Cry thief

2009-01-23 00:00

We all need a bit of moral support at one time or another in our lives. A time without hope is a wretched time. That’s when you need someone to talk to, to lean on and rely on. That’s why I was in court that day. A friend was appearing before a magistrate for the first time. He was scared as hell and really needed someone to lean on.

The courts are an absolute drag and their overbooking problem does not help a bit. We had to be there at opening time. My friend, his lawyer and I sat in the auditorium waiting to be called by the bailiff. I had already watched several trials when a man was summoned from the holding cells under the courtroom.

The bailiff waited at the top of the stairs as a fragile man was escorted up them. The bailiff took his arm and led him to the dock. The man walked gingerly and with a pronounced limp on a crooked leg. His arms were thin and I got the impression that they could not straighten. His face did not look as old as his body, but it was marked with many scars and a sunken cheek.

He looked around questioningly when the magistrate addressed him. The court interpreter jumped to his feet and waited to be introduced. After the formalities, the interpreter approached the dock and spoke quietly to the accused. The magistrate leaned forward to hear better and the interpreter stood back and spoke loudly in Zulu. The accused answered in the same tongue before the interpreter spoke to the magistrate, providing the man’s name, his residential and employment status, and a request to hear the trial through the Zulu interpreter. The magistrate mumbled as he nodded and took notes. He then looked across at the accused.


Again the man looked around questioningly before the interpreter spoke to him. Their chatter mocked the importance of the initial question. Both gestured widely as if it was a market haggle.

“Does the accused understand the charges?” the magistrate interrupted.

The two of them spoke more before the interpreter said that the accused did not understand the charges.

“In terms of section 43 of the Criminal Procedures Act and in accordance with subsidiary subsections, and read with section 19 of the Port Authority Act and all relevant clauses of the Harbour Carriers Act applying mutatis mutandis, you are charged with the theft of approximately 17 kilograms of rice. This theft occurring on the evening of March 23 this year at Maydon Wharf.”

The accused was already shaking his head as the interpreter began.

“No, it wasn’t theft. It was no one’s rice.”

“But you had the rice?” the magistrate inquired. “The police said you were carrying the rice when you were apprehended?”

“Yes, I was walking with the rice, a small bag of rice. Rough hands grabbed at my back, pulling my shirt and breaking buttons here.” He looked down at his shirt. “They pushed me to the ground, hard!” he said, bringing the back of one hand into the palm of the other. “They too called me thief. But I did not steal.”

“You had the rice. How did you therefore acquire possession?”

“No, I didn’t steal.”

The magistrate showed his exasperation and the interpreter entered into a long soliloquy, during which the man nodded or shook his head. At times he would say something, but the interpreter ignored it. Eventually they began speaking to each other and it was a while before the interpreter turned to the magistrate.

“It is difficult, Your Honour. The accused denies the theft and is extremely vague when speaking about the rice.” After stating this, the interpreter skulked to the side, leaning against a banister to avoid the verbal blast from the bench.

In a vulgar mixture of legal and colloquial language, the magistrate tried to explain that the theft wasn’t really in question. The complaint had been laid and the missing cargo described clearly in the charge sheet. When the police searched him they found the rice. That was plain and simple. All the court now required was his deposition. The interpreter stuttered through the repertoire and the accused still looked confused.

“No, it can’t be theft. My family live in Uvongo and they are hungry. They haven’t eaten for a long time because I haven’t a job. Work is difficult now, there are too many young men. I wait every day for a job, but it doesn’t come. I am at the wharf every day, every night. I see them on the wharf and I only watch them work.

“I see that they are finished and they don’t give me work. They all go and leave me. And it was just a little rice on the floor which I put in the bag. I know my wife is hungry and she can clean the rice and feed my family while I wait for the job.”

“You took rice from the floor on the wharf?”

“Yes it was on the floor, scattered. I didn’t find it in a bag. It was me who put it in the bag. I have seen bags on the wharf and I know they belong to someone. I didn’t take that bag. My wife must wash the rice. She must take away the stones that are also on the floor. It is very dirty.”

“You know that anything found on the wharf cannot be picked up and kept. That is the law,” the magistrate explained.

“No, they didn’t want this. I saw them working and watched when they finished. They had finished with brooms and everyone was gone. It is not the first time like this. Other men also take rice.”

“Are you admitting to further thefts? Did you steal something else?”

“I am not stealing. No, I don’t steal. I was taking rice for my family. Long time now they haven’t eaten.”

“Yes, the court has heard this.”

“It is dirty, it was throw away.”

“Have you anything further to add?”

The man did but the interpreter kept shaking his head.

“There is nothing further Your Honour.”

The magistrate shuffled his notes, consulting here and there occasionally. He cleared his throat before speaking.

“The court finds you guilty of the charge of theft of approximately 17 kilograms of rice. Do you wish to address the court before sentencing? Is there anything you wish the court to consider with a view to leniency?”

“My family is hungry and I was trying to take them food. This food was dirty and was throw away.” The man was silent for a short while, thinking if there was anything else. “It wasn’t 17 because there were stones in the rice.”

“The court has heard this but will nonetheless consider the plea for leniency. The court further acknowledges that this is your first offence. You are sentenced to prison for six months.”

The man resisted the arm that was to return him to the holding cells.

“But if I am locked up for six months how can I take food for my family? I am the only one taking food.”

The man was too weak to resist much and was pulled back to the stairs. The constable took the other arm and led him down. His voice carried back up, searching for a sympathetic ear. It muffled before dying into the court’s oak walls.

Rob gutteridge

Rob Gutteridge moved from Durban to Pietermaritzburg three years ago. He teaches academic and professional literacy, as well as basic computer literacy to university students. He dabbles with pen, pencil and brush. He is currently occupied writing a dissertation on the cultural factors affecting computer-assisted learning.

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