Crime and Writers in South Africa

For the first time in my life, I met a female cab driver. Women had driven me before, in their personal cars, and in an organization that I worked for once who insisted on hiring women for drivers, but I’d never met a female taxi driver before. She said her name was Nazira, and it’s a family business, her husband and their son are both taxi drivers. They mostly have corporate clients, which is how she came to be taking me to OR Tambo Airport that sunny Sunday morning in Joburg. Like many in conversations I had in Joburg, crime somehow crept up.

Police in Durban arrest a suspect.
“It was better during apartheid,” she said. She’s of Asian origin, which strangely in South Africa, means she is ‘colored’ while the Africans are ‘black’ and the Europeans are ‘white’. “We lived in Durban at that time and we could leave our house unattended for many weeks. But when we would return there wouldn’t have been any incident.” Many other South Africans agree, even the Africans who were supposed to have been the oppressed during apartheid, they all said security back then was so much better, that the ANC government isn’t capable of creating enough jobs to stop crime.
Just a few weeks before, she told me, robbers had broken into their home. They have adequate security, but somehow the thugs went in through the ceiling. They didn’t to steal anything though, for armed response came in and took them away. They are probably in jail already. There is nothing she can do about burglars, but she is smart enough to outwit the criminals who patrol the roads. They pretend to be policemen, and drive in cars that look like police cars, so if you are not conscious, you pull over when they tell you to. Sometimes, they pull up beside you, in plain clothes and in civilian cars, but flashing IDs that look like police cards. These criminals watch the airport route, knowing they can make a good kill if they hit any car headed to or from the airport.
Westville Prison

One time she was driving a mini-bus full of tourists. The fake cops pulled up beside her, and flashed their IDs, and gestured that she stop the vehicle. She instead stepped on the accelerator. They gave chase. She had never driven above speed limit before, but that day, what gave her courage was that there was a police station just a few kilometers ahead, and if she kept her cool, she could outrun the criminals. They would not dare to follow her to the station. She also knew that if they were real cops, she would be in trouble. But she stepped on it and after a brief persistence, the thugs vanished from her tail.

Her husband nearly fell into the trap, a few weeks later. He pulled over when they told him to, but then he remembered her story, about the criminals pretending to be cops. By then, the thugs had already stopped in front of him, they were getting out of their car, and walking towards him. One had an AK 47. He hit the reverse gear. Luckily, this gang used only one car, so they had not blocked his rear end. He reversed at full speed, with his indicators flashing to warn vehicles speeding toward him – he still cannot know how an accident didn’t happen, or why the thugs did not open fire. He got away.
 
I was on my way to Durban, to attend the Time of the Writer festival. I’d read the profiles of other writers, and one of then was Tshifhiwa Given Mukwevho. His story reminded me of the famous Kenyan gangster-turned-writer, John Kiriamiti. My Life in Crime was a publishing sensation in the 1980s. I remember my father, who owned the only photocopier in Tororo town in the early nineties, selling photocopies of the book. That’s how successful it was. (When I saw the book making money, I told my father that I wanted to quit school and be a writer — I wanted to go to a technical school to become a radio repairer and avoid the hustle of university — because, I told him, John Kiriamiti never went to university but his book is making millions!) I don’t know yet how much success Given has had with his books.
Tshifhiwa Given Mukwevho
Given was born in 1984 (the same year that John Kiriamit’s book came out!) He went to jail at the age of 15 to serve twenty two years for theft, and breaking and entry. Before that, he had been in an out of jail many times, for many smaller crimes, but this time he was in for keeps. He wrote his first book, A Traumatic Revenge, a collection of short stories based on his life in jail, while still a prisoner. Later, he won a prize of 30,000 rand to write his first novel, The Violent Gestures of Life, which UKZN published. Today, he works as a news reporter in Limpopo.
 

Now, other than write, he gives talks to minors in prison on how turn their lives around. Time of the Writer festival have writing programs for school children, one of which was run in a prison in Westville, by the beautiful xhosa writer Celiswa, who taught creative writing to jailed minors. I visited Westville with Given, to give inspirational talks to participants of this program.

