A plague f car thieves

2009-12-23 00:00

THE years running up to the 1994 election were years of total mismanagement on the part of the police in the Trans­kei. Was there such a thing as an honest cop? Those of us who lived in Transkei doubted it. There didn’t seem to be any justice at all. Criminals who were arrested, (so there must have been some hard-working honest cops, not so?), were generally let out on low bail, from which they absconded, or they escaped from custody with the help of a uniformed cousin or brother, or the files “got lost”.

A gang of car thieves started operating in Port St Johns — a gang so connected to the police, that they just weren’t arrested. They damaged the town’s economy, which was based on tourism, and today walk the streets of Port St Johns as honest citizens. But leopards aren’t known for changing their spots, and one of these days, when times get a bit hard and easy pickings are needed, they’ll probably revert to their old ways.

No car was safe. Old, new and luxury cars were borrowed on a long-term basis. The residents of Port St Johns set up a task team, the Port St Johns Rangers, to patrol the town and keep our vehicles where they’d been parked with gorilla steering locks, gear locks and alarms, behind chained and padlocked gates complete with big dogs. Some car owners went to the extreme lengths of removing alternators or parking their cars at the police station and walking home from there. Did it help? Sort of. A total of 100 cars were stolen in 101 days. Why did they miss one? You tell me.

The Port St Johns Rangers were headed by a gung-ho character, whom I’ll call Jack the Weasel. Jack was one of those macho, egotistical personalities who believed in the power of the gun. He brandished his about while trying to look as he-mannish as possible. He is remembered with lots of wry amusement as being very quick on the draw with his mace spray. If he found himself in a corner during an argument in a pub, he would ruin an otherwise pleasant evening by spraying his opponent with gas. Jack later tried to become a mercenary in Iraq, but they turned him down.

Even with just about every able-bodied man doing his duty and patrolling the streets, the car thieves still had a great time. On occasion an arrest would be made, the criminals would be in court for a day and then they’d be on the streets again. The leading leopard, on one occasion on being arrested and charged, cited the reason for his stealing cars as being that he had several houses and he had to steal cars to supplement his income, so that he could pay the bonds.

Mr Leopard even had a quick-buck scheme. He’d steal a car, then do the honest citizen act, go to the owner with “information” and offer his services as a go-between negotiator. A few thousand rands later and the car would be back with the owner, who of course had promised not to tell the police.

Complementary to the police station, there was the local CID office in another part of town. Many a time in the small hours of the morning, a very skorro skorro tow truck would come and remove vehicles from the yard. When the police who lived and worked there were asked by the neighbours what was going on there, the neighbours would be told that nothing had been seen or heard by them. Supposedly that house now has a really miffed ghost who shoves furniture around and makes horrid noises. Was he possibly the victim of a car theft where not only his car was stolen?

Eventually the thieving stopped, but as a result of a jealous girlfriend, and not the efforts of the rangers. The woman in question had been the main leopard’s lady friend, and when she was jilted she arranged an attack on him. Mr Leopard was severely stabbed and left to die on the banks of a stream. Unfortunately he was found in the morning, and hospitalised. He emerged a new man, an honest citizen, ready to give back to the community. He became a top

police informer and is the reason why many thieves now sit behind bars in the reincorporated State of Transkei.

• Rina de Tiago is a traveller who lived in the Transkei and other parts of Africa for many years.

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