Primarashni Gower
Primarashni Gower

Sure we believe you, Mr President

As I lay face down next to my husband, David, with our hands and feet tied up, I thanked him for six years of marriage and three children. My knees felt like jelly and I had the urge to lose my dinner.

Despite pleading with Thabang* not to harm my family, I feared he would still shoot my three-year-old son, who was sleeping on the bed, and my mother and my five-year-old twins, whom I could see.

Thabang, still wielding his silver gun, told his friend Jabu* where to find our bank cards while he dialled a number on his cellphone. “Where is your plasma TV? Where is your laptop? Where are your fucking firearms?” he barked. “Give me the correct PIN numbers or my friend who is staying behind will kill you!”

On repeating for the third time that we did not have firearms and that we had an LCD TV, he demanded to know the size of it. While Jabu went to locate it, Thabang conveyed to his contact on the phone that the LCD TV was 37 inches, not 40, and that there was a desktop computer.

He enquired whether his contact was interested in our black Peugeot 206 convertible and blue Toyota Verso, and provided the registration details.

Stamping on David’s back and kicking at him, he demanded that David say hello to his contact as he bashed the phone against his ear.

They had stripped my fingers of my wedding rings earlier on, and at gunpoint I had led Thabang to the cupboard containing valuable jewellery, cameras and cash. As compensation for not having firearms, I had pointed out my cellphone and digital camera, as well as the valuable jewellery.

I was terrified that they would rape my daughters, my mother and even me. While Thabang raided my cupboard, I figured that if he raped me, I would not scream or put up a big struggle; I did not want David to try to rescue me — we could all be killed. I prepared myself psychologically to be raped and knew that I could access the AZT anti-HIV cocktail at one of the private hospitals nearby. Many women survive rape in this country. Luckily, Thabang did not touch me.

The robbers had struck as David drove into our property on his return from the gym. After punching him and beating him up with the gun, they had demanded that he unlock the garage door and lead them into the house. Faced with the choice of being shot dead or complying, David grudgingly went for the latter choice, detesting the fact that, either way, his family was at risk.

“Do your vehicles have trackers and have you pressed the panic button?” asked Thabang as he continued to talk to his friend on the cellphone. He howled with laughter when we said no. This young-looking robber was on a tight deadline — he had Jabu collect most of the items on his list, leaving behind three old TVs but taking our computer hard drive with my memory stick in it.

These career criminals in their latex gloves and red takkies then drove off to Soweto in our cars, leaving behind messed-up lives, no fingerprints and our burning desire to kill them.

However, you see, we have a government that believes that crime is a mere fallacy and that the foolish citizenry complains for nothing. So, technically, Thabang and Jabu do not physically exist in the eyes of President Thabo Mbeki and his honorable Minister of Safety and Security, Charles Nqakula. They exist merely in my imagination and that of other victims, while the country theoretically celebrates having the most liberal Constitution in the world. A Constitution that, in reality, favours criminals.

How do you bring a spiralling crime problem under control if, in your head, it does not exist and things are just dandy in this sunny country? You just continue living in your high-security residence with several bodyguards, wishing the media would just shut the hell up and that the whiners would leave the country. And if you bullshit the people on the ground about the difference your government has made, maybe you will get to be president of the ruling party again — or even serve a third term as president of the country.

Can Mbeki see that things have fallen apart, as criminals run riot? Is he not concerned about the shameful legacy he will leave behind for allowing this country to plunge into anarchy? Does he have any self-respect?

I used to be scornful towards people who fled the country due to crime. I saw them as traitors. Now I understand their desire for safe, peaceful lives. I want my children to have the safety and security to make mud cakes in the garden without any fear of being harmed by robbers.

I want to continue with my dream job and not pack off to some strange country and start a job on the bottom of the corporate ladder. I don’t want to learn to use a gun, but if I had one, I would kill to protect my family.

Our miracle nation is dying because of crime, and there is no doubt that race relations are being damaged. Our rainbow nation is under threat.

Mbeki could save the last shred of his dignity by turning around the situation: he could introduce capital punishment for criminals involved in armed robbery, rape and murder. He could make the tackling of crime a priority. He could declare a state of emergency and call the army in to help him regain control of the country from the criminals to whom he has lost it.

