In the mob or not, we’re all criminals

2014-01-05 10:00

The fat white man in the pink T-shirt spat words at the camera. “Give him to the community. The community will sort him out. We will make a good example of him.”

The screaming blonde teenage girl seconded that. “Give him to us. We will do to him what he did to her.”

The crowd threw rocks and beat the sides of a police van, believing the target of their fists to be inside.

Hundreds of Brakpan residents – some near hysterical – gathered outside the local magistrates’ court this week for the first appearance of a 23-year-old man accused of raping and murdering his niece, four-year-old Jasmine Pretorius.

Blind with rage, screaming for blood, mob justice had arrived among an unlikely bunch of suspects not generally known – not in this day and age – for common purpose vigilantism: poor whites.

Could this be a perverse sign that whites are catching up to what blacks have always known? That under apartheid, justice was for whites only, and since then only for those who can afford it?

Two decades after the end of apartheid, the majority of South Africans still don’t trust the law to be there when they need it.

Which is why we tend to make up our own rules as we go along. We don’t call it breaking the law, we call it “doing the right thing” in the absence of a system that reliably regulates, protects and cares for us.

In Khutsong, on a single Sunday last November, “the community” burnt or stoned to death six men – all said to be gangsters who had terrorised their streets, their children and even the local cops.

But you don’t have to be part of a wild-eyed, axe-wielding lynch mob to be an outlaw in South Africa. Most of us break the law or at least believe that some laws are there to be broken by us model citizens. Indeed, it is our moral and ethical duty to break them.

We refuse to buy e-tags because we think government is ripping us off so the robber-barons can build bigger fire extinguishers in their back yards – maybe in future even with wet bars at the shallow end?

We routinely run red robots because everyone does, especially those arrogant, lawless taxi drivers. We privately think corporal punishment, which has been abolished but continues to be carried out at many schools without missing a beat, is a good thing because it didn’t hurt us, did it?

And who cares if Radovan Krejcir and criminal scum like him get tortured in jail? That’s what they deserve. They should bring back the death penalty while they’re at it.

Apartheid has made outlaws of us all. Under apartheid, if you were black you were practically born a criminal.

Walking along the wrong street, sitting on the wrong bench, reading the wrong book, falling in love with the wrong person, standing in the wrong queue?…?these things could get you arrested, and worse.

Under apartheid if you were white, you were practically born a criminal, though it was easier to stay out of jail.

You just had to follow orders, ask no questions and see and hear nothing bad. Oh, and to dismiss the whispers and cries for equality under human law by other races as base ingratitude.

Any way you look at it, surviving a psychotic regime with any amount of dignity, self-worth and sense of humour meant being forced to break the law on an almost hourly basis.

So now we’re stuck with it, this legacy of lawbreaking from back when it was impossible, ludicrous even, for anyone with half a wit and a drop of courage to abide by the insane laws of this land. We remain – in ways I’m not even sure we are conscious of – casually barbaric in our “law abiding” views.

The same folk call into talk radio stations like 702, complaining about crime and corruption.

I had to laugh this week when a presenter invited comments about the murder of former Rwandan spy chief Patrick Karegeya, who was strangled in the Michelangelo Hotel in Sandton on New Year’s Day.

The caller was indignant. “What I want to know,” she huffed, in the sort of 702 phone-in voice that meant “I want my children to feel safe riding their bikes in the street”, “What I want to know is?…?what were these people doing in the Michaelangelo?”

Which seems an odd sort of response to a murder.

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