It takes a village to catch (and teach) a crook

2011-02-10 00:00

THE power that community members have to curb crime in the areas that they live is immeasurable. I rediscovered this when my wife Nompilo and I pursued a thief who stole her bag in Pietermaritzburg last month.

Combined with this power is the old custom of dialogue, used by many black cultures in South Africa to sort out family or community quarrels.

The story began when Nompilo’s bag was stolen from her work car by a car guard in Victoria Road when she and her colleague stepped out of the vehicle to collect a few items from a shop which was a few metres away from the car. They had closed the windows but left the car unlocked as they had anticipated that they would not be more than 30 seconds and the car was just one or two clicks of their high-heeled shoes away.

The bag’s most valuable items were a driver’s licence, identity document, perfume, a new cellphone and, of course, the new designer bag itself.

After realising that her bag was missing, Nompilo quickly returned to the shop and inquired from the two car guards who were there if they had seen her bag. The guards fingered one of their own who lives in KwaMpumuza. We entered into a small financial agreement with one of them who knew the crook’s home.

We could have had the thief arrested for the crime he had committed. This indeed was an option. However, after panting up and down and tracking down where the thief lived in KwaMpumuza, Nompilo and I opted to talk to his uncle, whom he lived with, as an alternative form of justice.

I have been to KwaMpumuza before to cover news stories and it’s a familiar place to me. The area has steep, gravel roads with huge dongas in them, which are difficult for a car to negotiate. Some houses are only accessible on foot.

When we got to the crook’s uncle’s house there were only other relatives there. I left my contact details for the uncle to contact me so that I could voice my unhappiness about what had happened to Nompilo’s bag.

We headed for the small mud houses where the thief allegedly smokes dagga and mandrax but he was nowhere to be seen. Our guide suggested we look for him at his girlfriend’s house. The search might have entered its first hour when it suddenly hit me that our noble cause could backfire if the community started cursing these two strangers who thought they could walk around their neighbourhood and accuse one of their own of a criminal act.

We continued humbling ourselves at each house we visited, looking for the crook, or any person who might know his whereabouts, and relaying our cause with the aim of drumming up sympathy.

As we wheezed our way between the houses we could not help but notice the glaring poverty that most of the community members live with. All the houses we visited were made of mud and were nearing collapse. Upon entering some of the the houses we noticed that there were virtually none of the things that we can’t do without, such as TVs, radios and refrigerators.

We got to the girlfriend’s house but she wasn’t there. But residents we spoke to confirmed that she had been showered with early Valentine’s gifts a few minutes before — Nompilo’s phone and perfume — although they had not seen a bag, nor did they know where the thief was.

The friends and relatives of the girlfriend joined us in our search. We spotted the bandit’s lover and she hurriedly fetched the phone and set out to look for him. We found him a few minutes later and had a chat about the whereabouts of the bag and what was now left in it.

He was shocked to have been traced by the owners of the property he had stolen (I lay claim to the bag as well, since I paid for it). And he was embarrassed that people from his area knew what he had done. We tried to convince him to come with us so that he could show us where he had dumped the bag (in town), with members of his community who were present egging him on to return what was ours, but despite my having vowed that I would not devour him with my limbs like they do on WWW Smackdown, or have him arrested, he tearfully declined.

However, he agreed to give our guide the exact whereabouts of the bag — which we found zipped up and nicely tucked behind a knee-high face-brick wall in Greyling Street.

I contacted his uncle the next day and informed him that we had found the bag. I sat down with him and chatted about our ordeal. He commended the way we had handled the situation by trying to get hold of him and not breaking the bag snatcher’s limbs or having him jailed.

He apologised profusely for what his nephew had done and asked how he could make it up to me. As a guardian who felt embarrassed about what his nephew had done, he assured me that he would discipline him and invited me to watch and participate if I wanted to, but I politely declined. Whether he chastised his thieving nephew or not, I was content with the proposed solution and the heartfelt apology.

As we were chatting I realised that he is doing his best to provide for his children and nephew. Also, that by just letting the matter go we may not have taught the thief any lessons. He might do it again. But his uncle and his community taught me something. They taught me that some things need a collective response if we are to fix them (yes, crime is one of them). Poverty, unemployment and a lack of service delivery is a real problem in our country. And maybe where that boy comes from the only way out is crime.

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