I was sitting in the reception area of yet another miserable-looking police station, waiting to be assisted by one of the few sergeants on duty. It was only lunchtime but already 97 degrees. The ceiling fan was spinning away, cutting through the heat, and providing a light breeze that didn’t exactly cool the room, but removed most of the stickiness and humidity. Running errands at any state-run department in Johannesburg usually means slow service, long lines, whiny and entitled corporate types. The system is usually offline. Even though there were only two people in front of me, I already wanted to leave. I came here to report a missing phone. One of the many stolen that day, and just about every other day in South Africa. I knew it was a waste of time coming to the police because no one tends to take petty theft that seriously. But I sat in that ugly building, sweating in an uncomfortable chair, and wondering who thought a face-brick exterior along with grey and mustard walls would go together nicely. The smell of envelope glue, hot fries, and old papers filled the room.
December is high season for violent crime so I had a few reservations about opening a case. In the last few months, I’ve known at least one person who was the victim of hijacking, armed robbery, attempted kidnapping, and murder. It pains me to admit it, especially in the company of guests from the west (hello, reader), but I can’t help but feel the value of my life here is cheap. In South Africa, violence and rage are the bedrock of an unequal, broken, and confused society.
But I came to the police here because I wanted someone to be held responsible for taking my phone. I wanted someone to carry the guilt and blame along with me. I also wanted to feel like I could believe in the organs of government which claim to protect me.
It’s been said that our country is going through somewhat of a phone stealing epidemic. With every passing month, professional criminals and opportunists grow more creative and brazen with how they snatch away people’s mobile devices − an act referred to as “apple picking.” There was the case of a woman and child tag team who pinched a phone away from a shopper’s handbag. There was the man who yanked one out of a customer’s hand at a restaurant. And then there was a young kid “groomed” to nip phones away while people got their hair done at the salon. The increasing availability of smartphones in South Africa has made it easier for them to be stolen and distributed. Thieves put them up for sale on the internet, or sell them to hawkers who vend them for a sliver of their original price. According to Statistics South Africa’s most recent crime victims survey, nearly 70% of personal property theft involved mobile phones. Though this figure is about a six percent decrease from last year, the flagrant overtness of these crimes has led people I know to speculate they’re happening more and more frequently.
I stood behind a middle-aged man who’s filling out paperwork, while the sergeant on duty fetches something from the back room. I found myself staring at the the thick pink strip of his neck. He took one glance at the light shining through the window grid, and told no one in particular there’d be heavy rains later that afternoon. He turned around to face me. I smiled and nodded briefly enough to let him know I wasn’t up for a conversation. He then faced the front desk as the sergeant asked him to sign a few documents. He breathed a sigh of relief. I never listened to his story, but he seemed content to have brought his grievance to the police. The sergeant told him they’d be in touch if they had any leads. He thanked her sincerely. Some would’ve called him naive.
In the past, losing a phone was considered the province of the spoiled and clumsy. There was always an explanation as to why your phone got taken: you were drunk, careless, or reckless. But as the inequality between rich and poor, black and white, men and women has deepened in the adult years of South Africa’s democracy, phone stealing has become more professional and streamlined. It is considered a complex and intricate business whose foot soldiers are normally poor black men looking to survive in a country which seems indifferent to their poverty and suffering. About 85% of South Africans are reported to live below the living wage. Even if someone were to make money the “proper way,” it wouldn’t begin to cover the costs of staying alive, especially when the geography and infrastructure of this country was designed to enforce and perpetuate racial and economic discrimination. Stealing phones has become a legitimate hustle which supports, clothes, feeds, entertains, and empowers South Africa’s most vulnerable. So long as there’s poverty in South Africa, phone stealing will keep a large portion of citizens in work. These crimes aren’t especially bold or new. They’re now just business.
I was summoned to the front desk. The sergeant didn’t greet me warmly, which I understood. She was probably tired and irritable so I wasted no time telling her why I was there. She looked fatigued when I mentioned phone theft. I quickly reached for the relevant documents in my bag because I wanted to make her life easy. She watched me dig furiously. No amount of speed or compassion would make her job any more or less fulfilling, but I wanted her to see that I was unlike those other people who thought of the police as lazy and inefficient. I began to describe the events leading up to the stolen phone. I told her I had been drinking, that men had been eyeing me and my friends, and how I searched for my phone in my bag and pockets. I mentioned that I’d tried to call it on my friend’s phone but it was off − a sign it was in the hands of someone who had no intention of giving it back. She took down my account diligently, asking for clarification where necessary, and expressing what came across as pity.
I saw my first phone theft at seven years old. I’d been staying with my grandmother in Soweto, a predominantly black township located in the south-west of Johannesburg. My aunt was taking me and my cousin to Lenasia (or Lenz), a mostly Indian township, to buy wholesale chips and sweets. We were walking around a marketplace where several vendors sold everything: toys, jewelry, firecrackers, and meat. They’d called my aunt “mummy,” and promised her discount prices which she dismissed until they landed on a reasonable amount. She’d asked what me and my cousin want to eat, before taking a call from my uncle. She’d hung up and put her phone in her back pocket. All of sudden, a tall man with a leather jacket and green bucket hat brushed up against her, then scrambled away with her phone in his hand. She started to chase him, screaming “hayi wena, letha iphone yami!” She ran after him until he disappeared into passing traffic. My cousin and I were still standing by the stall where she left us. We both wanted to laugh because we’d never seen her run so fast, but we were also scared. We waited until she returned with dust on her dress, and her bag firmly tucked under her armpit.
I wasn’t a perfect victim but the sergeant offered me her sympathy. She handed over an affidavit then said they’d call if they caught anything or anyone. She asked whether I had insurance on my phone, and I told her no. She looked surprised. Most people only come to the police so they can get the necessary paperwork to file an insurance claim for a new phone. Opening up a report is considered nothing but a formality demanded by the big mobile networks through which you can get insured. The sergeant’s irritation was fresh on her face again. I looked at her helplessly, and she returned the favor. I accepted that there was no point in filing a case. I asked her to scrap the case then apologized for wasting her time. She sighed before shouting, “Next” to the person behind me.
I left the police station angry that people had stolen my personal property. I was upset at myself for throwing away so much money. I couldn’t depend on the police, and I couldn’t get a new phone. I felt violated and sad because I didn’t want to live my life on constant guard of my body and possessions.
But there is also this. I live in a country where suffering and poverty are treated as part of the natural order of things. Making a living honestly is often impossible. In service industry jobs, pay is mostly spent on travel. Domestic and gardening work requires people to spend months away from their families. There are odd jobs, but these provide only temporary sustenance. Then there is phone stealing, and it’s not hard to understand why.