And he could plough resources into the existing national DNA criminal intelligence database and relax restrictions to allow for all South Africans’ information to be processed and entered on to the database. This will make it easy for criminals to be traced.

If only he would.

All of these actions would take the fear out of the hearts of crime victims who, like me, would like to continue living in this country. Instead, we’re now considering selling our spacious property and could move into a poky little townhouse complex that supposedly has more security.

And, like many other crime victims, we’re considering whether it is worthwhile to buy another property when this country is already in the stinky sewers when one considers how crime is handled. Maybe we should keep money in the kitty for when things get really bad and we need to flee for our lives.

Maybe, like many others, we should wait to see who becomes the next president — and what the consequences are — before we reinvest our hard-earned money in this country.

Maybe I deserve the government I’ve got. I voted for it.

* The names of the criminals are real

  • Walton

    I am one of those people who used to pour scorn on those who left. Then I left too, just to travel, not intending to stay away.

    Some time away from South Africa gave me perspective on how needlessly dangerous our lives there are, and I decided not to go back.

    Basically, I don’t need it.

    Your writing is powerful, though I disagree with your solutions. I don’t think that capital punishment will help. The problem is that the rot in SA goes all the way to the top, and sends out a very strong message that dishonesty is OK.

    To tackle street crime, we need to tackle crime at the top: the corruption of Selebi, Mbeki’s shielding him, and so on.

    We also need to redevelop some kind of common vision as a country.

    Some more ideas on my blog.

  • Marian

    No point in waiting to see who the nest president is – very little will change because it is the same ANC with a cocooned heirarchy calling the shots. Vote them out of their cozy jobs next time to let they know that their management of the country has set back health, education, safety, job creation. As long as the ANC is in power, nothing will change, merely the snouts in the trough. Like the Nationalists of old. We need a new kind of government, not just a change of skin colour and faces. These guys are the old Nats in boot polish.

  • Ivo Vegter

    I have some idea what you’re going through, Primarashni. I felt (and still feel) exactly the same after I got tied up with a knife at my throat and cleaned out. It is a most traumatic experience. It changes your life. If you used to be judgmental about people who complain or flee the country, such an attack does change your mind.

    I eventually, reluctantly, wrote a column about it (republished on my blog) when Thabo Mbeki asserted, in essence, that the crime problem is a fear of blacks fueled by the white right’s imagination. That turned my usual fatalism into anger.

    That it is one of the most popular articles on my blog may be because of the headline, but it probably says a lot about what people out there are feeling.

    I agree with Walton (someone call the blog police!) that capital punishment is not the solution. Besides my moral objection to the death penalty, you first need to catch criminals, prosecute them and punish them, before you can justify debating whether harsher punishment of whatever form may be necessary. In my opinion, criminals act with impunity not because of what punishment they might get, but because they gamble they won’t get caught or convicted in the first place.

    I can only sympathise with your stress and pain. Be strong, and thanks for writing about it.

  • MidaFo

    My sympathies are with you Primarashni.

    It was clearly a horrifying experience and your anger is perfectly understandable. Past experience shows that when I feel that someone has stolen something as relatively insignificant as my camera I am prepared to kill, and they stole so much more than goods from you.

    But tough as it is, we have to acknowledge something and if you are not prepared to do so then you should not have written the article. What we don’t seem to understand is that we, the middle class, the whole structure of capital that we sit in, did this to millions of people in SA for centuries. We used the agencies of the state to do so, the very state sustained by the taxes our victims provided.

    You got off lightly. You still have your land, your house, your husband, your children, your education, your status, your future, your health, your freedom, while those attacked by Apartheid, an overwhelming number of them, often lost all.

    In terms of our SA’n history, the deed as it were, we have to admit that we middle class SA’ns see wealth is for us, while forgetting it is for us all. Your article shows you do too at this stage. Tough but true.

    To pretend that this justifies the actions of the intruders is as stupid as the pretence that we have nothing to do with the creation of a society that produced them and their actions.