John Kiriamiti, in a photo from Margaretta’s Jua Kali Diary http://margarettawagacheru.blogspot.com/2013/05/john-kiriamiti-backstory-of-man-who.html 
Given’s two books
One of the inmates, a boy who looked 13 years old, but was said to be 17, caught my attention. He looked so little, so innocent, so humble, I could not understand what he was in jail for. I asked the wardens, and at first they wouldn’t tell me. Then one female warden stepped closer, and whispered in my ears one word that terrified me. “Rape.”
Rape? How could a boy who looks like a frail 13 year old be in for rape? The warden speculated that maybe it was the games children play, you know, you be mummy I be daddy, but the parents of the girl took it seriously and called it rape, so this young man went in.
I found him to be the most avid on the writing program. Though I didn’t get to read his work, he later followed us to where we were eating and asked questions about writing, which he had feared to ask in the class where he was mixed with much older looking boys. I hope he turns out okay.
His case further saddened me when a warder told me that a serial rapist had escaped from this same prison a few years before. She didn’t tell me the rapist’s name, for she said it happened before her time, and I’ve tried searching google in vain, but this escapee had raped and killed 27 women. He was in jail for life. The escape was said to have been an inside job, involving drug dealers, and the rapist took advantage of it. He is the only one who got away, and has never been apprehended.
It’s just sad to think about these two people, how unfair the system and life is, but Given did not have kind words for the little boy. He thinks the boy deserves jail term, and that there is nothing wrong with a justice system that sends little boys who playhouse with little girls to jail for rape, to mix with criminals who have actually killed and raped women. Given believes prison will straighten this boy out, just as it worked for him – and I think he is a little naïve in that belief – but he was enthusiastic about the writing program. He told me he has been to many prisons to give inspirational talks, but this was the first time he was giving minor inmates talk on how to use writing to change their lives. 
He started his session with a spoken word poem about street life, it had verses that went something like //I have no guns in my hands// just pens and books// and he went on and on about how he is making a life for himself. He said when in prison, he forgot about what happened to him, and focused on his future. He didn’t want to continue a vain life. He wanted a new start. Today, many years after getting out, he still has nightmares. He wakes up at night thinking he is back in prison, and then he screams in terror, but it comes to him that it’s just a bad dream. He is terrified of going back in there.
Police in Durban arrest a suspect.
I want to share his optimism, that prison will actually make these boys better, for after all he is a living testimony of how prison turned him from crime to a respectable citizen, but I’m one of those who don’t believe that prison is an institution worth investing in, especially when it comes to juveniles and crimes that I consider ‘minor’, and that both governments and communities have to do a lot more to make the neighborhood peaceful.
Unfortunately, some crimes just keep coming up, and while South Africa is still grappling with ordinary crime, one of a worse kind is slowly cropping up. It’s not xenophobia, though that is compounding the problem, or continued racism, but religious fundamentalism.
The day before I went to Westville Prison, I visited Chatsworth Education Centre with two other South African writers, ZP Dala and Charlotte Otter, where we had a lively discussion with children from more than six schools. I was impressed, and I found myself wishing that I had been given this kind of exposure when I was starting out to be a writer. As a teenager in St Peter’s College Tororo, instead of encouragement I got laughter and derision, but I stuck to my guns. I imagine my fellow writers also suffered discouragements, so we were eager to give these kids whatever hope they could cling on to, then maybe their paths to success would be easier. So we earnestly answered their questions.
At one point, a little girl asked us, ‘Who inspires you? When times are hard, as they always are for you writers, who do you look up to for the strength to go on?’ Charlotte mentioned her writers, (I think it was Sarah Lotz and someone else I can’t remember because I had not read their works), Dala mentioned Arundhati Roy and Salman Rushdie, I talked of my grandmother. As I was explaining to these kids how my late granny inspired me, a group of students stood up to leave. I noticed them for they all wore burqas. I had not noticed them before, but when they stood up at the same time, they became noticeable.
An hour later, Dala started receiving threatening texts, and hate tweets. Apparently, she had offended radicals when she said that she liked Salman Rushdie. What followed next is beyond my comprehension. The threats became violent, and a few days later as she was driving home, a bunch of thugs forced her off the road. Like the taxi driver Nazira, she was smart enough not to stop when flagged down, but these men were determined to hurt her, and they made it so that she either stopped or smashed her car into theirs. So she stopped, thinking they would probably just rob her, or if it was the radicals who had been buggering her maybe they would just say words to hurt her. Instead, they put a knife on her throat and then smashed a brick into her face. All because she said she admires Rushdie.
 
Beaten for liking a fellow writer. Photo from bookslive.co.za 

I heard in the news recently that ISIS was recruiting in SA. I think that country is already struggling with a lot, to add fundamentalism and terrorism onto the headaches they already have might just break that beautiful country.

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