How many times have we been victims of crime?
This is not a strange question to ask in a violent country such as South Africa where many, if not most, people have been victims of crime, many in their own homes.
I thought about this after we were woken on Sunday morning with the news that my brother-in-law’s house in Mitchells Plain had been broken into and he had been shot in a scuffle with the intruder.
He is fine now, having been discharged from hospital after spending a few days in the trauma unit surrounded by others who had also suffered gunshot or knife wounds, mainly in gang fights.
Two days before that, the house in which my parents-in-law live, also in Mitchells Plain, was burgled while everyone was in the house.
Fortunately, no one was injured, but my young niece will probably be traumatised for a long time after being threatened by the intruder, who escaped with a few small items.
My sisters, who also live in the area, have had their fair share of crime, from my nephew being shot dead in gang crossfire many years ago, to another nephew being stabbed through the lung by gangsters while he was in a taxi at Mitchells Plain Town Centre a few months ago.
We experienced our first burglary while we lived in Rocklands, Mitchells Plain, more than 30 years ago.
Fortunately, we were not at home, but I still remember vividly how violated I felt when we came home and realised someone had been inside our house, scratched through all our stuff and took whatever he could carry, which included our small black-and-white television and my camera kit, which included a camera, a couple of lenses and a flash.
He also took my daughter’s favourite blanket, which he probably used to wrap his loot in. My wife and I were most devastated by the loss of the blanket, which was an important companion to my then one-year-old daughter.
But we have also been burgled in Rondebosch, where we have lived for more than 20 years. This time, my three teenage daughters were alone at home and were confronted by young men who took our big screen television, some jewellery and a range of other stuff. I was more concerned about my daughters’ well-being than about the stuff we lost.
You can easily replace material possessions; it is a bit more difficult to replace a person or heal someone who has gone through a traumatic experience.
The Rondebosch burglary was the culmination of a series of incidents at our house, including the theft of my daughters’ bicycles and my golf equipment (which might have been a blessing in disguise because I have always been a lousy golfer).
But now we had to beef up security, install an electric fence and get a dog. All the time I thought to myself: why must we be held to ransom by unscrupulous thieves? Why must we sacrifice our free-living lifestyle like this, to make sure we are able to keep out people who want to steal from us or, worse, hurt us?
Of course, in all the incidents of crime we have experienced, no one has been arrested. And this is probably what explains the situation the best.
One of the reasons for the high crime rate in South Africa - poverty and inequality aside - is the fact that criminals know they can get away with their crimes for various reasons: an overstretched police force, an inefficient justice system, plus, of course, the knowledge that you can possibly bribe yourself out of trouble.
Criminals need to know that, if they commit a crime, they will be caught; if they are caught, they will be convicted; if they are convicted, they will serve all their time in prison. They need to be held accountable for their deeds.
(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 19 January 2019)