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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