Georgina Guedes

Living in a viper’s nest of criminals

2014-05-30 14:05

On Thursday night last week, my husband came home to find our suburb crowded with police cars – more than could ever be justified by a house breaking or hijacking. The chairperson of our residents association sent us an email letting us know that we shouldn’t be alarmed, and no such crime had taken place.

What then? The annual policemen’s ball?

Come morning, our chairperson sent us another email, this time linking to a statement by the SAPS, letting us know that one of our neighbours was actually at the top of South Africa’s most wanted list. He had been quietly dealing arms out of a house a block and a half away from mine (in the shadow of the Norwood Police Station, nog al!).

He was, by all reports, a very nice man who kept to himself. He would have had to, I guess, because you can’t really have the neighbours over for a white wine spritzer when your house is packed with assault rifles, handguns and explosives for ATM bombings. For all that all whites supposedly live in a state of heightened terror in South Africa, that sheer volume of munitions would be bound to raise some eyebrows, unless you’re a Pistorius.

We still don’t know his name or the exact nature of his crimes. Was he a high-profile arms dealer or was he the head of some organised crime unit who was directly responsible for the ATM bombings and cash-in-transit heists? What we do know is that he took his dogs for a walk every day and was pleasant to everyone he met. Arms dealers and kingpins apparently make the best neighbours.

The other kind of criminal

Then, the day before yesterday, we received another email from the chairman of our residents association (Arthur has been busy this week. Everyone say, “Hi Arthur!”). This time a small-time criminal had been caught in someone’s back yard by their gardener, given a bit of a pummeling, and handed over to the police.

But not before they took a photo of him to distribute to everyone in the neighbourhood, in case he came back. However, Arthur’s email informed us reassuringly that as he was unable to give any permanent address, he was denied bail and so should be under lock and key for the foreseeable future (although even that isn’t a given, really).

But here’s the thing. Although that burglar was intent on committing a crime – possibly violent – against an individual or individual’s property, I feel a great deal of empathy for him. The photo of his bloodied face, along with this line so heavy with pathos: “was unable to give a permanent address”, filled me with sadness.

Where your sympathies lie

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad they caught him and it won’t be my house next week (or at least it won’t be him in my house next week – and even that’s not certain), but my heart aches for whatever combination of desperation and circumstance lead to his need to commit these kinds of crimes.

On the other hand, our friendly neighbourhood kingpin was clearly a man of means (the cost of building a perimeter wall that high alone would have crippled the finances of most honest workers). As a result, I don’t feel too bad about his likely future incarceration or have much sympathy for the backstory to how he got here. But I do hope his dogs went to a good home.

That’s the thing about living in South Africa: whatever they tell you, nothing is black and white. You spend every day of your life trying to work out where on the spectrum of grey your sympathy, generosity and sense of self-preservation lies, and most of the time you’re just shooting in the dark.

- Georgina Guedes is a freelance writer. You can follow @georginaguedes on Twitter.

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