    All young children at home will benefit from the understanding that when faced with a mess that they helped create it does not help to complain. All that counts is to clean it up.

    The lesson we learn from the pain is not to make the mess again. So get over it, as others in SA have, or you will become as those who assaulted your family are.

    You have my support and that of many others.

  • MidaFo

    Those criminals were very gentle in comparison to the economy and state in SA that we grew up in and still do. Until we recognise this we should understand we are not South Africans. If we are not, we should leave our wealth, and with a profound feeling of gratitude that we can retain our intellectual and educational capital, our children and spouse, do something we violently prevented so many Africans from doing in this way, that is go somewhere else. We get off extremely lightly in doing so.
    Believe me these considerations supersede your pain.
    But if you do you are running away.
    Life’s like that.

  • Andy

    I am shocked at the crimes that happen in this country. Bringing the death sentence won’t make it better- what will make it better is really cleaning the rot from the top. Our presidential cabinet is full of decietful, self indulgent people who are motivated by greed on the expense of the poor people of our country. What we need are dignified people who care about the people who voted for them, people who understand what it is like out there not behind high walls and a million body guards.
    I agree with the writer when she says we need a change of government not just a change in the colour of skin- we need men of character or else this country is definately going down the drain. “Greed shall kill the greedy men” in this case it will kill the nation if our ministers are s busy looking after their own than doing the job which they were appointed for- working for the public….

  • Ebrahim-Khalil Hassen

    MidaFo, I am confused by your statement. I could possibly undertand it if you were speaking about someone stealing bread, food, even a mugging. The crime described in this article however is an organised crime, by professional criminals. This is the way they make their ‘living’. A ‘living’ through intrusion, violence and power of fear. I do not know the author so will not presume to understand her background, her political affiliations or anything else. I however think she has a right to express her anger and hurt, without you asking her to take on the repsonsibility for the entirety of South African history. (By the way, if your argument is correct how then can you explain the very non-racial complexion of organised crime? And, also why violent crime is so high in poor communities) I would agree that we must understand why people commit crime, but we never argue that the dispossed and oppressed during apartheid are seeking revenge. The truth is the opposite. I would support a view that we need more redistribution in South Africa, but never the logic you use to reach this argument. Especially, since it is the criminals that could hijack our collective future.

  • Ivo Vegter

    I, for one, cannot go along with the “but apartheid caused it” or “apartheid was worse” argument. Even if true, two wrongs don’t make a right.

    But it isn’t true. Claiming it is is an insult to the millions of decent people who do not believe historic grievances or present poverty are sufficient cause to discard all dignity and morality and turn to crime. The morality of armed robbery does not vary with the degree of oppression the perpetrator’s particular race or tribe or gender or socio-economic class can lay claim to.

    And to be callous enough to tell crime victims, who suffer mortal fear and psychological trauma, to just tough up and take it because they had it coming, is pretty reprehensible too.

  • Jarred Cinman

    This is one of those debates where the emotion and the facts work against one another.

    Of course this experience, and the thousands like it, are horrific, damaging and terrifying. And of course, none of us, for any reason, should be using logic to try and ease your pain.

    However, this crime argument always goes one way: the government is doing nothing/too little/not enough. The implication is that they are sitting back and allowing crime to take place.

    I urge everyone here to think this through. The fact that Primarashni is suggesting capital punishment as the solution is testimony to the ugly fact no-one wants to accept: the crime problem does not actually have a solution. Or, at least, not the kind any middle-class South African will like.

    More police? Sure, then we need more courts. More courts, more prisons. More prisons? More brutalised prisoners coming out the other end.

    Or how about we stop poverty? That should be easy.

    Or go back in time and make it so that people weren’t raised in misery under a brutal government?

    Killing all the criminals might actually be the only really viable option we have. Not as a deterrent, but to get rid of the bastards.

    What do you think?

  • Walton Pantland

    I find myself in the strange position of agreeing in part with both MidaFo and the evil Mr Vegter. MF is correct in his/her analysis of the causes of crime, and in pointing out that the crimes that we, the relatively privileged, experience, are small compared to the rape and theft of whole cultures carried out in our names.

