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Opinionista

The hard question is what we, as ordinary people, can do about crime

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Lesley Stones is a lifelong journalist and former Brit and who is now Proudly South African.

It’s a serious question — what can we do, the vast majority of us who aren’t skilled activists, policemen or politicians, doctors, nurses or teachers, whose actions have a direct impact. What can we ordinary people do? Because sure as hell we have to do something.

The death of Sibusiso Khwinana has shaken me.

I didn’t know him. I’d never interviewed him. But I go to the movies every Sunday, and Matwetwe was next on my list. It will be weird, watching the film and knowing that its star was stabbed to death just last week. Murdered for a cellphone outside Sterland cinema where his face was on the screen.

Twitter doesn’t know if it was just a scuffle for a cellphone, or if the mugger recognised him and jealously fuelled the crime. But young black Twitter is rightly ablaze with anger and despair, as are we all.

The comments have also sharply reminded me that as a privileged whitey I am so much less at risk, living in a neat suburb behind high walls and electric fencing, with a car to get me places. When I come out of my cinema at night I see security guards and bright lights to the car park. There are no angry, vicious youths jostling around a taxi stop, nobody harassing me because I’m female, nobody fingering a knife.

Last week I watched a clip on social media of two men repeatedly diving through the windows of a car paused at the traffic lights to steal whatever they could. The woman filming it from a car behind was saying: “Why doesn’t anybody do anything?” She wasn’t doing anything either, except filming it. I like to think if I’d been in her car I would have accelerated into them to break their bloody legs. I may have chickened out. It may have ended badly for me too.

Like most South Africans, I’ve deliberately inured myself to crime. I used to be English, and soon after I arrived 23 years ago I quit reading The Star’s “24 hours of crime in your suburb” and instantly felt much safer. Ignorance truly was bliss.

I live instead by the theory that if I’m nice to people, people will be nice to me. It worked for a decade until my house was burgled twice in a month. That made me realise that my version of “I have nothing worth stealing” still represented clothes, shoes and bedding that someone else didn’t have.

The murder of Sibusiso has shaken me again. But what can we do?

It’s a serious question — what can we do, the vast majority of us who aren’t skilled activists, policemen or politicians, doctors, nurses or teachers whose actions have a direct impact. What can we ordinary people do? Because sure as hell we have to do something.

I’m a journalist, but not the heroic crime-busting, corruption-exposing variety. (But there’s something we can do — support the heroic crime-busting, corruption-exposing variety by funding the Daily Maverick.)

One job I always love is writing short profiles for Mail & Guardian’s Top 200 Young South Africans, which highlights young people making a difference in their chosen field. Most are just doing an ordinary job, but doing it better, or they’ve caught the judges’ attention by doing something to improve their community. It’s wonderful to interview them and hear their passion and optimism and their efforts to make South Africa a better, more talented place. Perhaps Sibusiso would have made the list in 2019.

And we can vote, that’s for sure. By the time I earned the right to vote in my adopted country I couldn’t support the ANC, even though their struggle had made South Africa the place where I wanted to live. They were already sliding into complacency and corruption, so I voted for the opposition, to make sure there was one.

Now young black Twitter is ablaze as people link Sibusiso’s death to politics. One erudite comment that leapt out like a banner was that the ANC hasn’t tackled crime because so many of the ANC are criminals themselves.

Others said yeah, you diss them now but you’ll still vote ANC in May, from historic loyalty, for the T-shirt and the food parcel, or from fear that the DA represents the white bogeyman.

But voting to voice your anger or despair isn’t enough either. It needs something bigger, something on a daily scale to create a national groundswell of good guys overpowering the bad. Maybe a tiny start is to make a more active effort to be nice to one another. Let’s be like those people in the movies who pull together when disaster strikes, so we all survive and thrive. Even though there are always some villains who will try to trample you as they fend for themselves.

The decent majority needs to keep on being decent to one another, lending a hand, supporting and encouraging, trusting and helping. Not blocking one another out or turning away for fear that one of us is the bad guy.

But still, that’s not enough. Like so many of us, I feel impotent, frustrated, unable to do enough to play my part in fixing this beautiful country. But what, exactly, can I do?

I’m going to try and figure it out as I sit in the cinema on Sunday evening. Watching Sibusiso. DM

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