Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

‘There is something inhuman about stealing from the poor’

Theft is a debilitating thing, whether it is petty theft or “grand larceny”; whether it is theft during a burglary, as we recently experienced, or the kind of GRAND theft perpetrated by politicians who have access to public money, or corporations that do so via dubious legislation, which allows them to pay minimal corporate taxes (effectively stealing what should comprise part of the public money belonging to a country’s citizens), or which enables them to grab public land and use it for their own profit, having robbed the “commons”. This kind of theft is not easy to pinpoint, and Jason Hickel deserves a standing ovation for uncovering precisely this kind of thing on the part of the World Bank (an institution supposedly aiming to make life easier for all citizens of the world), under the subterfuge of “rating” countries in terms of the “ease of doing business with them” (a euphemism for theft, really), and of their “worthiness” as destinations for investors’ money.

The kind of theft that is more concrete, less abstract than this, may be more immediately apparent and more easily identifiable, and yet the sheer scale of the kind of “grand” theft committed by some of the most venerated institutions in the world, far surpasses “concrete” theft in the extent of its effects. Theft remains theft, of course, and the fact that one of the Ten Commandments is a prohibition of theft bears witness to the virtually universal abhorrence it provokes in people. From an anthropological point of view it seems to me that it has something to do with people’s instinctive awareness — what Freud called the “survival instincts” of the ego — that everyone needs a modicum of material goods (in the form of food, clothes and shelter) to survive in this harsh place we call life.

The surrealist film director Luis Bunuel made a film called The Nazarene, which illustrates the near-impossibility of living without such minimum requirements for survival. It is the narrative of a priest who, in his attempt to emulate Christ as faithfully as possible, acts with “absolute” charity, which means, of course, that he does everything to help people in need, including, in the end, parting with what little money and food he has, even with his clothes. Predictably, he dies in the end, which casts the injunction, to “love they neighbour as thyself”, in a comprehensible light: unless you begin with a measure of “self-love”, you won’t survive to be able to help others. It is the subliminal awareness of this, I believe, which causes people to view theft with repugnance; unless you are the thief, of course.

In his book The Shadow of the Sun Ryszard Kapuscinski, the Polish novelist and journalist who lived in Africa for 40 years because of his love for the continent, writes about his experience of theft in Africa as follows (p111):

“And the thefts? In the beginning, I was filled with rage each time I returned to my ransacked apartment [in Lagos]. To be robbed is, first and foremost, to be humiliated, to be made a fool of. But with time I came to understand that seeing a robbery as a humiliation and an affront is an emotional luxury. Living amid the poverty of my neighbourhood, I realised that theft, even a petty theft, can be a death sentence. To steal is to commit manslaughter, murder. A solitary woman had her little corner in my street, and her sole possession was a pot. She made a living by buying beans for credit from the vegetable vendors, cooking them, seasoning them with a sauce, and selling them to passers-by. For many, this bowl of beans was the only daily meal. One night, a piercing cry awoke us. The entire alleyway stirred. The woman was running around in a circle, despairing, frenzied: thieves had snatched her pot, and she had lost the one thing she depended on for her livelihood.”

As Kapuscinski observes at a later point in the book, after relating another instance of theft, this time of a parcel containing a girl’s dress from a poor young man (p214), ” … there is something inhuman about stealing from a poor man, who often has but one bowl or one tattered shirt”. This is true of the woman who lost her source of a livelihood, a cooking pot, as well. On a much larger scale, it is even more inhuman for large corporations or politicians to steal from a (especially poor) country’s people, because this kind of massive theft has an effect, not only on one person and her or his immediate family, but on thousands, if not millions of people who may have benefitted from those funds.

Hence, when Public Protector Thuli Madonsela courageously published her report based on her office’s investigation of the question, whether public funds had been illegitimately appropriated for “security upgrades” at President Jacob Zuma’s private Nkandla residence, including the finding that there are at least some misappropriated public funds that the president has to repay, it was tantamount to stating that these funds had been stolen from the public, from the country’s tax-paying people. Interestingly, this claim was ruled as “fair comment” by a court of law recently, with reference to the DA’s widely circulated text message to this effect. It is not hard to think of people who might have benefitted from these funds — people who have much greater economic needs than any well-paid politician. (For starters, I personally know some teachers who have not been paid months of salary owed to them by the Eastern Cape department of education, and who are struggling financially as a direct result; many others could be added to these.)