    But understanding it doesn’t excuse it, and Ivo is quite correct that individuals all have a choice. We all have a right to peace and security. Just because some one’s rights have been violated, does not give them licence to trample on us.

    Some people define themselves by their victimhood and choose to become violent criminals, others don’t, and seek political or cultural avenues for redress. Some privileged people choose to separate themselves from the world and get as rich as possible. Others do what they can to make the world fairer.

    That, I think, is the key: realising the collective power of personal responsibility and our individual choices, and how they contribute to what we have now. We are all in this together, and we need to break the cycle.

    We won’t break the cycle by ‘cracking down’ and reintroducing the death penalty – that just projects the crime problem away from us, and onto the (Black) other. Since we are all in some way complicit in the status quo, we will only break the cycle if we can collectively agree to try and make right what has gone wrong.

    One of Africa’s great weaknesses is failure to take responsibility for the present. It is easy to blame the past when it has been horrendous, but in order to move on we need to be able to take responsibility now. As a country our crucial task is to develop a common vision of who we want to be, and work towards shared values. Only by rebuilding a social contract can we counter the dehumanisation of crime and posit an alternative, progressive vision of shared humanity.

  • Richard Catto

    The death penalty is not an option. I discussed what separates good people from bad people in the linked article.

    Good people do no harm. If you harm, you are by definition a bad person.

  • Ivo Vegter

    I don’t buy the notion that criminals are the dispossed, the oppressed, those who suffered under apartheid and have legitimate grievances. Nor that crime is directed towards the oppressor. Crime is just as prevalent — if not more so — in poor townships as in rich suburbs. Of course, the rich do make a financially more attractive target, but that’s because they’re rich, not because they’re seen as former (or current) oppressors.

    Lucky Dube just got shot and killed. Is that because he’s white? Or was he just another victim of crime, just like me, just like Primarashni, just like David Bullard, just like the son of my friend’s domestic worker who got stabbed for a bottom-of-the-range cellphone and five bucks?

    And if you look at the other side, the stereotypes also don’t hold. I have never disclosed the race of my attackers, other than to the police and a few close friends. I don’t believe it is relevant. I don’t care what colour you are, if you threaten my life and violate my home and family, I’m going to hate you and want to kill you. It’s “us” and “them”, alright, but it isn’t about a theoretically tidy class or race divide.

    The argument that poverty causes crime is also untrue. Lots of criminals drive around in flash cars, flaunting their wealth. They may use poor flunkies for their dirty work, but real criminals are rich. Their wealth, and the image of crime as a symptom of poverty, insult the millions of decent, honest people who work hard and abhor crime, even though they’re poor.

    Crime is a symptom of opportunity. When it’s easy, low-risk, profitable and “everybody does it”, all the incentives are there. When those incentives exceed the incentive to do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s living, you have the makings of crisis. Only when the risk of committing crime begins to rise again, and the rewards begin to decline, will the problem assume a more normal scale.

    It’s economics 101, really. The same economics that says redistribution won’t solve the problem. In fact, it could well exacerbate the problem by cloaking theft with moral justification. If the state engages in theft, that doesn’t make it any less immoral.

    Only when criminals believe the risk of getting caught and jailed is too high will crime decrease. It’s that simple.

  • Grant W

    Firstly my sympathies Primarashni. Your account
    was both horrifying and beautifully written.

    I guess it is all about priority. Where is crime and the will to fight crime on the government’s national agenda right now? Somewhere behind the transformation of our rugby team and the succession battle and that is probably why we have a problem spiralling out of control. Sort out the crime you get easier transformation, stability, investment, you plug the brain drain, you promote reconciliation, you collect more tax from the newly invested foreign nationals which goes into HIV roll-outs, better health care and education thereby further reducing crime and providing economic growth.

    If government really wanted to get those stats down and cut this nonsense out they could. They are, however, taking a half-hearted stab at it because most of them seem to share the thinking that popped up in a few comments to this post…its all because of our past. Even if that was 100% true, and I do not buy that absolutionist bull for a second, it is still simply an excuse. It is a crisis. A few ideas since none seem to be forthcoming from the guys in charge…

    1)Get smart! Hire bright dedicated people into the police force and out-think the criminals. It worked superbly for SARS and paid itself off in no time. Why not the police? Involve universities, business and communities. Out-think them.

