The demise of apartheid and the birth of the new South Africa was one of the most celebrated and defining moments of the twentieth century. Decades of institutionalized racial discrimination and hundreds of years of oppression were finally ended in the last week of April 1994 when the country went to the polls and---in the first democratic elections in its history---voted in the African National Congress with Nelson Mandela as president. The world had high hopes for what could be achieved in the newly dubbed "rainbow nation" and promised to help by investing in the country and by vigorously reversing the economic, cultural, and political sanctions of the apartheid era.
During the apartheid years, and especially in the lead-up to the historic 1994 elections, South Africa was the focus of intense world-wide media scrutiny. Then, as so often happens after a cataclysmic event, it largely fell off the radar. The intimate portrait that fills these pages reveals a slice of what happened next.
The story takes place towards the end of the first decade of democratic rule and is set in a family business on Jules Street, a street officially recorded by the city elders as the longest straight street in Johannesburg---but on which crooked men thrive. Yes, nothing is quite as it seems. The book follows the tragicomic fortunes of two charismatic businessmen and their colorful coterie of employees---who include former carjackers---as they attempt to "get by" in the new South Africa.
For the white owners of the store who find themselves on the wrong end of a relentless crime wave, "getting by" means constantly shoring up their security and attempting to bring justice to the people---including their own trusted employees and, dramatically, even their own family members---who are stealing from them. Then there is the perspective of the stealers who themselves---white, black, and Indian---who reveal their secret methods and motivations to the reader, but not always to their employers.
All at once, we are caught up in a myriad of vividly unfolding dramas that are reflective of personal, as well as national, dilemmas. For the furniture store is a thoroughfare through which almost the entire South African racial and social spectrum passes---white, black, Indian, mixed-race, middle class, and working class. And in this sense, it offers itself up as a fascinating microcosm of life---and morality---in South Africa today.
The broader context against which the narrative unfolds is that ten years into the new South Africa, crime has soared beyond all expectations to become the country's biggest growth industry. The official crime figures show that robbery has risen by an extraordinary 169 percent, housebreaking by 33 percent, cash heists, as well as carjacking, by 30 percent---and this off an already disturbingly high level of crime in 1994. To put this in global perspective, a recent survey of corporate crime by accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers shows that 71 percent of companies in South Africa report being the victims of fraud in the last two years, compared to 51 percent of businesses in the rest of Africa, and just 37 percent worldwide.
The repercussions of this crime wave are potentially catastrophic for the country as a whole and extend far beyond the immediate victims. For crime---and the fear it engenders---is the biggest cause of the brain drain and a critical deterrence to desperately needed foreign investment.
One could argue that it is, paradoxically, a measure of the extraordinary achievements of the new democratic South Africa that the country's main fault line is perhaps no longer between white and black, or communist and capitalist, or even rich and poor---but rather between the clean and the corrupt. Between those who opt to pursue their living by legitimate means, and those who, for whatever reason, choose the path of deception and crime. Between---to put it bluntly---the honest man and the crook. It may be that this division was always part and parcel of life in South Africa but was hitherto masked by the more obvious, deeper divisions wrought by apartheid. Perhaps. But something new and significant appears to be afoot here. And fresh solutions will be required to defeat it.
To a large extent, the crime wave is the unavoidable legacy of apartheid. It reflects the forced redistribution of wealth---the violent grab for economic power that has followed the much-heralded peaceful transfer of political power. For despite the expansion of the black middle class off the back of an aggressive black empowerment program, the country's wealth has remained largely in white hands. It will take more than a decade to right the wrongs of apartheid and to narrow the monumental gap between rich and poor. But---and this is the crunch---though ten years is but the blink of an eye in the life of a nation, it is a painfully long chstretch in the lives of impatient young men who find themselves uneducated, unemployed, and without prospects. Just who has robbed whom? they want to know. And yet---difficult as this conundrum is to resolve---it is not the full story. Even harder to get to grips with is the evolution of the crime wave: why so many people involved in crime today are professionally organized, and in many cases, relatively well off. And why, for an increasing number of South Africans, theft has become a way of life.
It is this "way of life" that the book teases out. By reporting the dramatic events as they unfold in one particular store, I have attempted to show---rather than tell---how theft has woven itself into the daily fabric of social and business life, raising fundamental questions about trust between employers and employees, between family members, and between citizens. For without trust it is difficult---if not impossible---for a society to sustain itself.
In addition, the events portrayed raise serious questions that are not easy to answer. What bearing does historic injustice to an entire race of people have on present-day judgments as to who is innocent and who is guilty? How is one to behave as a moral person in a society in which law and order is severely compromised and immorality appears to have become the norm?