Recalling the burglary we recently experienced, it is therefore no exaggeration to say that South Africans are surrounded by thieves at all levels, from the “highest” levels of government — we know that corruption is endemic in this country, and corruption is another name for theft — to the “lowest” levels of burglars, robbers and muggers.

As if to confirm this realisation, on our arrival back from France yesterday we had a surprising (and frustrating) experience at Oliver Tambo airport. There was a six-hour wait for our connecting flight to Port Elizabeth, so we went to the British Airways counter to check in our luggage so that we could go through security to the FNB lounge for a refreshing shower (after a 10-hour flight from Paris), only to be told that we could no longer check in our baggage “so long before the time”, but only two hours before departure, because BA (or Acsa) “could not guarantee the safety of our luggage”. On pressing the check-in assistant for a better explanation, she admitted that our bags could be stolen, despite the widely publicised installation of security cameras in the loading area. When I reminded her of the security surveillance, she just smiled and said something to the effect that “they have ways of doing it”.

Infuriated, I went to the BA customer care counter to ask whether we could leave our bags there while we went through security to have the much-anticipated shower, before returning to check them in two hours before departure, but to no avail. The gentleman on duty had the gall to tell me that the new arrangement was an “improvement in security”, and failed to agree to my argument, that it was precisely an admission, on their part, that they had no control over security. And yet, immediately afterwards, I saw him marching to the check-in counter to confront the assistant who had the candour to tell us the truth about Acsa having no control over theft at the airport. It did not take a detective to gather that he was berating her, judging by the expression on her face. She deserved praise instead for her honesty, that thieves had got the better of Acsa at one of South Africa’s “premier” international airports.

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    • Garg Unzola

      Rather, it would appear that theft is completely human.

    • Bert

      An ostensibly clever comment, Garg, but what you fail to mention is that when an action on the part of a human being is termed ‘inhuman’, it presupposes his or her humanness; calling the action inhuman is a way of accusing them that they have not acted according to their humanity. But sure, in Nietzsche’s words, theft might also be described as ‘human, all too human’.

    • Yaj

      our entire money system of fractional reserve banking and compound interest is theft and fraud on a grand scale, turning us all into debt slaves in perpetuity,turning each one of us against the other.This is the driving force behind all theft in society and brings out the very worst of human behaviour in everyone of us.
      That is why we need monetary and banking reform to save humanity and the planet from self-destruction.
      That is why i will vote for the UBUNTU PARTY of Michael Tellinger because he is addressing the root cause of all theft and inhumanity in our society.see

    • Alois

      If the author feels that way concerning “stealing from the poor,” I would most appreciate his feelings on the practice of subjugating another for the sole purpose of self enhancement?

    • Richard

      Just a couple of thoughts. At Heathrow, there is a left-luggage facility, for which you pay a fee to leave bags. They are numbered and tagged, and protected within a confined and enclosed space. Perhaps that needs to be considered for the airport in Johannesburg? Secondly, as to the institution of theft in society (for such it is), is this not analogous to checking the power of people? The fact that others can steal from you means many things. To an ostensibly disorganised public (which is what South Africa really is) it means that the government has more power over you than you can deflect. What better way of demonstrating their degree of power over you than their taking from you without apparent consequence? Or, when the poor steal from the powerful, it tells the powerful that their power is not unlimited.

      I suspect re. the comment above about stealing being human, that theft is human but is not humane. For corporations to steal is entirely human, but it is inhumane. In other words, a bit like in Plato’s Euthyphron, we expect economics (Plato’s piety in Euthryphon) to include an element of justice, but that is illusory. In fact, the piety Socrates speaks of (our economic justice) is in reality no more than self-interest since it seeks reassurance for one’s mundane welfare through prayer and sacrifice. Piety is then no more than the knowledge of what to ask of, and give, the gods. It is no more than a business transaction. Such is economics, too.

