- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 22, 2004


By David Cohen

St. Martin’s, $24.95, 336 pages


This April, South Africa celebrated 10 years of multi-racial democracy under an African National Congress (ANC) government. Since the country has erected sound economic policies, encouraged racial unity, and embraced democratic procedures there was much to celebrate. But there was also much about which to despair, and in “People Who Have Stolen from Me: Rough Justice in the New South Africa,” David Cohen brings to light one troubling social ill that plagues South Africa today.

It must be said that the ANC certainly deserves A’s for its handling of the economy. The budget has been controlled with a discipline that the United States, itself, might emulate; the currency has strengthened; many state corporations have been privatized; and foreign investment has been encouraged.

The government gets A’s too for its handling of the apartheid past. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is regarded as an example that other countries with shameful pasts should follow. However, it gets a mix of A’s and B’s for its handling of racial integration and fostering of democracy: Aggressive affirmative action has led to a deterioration of some services as experienced personnel are replaced with those less trained. And polls show in some areas a troubling disdain for democracy.

But there are two glaring F’s which detract from this otherwise good report card. They are the grades that would have to be assigned to the country’s treatment of AIDS, and its management of increasing crime. President Thabo Mbeki is notorious for his insistence that there are very few HIV infections, when experts suggest that up to a quarter of the population may be infected. And the reluctance of those in power to allow the use of proper medications has rightly outraged even many of Mr. Mbeki’s supporters.

And while the AIDS epidemic has been covered in depth, the rampant crime that afflicts South Africans of all colors has been given less attention. This is why Mr. Cohen’s innovative account of the widespread and pervasive crime wave makes an important contribution to knowledge about a country that has done so much to move on from its past.

Mr. Cohen reports that in the 10 years of ANC rule, “robbery has risen by 169 percent, housebreaking by 33 percent, cash heists as well as carjacking, by 30 percent. 71 percent of companies report being victims of fraud in the last two years, compared to 51 percent of businesses in the rest of Africa, and just 37 percent worldwide.” Even petty criminals often callously kill their victims.

South-African raised but now a British resident, Mr. Cohen takes a furniture store on one street in downtown Johannesburg, Jules Street, as an example and, while describing its history and operations, persuasively demonstrates how complex the issue is.

Jules Street is reported to be the longest straight street in Johannesburg, but as Mr. Cohen asserts it is a street on which the “crooked thrive.” And the crooked are not just strangers, they are also family members and trusted employees.

Jules Street Furnishers is owned by brothers-in-law Harry Sher and Jack Rubin. Descendants of Jewish immigrants, they own five other furniture stores, which sell middle-range furniture, frequently paid for in monthly installments by their mostly black customers.

They love South Africa and, now past 60, intend to stay on there, but running a business in these times is not easy. Harry has been robbed outside his home by AK47-wielding robbers. Their office is protected by a security gate, and their store, despite constant upgrading of the deterrents, remains vulnerable.

Currently, the store is heavily fortified with thick panes of shatter-proof glass, two layers of burglar bars, “solid steel and fastened with state of the art locks … the roof is protected by electrified barbed wire and the entire premises is wired to an armed response security firm.”

But this did not stop burglars one night from blowtorching the locks, then driving large taxis through the windows into the store, where the robbers loaded them up with television sets, stereos, and video recorders.

Blacks are as likely to be victims as whites. Crimes are random, which increases the fear. And the criminals always seem one step ahead of the under-manned police force.

Mr. Cohen details just how pervasive the problem at Jules Street Furnishers is — Harry’s brother, Ronnie, is discovered to have been stealing from the firm; a long-trusted Indian manager, heavily in debt, is found to be defrauding the business; and their security firm’s driver, engaged to take cash to the bank in an armored truck, steals it for himself.

What happens on Jules Street is replicated throughout the country. Even rural areas are no safer. Theft, Mr. Cohen states, “has become a way of life,” though paradoxically many of the criminals are relatively well-off.

South Africa’s crime demonstrates a lack of trust in society, which Mr. Cohen suggests is the legacy of an apartheid government that was seen to be both illegitimate and immoral.

Like most reporters, Mr. Cohen is best at describing the history, the personalities, and the events, and less satisfying when offering analysis. To be fair, though, he makes no claims to having the answers to a condition that has been shaped as much by the apartheid past as by South Africa’s present administration, which struggles to improve an underpaid, under-educated, and disrespected police force.

Mr. Cohen’s book is an important piece of reportage that vividly and sensitively demonstrates how difficult it is for societies where justice has long been perverted to change overnight.

South Africans of all colors are, in a sense, political convalescents, recovering slowly but surely from a long, debilitating disease. Once forced by their former rulers to break laws to survive, they are now expected to trust one another, abjure violence, and respect the law.

It will take time and good leadership, but in the meantime Mr. Cohen has written a comprehensive account of the current condition that also does much to explain the failing grade in crime on the national report card.

Judith Chettle is a South-Africa born writer now living permanently in the United States. She reviews frequently for The Washington Times.

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