The reader should be aware that the story the follows is true, but that in most cases the names and identities of characters and businesses have been changed or disguised.
It is abundantly clear to me that I could not have written this book if I still lived in Johannesburg. (I grew up in Johannesburg, but since 1987 I have lived predominantly in London.) I would have been too close to the story, too immune to the extraordinary events unfolding on a daily basis, and I would not have had the broader perspective that the long lens brings. And yet, if I had never lived in South Africa, I may not have known my characters with the intimacy---as well as the sense of detachment---this book requires.
For to my eye, this is a story that goes beyond South Africa. The fundamental themes---of conscience, trust, and betrayal---that its characters grapple with are those that preoccupy ordinary people everywhere. They are universal. And the main characters---in their ability to endlessly and humorously entertain each other and in their resilient belief that things will eventually change for the better---are as timeless as Estragon and Vladimir in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot.
Chapter 1: Rearranging the Furniture
Six maxi-taxis fitted with crash bars cruise in single file towards their target. Each vehicle is manned by a driver and a helper and carries no passengers, only the essential tools: bolt cutters, hacksaws, blowtorches, and 9 mm revolvers. Their backseats are folded down and flatted in readiness. It is 2:35 a.m. There is no other traffic at this hour. The maxi-taxis purr down Jules Street, heading away from the Johannesburg city center, headlights casting low beams into the cool night air, and pull up at a forty-five-degree angle outside the lit-up premises of Jules Street Furnishers. The drivers cut their engines, kill their lights. They pull on their balaclavas, slide on their gloves. Then they grab the bolt cutters, hacksaws, and blowtorches and get to work.
Jules Street Furnishers is heavily fortified. The front elevation of the shop is comprised of a thick pane of reinforced shatterproof glass, especially toughened to withstand the force of hammers or bricks. The windows are further protected by two layers of burglar bars: solid steel bars fastened with state-of-the-art Abus locks are attached to the outside, and on the inside an expander security gate extends across the window from floor to ceiling like a concertina. The roof is protected by electrified barbed wire, and the entire premises is girded with alarms and wired to an armed response security firm whose operatives can be on site within three to five minutes of the alarms being triggered.
By 2:55 a.m., the men in balaclavas have blowtorched and cut the necks of the Abus locks. Working in pairs, they prize away the security grille to expose the naked pane of glass painted with grinning Easter bunnies and decorative lettering that promises EASTER SPECIALS!!!, even though Easter was months ago. There is the cough of an engine starting. The lead maxi-taxi backs up. The driver engages first gear, guns the engine, and accelerates towards the shop.
Piet van Staden is snoring into his Edblo king-size mattress in his flat across the road from Jules Street Furnishers when he is awakened by the almightiest crash he has ever heard. It is followed a second later by a siren venting its high-pitched fury into the night. He rushes to his balcony where he sees that a car has driven straight through the window of Jules Street Furnishers. He watches wide-eyed as the vehicle reverses and hooded figures run into the shop, emerging with TVs, hi-fis, and video recorders. He counts twelve men and six vehicles. They run in and out of the stop. In and out. In and out.
Ducking down so that he cannot be spotted, Piet reaches for his phone and dials the police.
The alarm, meanwhile, has activated the roving, gum-chewing operatives of the Instant Armed Response Security Company. At this hour, with the streets deserted, Hennie Hennops and his codriver know that they can be at Jules Street Furnishers within three minutes. But that risks a confrontation with the criminals and a gunfight. So Hennie does what he always does. He waits. Eight, ten minutes should do it. And then he drives like hell to "catch" them---hoping that they've gone.
By 3:02 a.m. the maxi-taxis are loaded up and, with a screeching of rubber, pull off into the night. The traffic lights on the corner blink red. A light rain starts to fall. Piet van Staden watches as the Instant Armed Response Security Company car roars up, followed in short order by the police.
Hennie Hennops strides through the gaping hole where the taxi has smashed through the window, his size-eleven boots crunching on the shattered glass underfoot, and surveys the scene. There are speakers lying on their sides, TV trolleys scattered about, sofas prostrate on their backs, twisted metal and glass everywhere. It is a scene of devastation. He pulls out his cell phone and calls the man he has listed as the owner of the shop.
The first thing Jack Rubin knows about any of this is when his wife, Julia, who is the lighter sleeper, elbows him sharply in the ribs. "Jack," he hears her saying as if from far away. "Jack, Jack, Jack, wake up, the phone is ringing."
"What time is it?" mumbles Jack, rolling out of bed. "Jeez! It's three in the morning." But he doesn't think, Who could this be? He feels a wave of nausea. He knows. There have been too many times before.