    • tony reeler

      Well stealing from the poor happens in many ways that are less visible than those you describe. how about the US$21 trillion stored off shore: the equivalent of the GDP of the US and Japan. US$12 trillion is owned by individuals, and all of this money is beyond the reach of governments, but not beyond the power of all that money to influence governments. How are these people accountable to the poor? As Oxfam pointed out recently, 85 people on a London double0deker bus own the equivalent of 3.5 billion people. I suggest that we should think more broadly about how “theft and poverty” are linked.

    • Yaj

      Our current money and banking system is designed to siphon up wealth from the 99% up to the 1%. It is not a natural state of affairs and can be changed if only concerned people would educate themselves as to how this change can be achieved with a public public banking system,100% reserve banking and public/social credit.

    • John Pearce

      Great piece – theft has always been an ill defined crime across the globe and throughout history – just one suggested amendment (to the title) There is something inhuman about the WEALTHY stealing from the poor.

    • aim for the culprits

      Theft before paying tax is the same as stealing tax payer money. if done by manipulating the law it is even more despicable and disgusting.

    • Garg Unzola

      @aim for the culprits:
      You neglect to mention that stealing from the poor is inhumane but stealing tax money is stealing from the rich. It’s perfectly human, all too human. It’s the good kind of stealing, you see. Without the good kind of theft, there cannot be bad theft.

    • proactive


      a bit confusing for some of us unsophisticated folks. Good theft, bad theft, sophisticated theft, cynical theft, philosophical theft, universal theft, only just theft? Equal tax brackets for the rich & the poor. “Trickle down effect”? Modern evolved caring social principles- bad & ill-affordable?

      Where then is the rich- poor tax threshold in 2014: below R67,111 pa? @ 67,111 pa? above 67,111 pa? Where? Or 2, 3, 4, or 20, 30, 40- or 200, 300, 400, Dollar/day- where?

      Robin Hood was once very popular- sorry, must have missed the time of his re- orientation!

    • Garg Unzola

      I’m not one of the sophistricated folks. For example, you can view the ease of doing business index and see that it has very little to do with theft. And despite the claims to the contrary, there’s a fair amount of both empirical research and peer review involved in the indicator. Can the same be said of its criticisms?

      To me, the burden of proof lies with its critics to motivate why things are generally going worse in countries that rank poorly on this list, while things generally are going better in countries that rate better. Rating better or worse is based on the Human Development Index.

      Even after pandering to the human resources cartel of the International Labour Organization, and removing some of the labour criteria, the list remained more or less unchanged.

      Speaking of which how much empiricism and peer-review goes into determining ILO standards?

    • http://nil Gillian Katz van der Heijden

      Thank you for a warning article regarding luggage at Oliver Tambo. Disgraceful.
      My experience of theft in business in Johannesburg was both white collar and hard criminal inside leaks resulting in enormous robberies which not only tired and frustrated me but closed down the business and lost the jobs to the dependent workers and their families. The state is rank rotten when a state is not a state
      but a den of theives.

    • Rene

      I could go along with Robin Hood style stealing from the very rich, but not from ordinary taxpayers…

    • proactive

      @Garg- thanks,

      sorry, but the essence in that article is theft in all its grandeur & shades, not indexes, economic systems, best business practices nor demanding proof!

      Theft/dishonesty is a simple & unambiguous ethical issue which Bert highlighted eloquently- seriously awakening similar sentiments in many of us. So serious a probability that could lead e.g. SA down the path of a failed state- never mind the natty gritty of a certain type of capitalism & personal beliefs.

      Another aspect to the ethics of honesty:


      Today’s global & local capitalist economies evolved, undergone good & bad metamorphic changes since the 14th century & that will continue!
      Than Globalization, thereafter Deglobalization- than…..? Just a glimpse into its complexity:

      Why should the burden of proof be produced only by critics? No, proof can equally be demanded from who ever makes such demand in the first instance- except, they maintain that their assumption is the one & only correct one- which in turn could be interpreted to border an arrogance, shortsightedness & inflexibility.

      Communal consensus?

