign the slip, except then you might notice that somehow a digit or two have been scratched out in pencil.  Having had former experiences of this nature, you would then start getting suspicious. The old Eurocentric logic and powers of deduction would start kicking in. A quick glance at your bank account on your cellphone would divulge that indeed the first payment had gone through. And you were now R400 the poorer on the second little swipe through the “faulty” machine.

But of course, all of this would be put down to the infernal machines, another “mistake”. Calls to the bank. Denials that the first payment had gone through. Yet you have the evidence in your pocket and can even cite the transaction code. Eventually the second payment would be reversed. No apology. No guilty look. This is just routine. Another customer, another “mistake”. How many customers are so gullible that they fall for this? I ask myself. How many tourists coming to South Africa to enjoy our beaches, vineyards and wildlife get fleeced or even killed when they venture into rough areas?

The Caribbean-born Indian novelist V.S. Naipaul got the Nobel prize for literature. He was also derided as a racist for his perceptive novel about the Congo, “A bend in the river”. Somewhere in it a character remarks: “The problem is not that there’s no longer a difference between right and wrong. The problem is there’s no right.”

While we worry about the “Big Five” of Murder, Rape, Robbery, Hijacking and Theft, there are other features of “zoo city” – that is also the title of a crime novel I believe – that escape us but are no less pervasive and insiduous. Everyone – from the tenderpreneurs of the ANC with their flashy cars and Hollywood lifestyles to the devious shop assistants – is on the take, sucking us dry.

But it remains interesting. If you are a thriller writer you have more material in Johannesburg and most other SA cities to write 720 novels, as many as Barbara Cartland did. If you are a social theorist, a columnist, a pop philosopher, you could also dip into the criminal cesspool and produce a conversation piece every day of the week.

As long as you stay in a secure complex – 60% of all violent attacks occur at the victim’s residence – and minimise your risk, you could survive to tell the tale.

American Allen Drury described South Africa in the 1960’s as “a very strange society”. Yet this republic in 2012 is far stranger still, a zoo to gawk at, study and discuss.

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