    2)Organise. Police stations should not be spending man-hours doing admin for the public when we have a crisis on the go. They should be focused on solving crime. Get rid of jobs that do not contribute to the cause. Farm them out to other institutions.

    3) Here is a radical one! Offer retired white male executives, those evil men that benefited from apartheid, the chance to come in and use their lifetime of managerial skills, at a cut price for their country. They could manage police stations like a business and free the cops up to hit the bad guys? Any takers?

    4) Use our army here and not in the Congo. Form units dedicated to certain types of crime. Units that hunt cash heist robbers, units that hunt hijackers and units that hunt armed robbers. Well-trained, well-equipped, highly mobile response units that respond quickly to certain codes with the intent to catch in the act. We are paying them salaries anyway and they could keep battle ready in case of Zim’s invasion…

    5) Alternatively, use said army to slowly take back streets of choice. Perhaps central JHB? Post two armed soldiers in radio contact on every street corner for a week. Any criminal stupid enough to commit a crime will be caught like a spider in a web and he will never be able to outgun the law. Arrest for the smallest crime. Keep this up until area is safe and then expand. Immediately return at first crime in safe area and repeat. Slowly drive criminals away from key areas.

    6) Here is another radical one; form think-tanks of criminals in prison and allow them to redeem themselves and earn parole by working out where the next big crimes might go down or how to stop them or who to arrest. They think differently and might have a new angle. Success gets rewarded. Repeat offence after the program gets life and you get announced as a program member on your first day back in the slammer.

    7) Stop these ridiculous courtroom and jail escapes. We are not fooled. It is either an inside job or the security is pathetic. Fix the one and root out the other. No more!

    And so it could go on. So now I have listened to my president who voiced his own disgust at the death of Lucky Dube and I am working together with him to solve crime as he asked me to do. I have done my little bit tonight, I have shown I care, will he?

  • madgenius

    It is ridiculous what is going on in this country. What is even worse is that nothing gets done. The value of life is nil.

  • Nkosikhona N

    While I feel for you, I find it rather odd how people like you make unsubstantiated claims. Neither the Pres nor his Safety and Security Minister have ever claimed that there is not crime in this country. For crying out loud, Mr Nqakula releases crime statistics which reflect murders, rapes, house breakings amongst other crimes. Secondly, the Deputy President of this country, her home was broken into last year where laptops and cell phones were stolen. Former Deputy President Zuma, had his wife raped while he was still Deputy President of this country. Trevor Manuel, Prof Kader Asmal, and many MPs, have had their homes broken into within the past 24 months. The President’s mother, had her shop broken into. There are a lot of cases where senior government officials and their families where they have been victims of crime for government and any South African to know that there is a crime problem.

    If you want them to say that crime is out of control and then and only then, you will see that they know there is crime, then your claims are totally baseless.

    If you look since the ANC took office, how much in each budget, has been allocated to Safety and Security department each year, you will see the government’s commitment.

    It is easy to make this the government’s problem, even though I am not sure how would the government have prevented your family being subjected to the treatment you have endured (which no individual deserves)? By the way, I have had my house broken into 2 and my 1st car stolen but I don’t find sense in blaming the President or his Minister because they couldn’t have placed police outside my house before they broke into it or my car before it was stolen.

    Not unless you are giving us realistic solutions to this problem, you are adding absolutely no value whatsoever in solving the problem, not unless the purpose of this blog is for you to find a way to deal with your ordeal. No matter how much you increased the police services and build more jails, we will be faced with this problem not unless we deal with the root cause. We have judges totally unhappy with the minimum sentences that have been prescribed for certain crime like rape (min 15 years) because they believe that they keep people in jail for too long.

    Jailing people might deter a few but I doubt that it would prevent a whole lot others from commiting crime. I’m not sure if you understand that criminologist who have done research have found that capital punishment is not a crime deterrant. USA with all the criminals it kills each year, still have tens of thousands of its citizens killed by criminals each year and others raped. It even has the largest database of peadophiles in the world.

