Hlengiwe Mnguni

Accomplice to crime

2010-05-20 12:35

I have no doubts about crime. It is at the least an inconvenience, life shattering at its worst. It is selfish. So I have always imagined that when confronted with crime, this conviction would always guide me.

Earlier this week I was unfortunate enough to witness a man attempt to steal a phone from an unsuspecting woman's pocket.

At first I couldn't believe it was happening and that no one else except me was seeing it. What came as a surprise to me was that when he looked at me, he silently pleaded with me - a finger on his lips and asked me to be quiet.

He involved me in his crime and for a moment I wavered. I saw his dirty, dishevelled clothes, his angular bones showing through the thin fabric. I felt sorry for him because a small part of me thought that perhaps her needs it more.

I recovered, of course, and told the woman what was happening and the man slipped the phone back in her pocket and vanished into the crowed.

Reflecting on that moment, I have come to realise that we live in a society that is unable to take care of its own.

In an ideal society I should have felt indignant at the crime and told on him with no trace of remorse, however desperate he looked.

There will always be poor people. Even though governments have fought against poverty since time immemorial and should continue to do so.

But every society needs to get to a point where we are confident that those people, who for some reason or other are unable to support themselves, do not get to a point where a life of petty crime is an option.

So that when someone poor goes that route, I do not hesitate in my condemnation because I am certain that there could have been another way.

As much as people shudder at the thought of a welfare state, the reality is, for the time being at least, there are many people who need help and whose lives are spinning out of control. And it is far more than material assistance that they need.

When Jacob Zuma said he didn't know that people still lived "like this" on a recent visit to the Sweet Waters informal settlement I imagined that this is what he meant. Because in that shack there was more wrong that just a lack of service delivery.

It will take more than running water and lights to make sure that the daughters of families such as the one visited by Zuma do not see prostitution as the only way out of poverty.

Service delivery is one thing, but we need to be accountable for the poor as society and work towards making sure that no crime, however insignificant or poor the perpetrator, is justifiable.

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