LAST week for the first time I had a horrendous encounter with the ugly face of the criminal underworld in South Africa. This was my worst experience since I started visiting that country more than 20 years ago
when my father used to work there.
I came face-to-face with the other side of a beautiful country, regrettably now notorious globally for its rampant violent crime and other indicators of social decay overshadowing its image as the Mecca of Africa.
I was brutally attacked and mugged by a group of thugs in the middle of Pretoria while I was coming out of a restaurant/bar on Friday evening. I had gone out with friends after days of attending a hectic Investigative Journalism training workshop.
We started the evening in a jovial mood in a bright and breezy restaurant in central Pretoria where it was really refreshing, especially for someone who was coming from days of non-stop professional engagements and more so from Zimbabwe where people now endure rather than enjoy life.
It didn’t occur to me that I would end up in a hospital that same night. I thought I knew the societal dynamics of South Africa enough to cope with its culture of Social Darwinism —the survival of the fittest — at any given time.
The drama started after my friends had left to go back to Johannesburg where they live. I was due to spend the night in Pretoria and go back the following day. After having a couple of drinks by myself subsequent to the departure of my friends, I decided to leave the bar for the hotel where I was staying to retire for the night.
As I was walking out of the bar across a busy street to catch a cab to the hotel, I was grabbed by four gangsters who seized everything that I had in my possession — money, mobile phones and bank cards. I also lost my ID, medical aid and preferential hotel booking cards. As if that was not bad enough, the muggers assaulted me with conscious malice. My attempts to fight back were in vain. The more I tried to mount resistance and wrestle with them the more they intensified their brutality in the process. I simply could not wriggle out of their clutches hard as I tried to. In the end I was overpowered and left lying in the road bleeding profusely.
What had started as a great evening ended up as a nightmare.
Members of the public and the police eventually came to my assistance. The following morning I found myself waking up on the bed of Tshwane District Hospital with a tag written Pretoria Academic Hospital: Emergency Unit Escorted Patient, Number MUL0059/1 stuck on the bloodied shirt I was wearing.
When I looked at myself in the mirror it was a really frightening sight. I couldn’t believe I had sustained such lacerations and my face was badly battered. But all the same I was treated and left.
While I got a lot of messages of sympathy from friends and relatives, the consistent line in all of them was that I shouldn’t worry too much because I was lucky anyway (even if I had lost everything I had) not to have been fatally attacked.
That is how South Africa has descended into depths of the criminal world where people have to be grateful for being mugged but left alive.
Violent crime, now almost affecting every facet of South African life from social to corporate space, is increasingly making the country a dysfunctional society. When one opens a South African newspaper he/she is confronted with stories of hijackings, big-money heists, home robberies, and rape.
To a foreigner coming from a relatively peaceful country those sort of stories are chilling. They paint a picture of a country ruled by menacing gangsters who feel that they are more powerful than law enforcement agents and would always get away with murder — sometimes literally!
With the 2010 Fifa Soccer World Cup — the biggest single sporting event on the globe — coming, South African authorities and citizens are still trying to examine the nature, practice and perceptions of deviance and crime in their country. In the meantime, fears are mounting that the World Cup will be a nightmare for football fans and tourists, especially visitors. Websites dedicated to grisly warnings of what they can expect have been set up, much to the consternation of the authorities who are in denial.
The trouble is that South Africa is not confronted with ordinary crime as most countries are. It is more faced with organised crime. Without being an alarmist, all sorts of organised crime categories can be found south of the Limpopo to varying degrees.
These include hijacking and theft of cars and cargo, robbery, burglary, fraud, credit cards scams, money counterfeiting, bid-rigging of public projects, smuggling and trading in untaxed alcohol (bootlegging) as well as cigarettes.
Go to Beitbridge border post and almost everyday one is told of stories of smuggling of cigarettes into South Africa. In fact, it has now become one of the biggest money-spinning “business enterprises” in sub-Saharan Africa’s busiest border post.
South Africa is also struggling with drug and human trafficking, sources of crime like loan-sharking, bookmaking, gambling, prostitution, growing child pornography, arms dealing, murder for hire and money laundering.
This is a toxic mix of different crimes that has made the country a haven for criminals from all over the world. While government believes it is trying hard to stem the rising wave of crime, it seems its law enforcement and civilian security institutions are too weak to reduce, let alone eradicate, crime.
Currently there is a new strategy to crack down on crime in an unprecedented way but the problem will always be how extensive and effective the drive will be to deal with the entrenched culture of crime. It appears crime has become such an admired enterprise in South Africa to the extent that some people proudly interpret the abbreviation GP (for Gauteng Province which encompasses Johannesburg and Pretoria) on their cars’ number plates to mean “Gangster’s Paradise”.
It is difficult to understand why some societies are more crime-infested than others. Is society the cause or the victim of crime? Is crime learned, innate, bred by society, or freely chosen?
The philosophy of crime offers different explanations to this, but the main issue in this case is whether it is practically possible for South Africa, the biggest economy on the continent, to resolve the issue of crime. Otherwise the damage that crime is inflicting on the South African economy and its image — and collaterally on the region — is very serious.
Crime in South Africa has now reached emergency proportions and the government must deal with it ruthlessly forthwith to save its citizens and visitors.