    • MrK

      ” This kind of theft is not easy to pinpoint, and Jason Hickel deserves a standing ovation for uncovering precisely this kind of thing on the part of the World Bank (an institution supposedly aiming to make life easier for all citizens of the world), under the subterfuge of “rating” countries in terms of the “ease of doing business with them” (a euphemism for theft, really), and of their “worthiness” as destinations for investors’ money. ”

      Exactly. The fact is that we are conditioned by the corporate and state owned media, to see only certain forms of violence as violence.

      I would say that it is impossible to have a democracy, when the key economic sectors of banking and fuel are not publicly owned.

      In order to have a democracy, we cannot have economic elites. There should be no billionairs.

      If someone just can’t get by on a $100 million, they have to learn how to manage their finances. 😉

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Bert, people that steal from the poor or from anybody aren’t controlled by morals. This is why society passed laws to protect the people from thieves. The problem in SA when these people are caught stealing there is nothing done to them because of their political connection.

    • Garg Unzola

      Sterling is getting closer to the crux of the matter. The issue isn’t stealing per se, the issue is there are double standards involved. Just look at the Marikana issue: The police are severely criticised for endangering human lives, but when the workers themselves are caught red-handed, then all kinds of excuses are made for them.

      The situation is similar when it comes to theft: We want to accept and understand theft when it’s done explicitly or implicitly in the case of the poor, but when it’s the rich who are guilty, then it’s inhumane.

      I meant that I have no such double standards and it’s not a moral dilemma, it’s just a case of staying consistent. I maintain that theft is theft, and if you are poor yet you have several concubines and several children for whom you cannot care, yet you expect society to carry your burdens, you are guilty of the same sort of inhumane theft.

      By the way, I think we are currently at a similar crisis as the 14th century one: We’re stuck in a conspicuous consumption loop with no incentive to produce new productive technologies. It’s socially more important to protect jobs that rely on outdated technologies (mining jobs, fossil fuel energy jobs) than to focus on more effective solutions.

    • Richard

      I was thinking a bit more about the notion of stealing from the poor, and the relationship with stealing power from the powerless. In a democracy, each voter is in fact very poor in power, with each vote representing something like 0.00000002% of the total (assuming a population of fifty million). In that scenario, we are all equally power-poor. In this scenario – which is really what democracy is – everybody seems very happy. Is that because we are all equally power-poor? From that basis, some people move into positions that give them elevated power, although they are still dependant upon all the other power-poor people to make their power a reality. In that, it is much like wealth derived from money, surely? And is it so that nobody worries about power-poverty in democracy because everybody is equally poor, whereas people are perceived to have elevated wealth in capitalism, although in fact the basis of their wealth is no different from the basis upon which people are elected to power? It is interesting that nobody worries about aggregations of power in a democracy, whereas they are worried about aggregations of wealth in capitalism.

    • Miss O

      Tell that to your government that is constantly stealing from the poor although it claims to represent them.

    • proactive

      “Who ever steals from anybody, aren’t controlled by morals” (Sterling)- also expresses unequivocally the basis of ethics- but a dilemma, if used to suit a different agenda.

      Marikana comprised of many issues. Least related to “theft & honesty- but rather wages, power struggle, ignorance, intolerance, desperation, gullibility, instigation, greed, recklessness, (in) sufficient police training & oversight.

      The price for recklessness, habits & ignorance’ (“Concubines”) is similar to wrecking ones health, or car- increasing the assured”risk/premium” for all. That societal risk is nowadays deemed to be absorbed- maybe unequally- needing a measure of social tolerance plus Rands by all who participate to assist that the “scheme/society” functions somehow.

      Questionable “Honestatum”: be they robustus Presidents, or university trained Bob Diamond ex Barclays, rigging Libor, fined 450mio Dollar, allowed a new banking venture “Atlas Mara” to repeat his “job creation/new ponzi scheme” in unsuspecting Africa- or sociopath Bernie Madoff & Co, a law academic- stealing a “loaf of bread” to the tune of ~17-50 bio Dollars!

      Theft is theft, be it a loaf by an uneducated poor from a café owner, taxes by a political cabal from all taxpayers or 50 bio Dollars by a rich sociopath academic from his clients- torpedoing new business ventures!

      Equal punishments, double standards or who would rank higher as the most despicable thief & is the more inhumane human?

      That’s it- thank…