Marianne Thamm

Making crime pay

2007-05-03 08:59

Marianne Thamm

Let's begin with a joke. Actually an anecdote about crime that remains great in its retelling.

A few years ago, the story goes, a group of German business people visited South Africa with a view to investing. After a tour of various centres they ended their sojourn sharing dinner with their South African hosts.

A few bottles of "Meerlust" and "Allesverloren" later one of the Germans turned to a South African seated next to her and remarked that although the delegation had loved just about everything about the country it was worried about one thing - crime.

"You know we don't have such a problem with crime in Germany," remarked the guest.

Intrigued, the South African inquired as to why this might be.

"Because it is illegal!" replied the German.

Crime an ordinary life

No doubt the South African needed a moment to reflect on the statement because there really are times when it does feel like the line between the legitimate and illegitimate economies that thrive in this country have blurred somewhat.

From politicians who lie about discounts on luxury vehicles to civil servants who help themselves to social grants or organise false identity documents and company CEOs who steal millions from widows and orphans, it sometimes feels like the Wild, Wild South.

There is so much dubious activity that passes for "ordinary life" - from the middle-class guy who defrauds his insurance company lying about a break in to the woman who bribes the traffic cop who has stopped her for speeding - that perhaps the time has come to make official this "third economy".

It is, in many ways, a counterbalance to the "first" and "second" markets President Mbeki has so often referred to.

Actually, there's a lovely line in Christopher Hope's wonderful new novel, My Mother's Lovers (Atlantic Books) that reflects on this ignoble lawless heritage and that reads something like "Jo'burg doesn't have a history, it has a criminal record".

An ingenious lot

But the point to all of this is that it is amazing how ingenious South African criminals are.

From scams and schemes that require a high level of technical skill right down to the more petty stuff like the jimmying of a payphone - South Africans (and now a host of other criminals who have settled here) display an extraordinary level of talent and accomplishment.

There are hundreds of potential innovative CEOs, engineers, accountants, IT specialists, chemists, electricians and financial managers in the criminal underworld; it's just that they don't have (and don't need) the papers to prove it.

We had an opportunity to reflect on it the other day when Western Cape Premier, Ebrahim Rasool, commented after a move to crack down on the gangs that plague the region that they had become "more powerful and sophisticated than ever".

Criminologists added that crime bosses control vast networks and have a turnover of billions.

Now, if there was just some way we could lure them away from an unregulated, highly lucrative (but increasingly threatened) life of crime to a respectable one of moderate gain and suburban ennui, we might move towards addressing the skills shortage everyone complains about.

The flip side of capitalism

It makes mild sense when you think about it. Crime is really the flip side of capitalism.

There are aspects of the free market that are undeniably immoral - the exploitation of children and the poor in underdeveloped countries, the destruction of the environment, the mindless consumerism for example.

Then there are the obscene salaries and bonuses that are paid to CEOs (check out SAA's record). A moment's pause and the "morality" of the formal market begins to look decidedly shaky.

The notorious early gangs of New York originated only because marginalised, newly arrived immigrants could not gain access to conventional markets.

In the end, the underworld, the black market, is the only one where the severely socially and economically marginalised but intellectually innovative can hope to "earn" some sort of livelihood (pity about propensity for violence though).

Steven Spielberg's 2002 movie, Catch Me If you Can, based on the life of arch scammer, Frank Abagnale, showed how you can, if you try hard enough, gainfully co-opt the cleverest, maverick criminal brains.

Not sure how a CEO with tattoos, packing a piece would go down though.

Perhaps no one will notice.

Send your comments to Marianne.

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