Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Mr. President: Can’t you see?

It’s a little late to finally realize what the average South African, and the majority of the population are going through

Actually, it’s very late. In the State of the Nation speech by South African President Thabo Mbeki, crime was finally highlighted as a problem. The man called crime ‘ugly’ and used a few words of empathy to reach a beleaguered populace. It is all the more ironic that the president recognized crime the way he did after a major bank was forced to can a major advertising campaign calling on South Africans to stand together against crime. The government canned the campaign because they feared it would impinge on the President’s image. Of course it would. In fact, by canning the campaign, and the president then making his speech, demonstrates self serving single-mindedness and a selfish attitude to image preservation more than a concern for the nation.

What’s more, it’s crazy that both Mr Selebi and our President must be aware of the shameful levels of crime even in their neighborhoods. The Sunday Times explored this in detail in the most recent edition.

Where I work a car was stolen last week, and another car the week before. One of the incidents is captured on CCV TV, and it’s obvious that the thief found his target, made a number of passes (first breaking a window, then returning to release the handbrake etc) before finally towing away the car. It appears that the tow-away vehicle is the same vehicle used to drop staff off at our offices. Of course, I haven’t seen hint nor hair of policemen here, we just have our local security people.

Here are a two more ground level anecdotes, to paint the picture of the average citizen in this country:
Yesterday while jogging I noticed a man walking with a sjambok in one hand, which is essentially a whip, and in the other he was lugging some groceries. The streets simply aren’t safe to walk alone, or unarmed.

Over the weekend, after doing a bicycle race, a gentleman walked by my driveway. My car boot and doors were open, and when I looked up, he continued to walk by, staring intently at the scene before him. I glanced down and up again, and saw he was still staring at me. He disappeared behind a tree and when he reappeared he was still looking at me. Since the suburb where I live has the highest break-in rate in the city, I felt my ire rising. I jogged briskly, directly up to the man, who stood his ground, and asked him what he was looking at. He responded evenly that he was allowed to look wherever he wanted to. I explained the crime levels in the suburb, and told him it made me feel uncomfortable his walking by my home and staring at it, despite the fact that he must have noticed me watching him.
I also told him I was aware of the signaling system being used by criminals, tin cans of various colors planted on sidewalks in front of homes to communicate different levels of security/vulnerability. And I noticed a green Zionist-church star on his shirt, but then there was a camouflage hat on his head, which is military issue. He argued that he had not committed any crime. I finished my venting in the street in front of my door by saying that if his intentions were decent, fine, I apologize, but given the sheer number of criminal activity, he can’t blame me for noticing his behavior. Subsequently I worried that he might scribble my address on a scrap of paper and hand it to a gang. That’s the reality of suburban life in South Africa.

I’ve pondered on numerous occasions the method behind the madness of explicitly ignoring the crime problem. Ordinary people do it, and our leaders seem to have been ignorant too. But people aren’t stupid, and especially not presidents. Even in the cases where presidents might be a little dopey, they have plenty of advisers at their beck and call to point them in the right direction. (Right, of course, is relative.)

Since crime is neither an easy problem to ignore, nor an impossible problem to solve, how is it that our president has basically taken two terms to finally acknowledge crime (first it was AIDS) in terms (words) that are sort’ve, but not quite, adequate to the problem and the wider perception of it. Well, people and corporations, power structures especially, do what they do because there is a payoff. For a long time it’s seemed apparent to me that crime must have some payoff, because the government certainly has been about as ineffectual as it could be on the topic. The first answer that came to mind was this one: Crime is an awkward but effective means to redistribute wealth, and in South Africa, wealth is very unevenly distributed. Our gini coefficient (measuring distribution of wealth) is one of the worst in the world. A second idea: Mbeki and other people in power simply want to erode the power, and will of whites as much as they can. Perhaps not a payoff, but certainly payback. This theory is easy to subscribe to, but when you actually meet leaders like Trevor Manuel, it’s hard to believe that they are motivated more by spite than by common sense, and particularly, that they subscribe more to racial revenge than say, common sense about economics.

Most people are very astute when it comes to economics. Economics is about the flow of money, and if one understands how to flows, a lot of money can be made, streams can be directed into one’s own reservoir.

So, I don’t think Mbeki really has a bone to pick with whites, although I’m not willing to stand up in court and argue the point. I do think there’s a good reason for his intransigence (or at least, a reason he thinks is good). And here it is. It’s less conspiracy theory and more simple economics.

Whenever a South African is murdered, the deceased’s relatives inherit that person’s wealth. There are 50 murders a day in South Africa, and a large proportion are the elderly and infirm. The government has an Inheritance Tax of 25%. Furthermore, security companies are all the rage in South Africa, and Pieter van der Merwe provides the following calculation based on just one province (of 9) in South Africa. Gauteng with 1000 000 households, pays an average of R240.00 per month to security companies. At 14% Value Added Tax, that’s R403 million the government earns. Remember, the security doesn’t prevent crime, it merely responds to it, so the government is happy to see more security companies.
Van der Merwe goes on to do the math on car theft. A thief earns upwards of R10 000 on stealing and fencing a vehicle. Where the value of the vehicle is R500 000 the government gets R63 404 in tax as a direct result of the crime. Moreover, all this criminal activity provides lots of business for insurance companies and plenty of other spin-off ‘work’, including an industry dedicated to tracking stolen vehicles (there are television commercials from these companies each night), as well as industries dedicated to securing the home (doors, windows etc). These benefits have not really translated to the area one would expect it most, which is the police. The police remain understaffed, but have a fairly good record of effectiveness. Even so the police are seen by the public as corrupt, and presumably the government doesn’t mind that perception, because nothing is done to advertise or promote the South African Police.

So instead of wailing into the great blue bowl that is the South African sky: “Mr. President, can’t you see? Can’t you see? You’ve left me drowning…” I’m sure the President can see, and does see very well.
Perhaps there is a method to this madness. And those – those many – who employ it need to be removed from their plush offices, and people, real people who are really for the people, instituted in their place.
Failing that, there is a way to combat the vicious ‘Crime Pays’ triad – which enriches government, criminals and associated industries. It’s simple: all crimes that result in insurance claims ought to be bracketed as tax free. New laws will have to be made, which will also require new lawmakers (most probably), but in this way the government, and its leaders, can no longer personally benefit from crime.

Thanks to Pieter van der Merwe’s email sharing salient insights to the ‘Crime Pays in South Africa’ Theory.

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