    You tell me of a single country in the world with a constitutional democracy that has capital punishment and the lowest crime rate?

    We should be extra careful about ruling the country based on emotions. You declare a state of emergency and have the army doing civilian work, exactly how will they speed investigations to releave the current backlog? How would the army speed up the backlog in our Magistrates and Courts? Not unless you are hoping that the army would be used to shoot criminals as part of carrying out capital punishment. Soldiers are trained to fight wars where they know their enemy and not killing their fellow citizens.

    It is amazing that there are backlogs in our courts, jails are overcrowded and yet people claim that nothing is being done, then who are these people behind bars serving various sentences while others are awaiting justice to run its course. Something needs to happen and it is not up to the government to turn the tide but up to South Africans uniting and fighting criminality and fraud. It is up to South Africans instilling the culture of obeying the laws of the land, be it traffic laws or criminal law. It is up to each and every one of us taking responsibility and doing something for our country.

    As Thabang was on the phone confirming what he was planning to take, the existence of the market for stolen goods is a big motivator for suppliers to want to supply this market.

  • Walton

    Nkosikhona, the reason this is the government’s problem is that the government is so corrupt, as witnessed for example by the Brett Kebble case, with Selebi in bed with organised crime and Mbeki covering him.

    The problem is the government. The rot goes all the way to the top. If it is OK for senior ministers to be involved in crime with impunity, then it sends a very strong message to the rest of the country that criminal behaviour is acceptable.

    It’s not a question of the government solving crime (though there is plenty it could do), it’s a question of us stopping criminality in the government.

  • madgenius

    Courts? Not unless you are hoping that the army would be used to shoot criminals as part of carrying out capital punishment. Soldiers are trained to fight wars where they know their enemy and not killing their fellow citizens.

    I do not consider scum sucking criminals as citizens. These people are the enemy and should be treated as such.

  • Grant W

    Nkosikhona N, while I agree with you 100% that capital punishment is not the solution, I understand why people put it forward for consideration. They are frustrated beyond belief. Instead of telling us what they are doing about the problem, goverment is telling us to leave or shut up. Huh? Why don’t they respond with all the things they have done and are doing instead – much better PR. I believe it is because they aren’t doing all that much. I believe it is because they can’t cope with the problem and are not prepared to get radical to fix it.

    You also mention that it is up to each and every one of us to do something…I agree up to a point. We need to report crimes, to be good citizens and not buy stolen goods BUT it is not our job to put into action strategies to reduce crime and catch criminals and THAT is where the problem lies, that is where we are falling down. There are people being paid to do exactly that and they are not performing.

    Jails are crowded and cases are pending so why are we not building courts, bigger jails, hiring more prosecutors…no money some would say, but we have money for a Gautrain that will be too dangerous to ride on at this rate. We have money for billions worth of arms. The crime situation is more important than both of those projects combined.

    If we need to urgently educate the poor, develop programs to get the unemployed working on localised projects to uplift them, start new policing divisions, import foreign police that do not suffer from local bias then lets spend the money on that instead because if you ask any South African in the street today what the biggest issue facing us in SA today is, they will not say invasion or transport, they will say crime. So thats where the focus should be. Sort out crime, get to the root of the problem and the rest will follow.

  • lavani

    mbeki is very paranoid, his inner circle(mojanku,frank,essop,joel) tells him what they know he wants to hear, thats mbeki for you. when you critise him you are marginalise, he rewards loyalty than competence, i believe selebi is very loyal, coz even when he confes that he is a friend to glen aglioti, still mbeki insist he is innocent, we dont have aproblem when jacky befriend glen, but we do have it when our national commisioner befriend and ex con

  • Gerhard

    Primarashni my sympathies too. I hope writing this powerful post brings some amount of healing.

    Nkosikhona the problem with our security services is not the budget allocated to them.
    I would like people to take seriously and keep focus on Altbeker’s charge that that poor policy decisions after 1994 had “degraded our ability to fight crime” and in fact “helped to create the crime problem”. In particular, the reduction in detective services in favour of crime prevention caused this problem.