The policeman was staring at us from behind the glass pane in the station. (18:10pm). He was ignoring us, mind you, but still looking directly at us as he slowly, meticulously, and very, very untidily, folded up the South African flag. There was no one else at the crime reporting counter; except for a sad looking, lonely man sitting meekly in the corner, watching the ads on TV. On the wall above the counter a framed headshot of Jacob Zuma smiled down at us cheesily. Next to him was a picture of the deputy president; also grinning. Debbie, my dad’s American wife, folded her arms and looked around, then glanced up and saw the smiling faces looking down at us. She looked at me, pointed at one and whispered, “Who’s that?” I looked up and whispered back, “Kgalema Motlanthe”. She nodded as Duncan (my dad) muttered under his breath, “He’d rather fold the flag than help us…” referring to the policeman. The counter remained empty. Empty like the Karoo, empty like a Black Label after a long day, empty like Shaik’s jail cell.
His car had been broken into – my dad’s, that is. He was visiting from the USA. I was showing him my new flat in Cape Town (and, as a woman living pretty much alone in the city, I was trying to emphasise safety) when it happened. He and Debbie popped upstairs to have some coffee with me, but when we were downstairs again fifteen minutes later, the veins in his forehead were popping instead. The broken glass lay in a crumpled aqua pile in the street. Debbie’s eyes were wide, and she said in a surprised, round American accent: “Do you see that?” pointing to the shattered window at the back of the car. A small horizon of glass still poked out of the frame – leaving enough space for a hand to reach through and grasp “My laptop!” Duncan exclaimed. He groaned, “My GPS – oh man, my passports. My visa to the States!” He closed his eyes as all the admin came crashing around him. Yes, the admin – the biggest worry of most veteran South Africans, and not the cost.
So here we were, at the police station, dealing with the first piece of admin – getting a case number. Or trying to. The counter was still empty. (18:30pm). Until, with a nod from a superior, the policeman gave up on the jumbled pile of flag and came to talk to us instead. His name badge glinted FAKABONTI in hard little letters, and two plump gold stars gleamed smugly on his shoulder. He looked like a gnome; his profile a wild, rolling mountainside with a fat, round bulge for a nose, a wart, and rolls of skin at the back of his bald head. He was short, and not too bright, nor too enthusiastic. He didn’t understand our request (to report a crime, something that should be in every policeman’s handbook, you’d think) and led us down a grimy passage instead. Walking down, I noticed an A4 page stuck to the wall. It invited all the cops to come to policeman’s karaoke. Policeman’s karaoke? Images of semi-drunken policemen crooning ballads to one another whirled around my head. Fakabonti lead us all the way to a room labelled, in a royal blue sign hanging over the door, ‘Stand-by detectives’. Stand-by detectives? Where were the real detectives? Why were the ones in here on stand-by? Why wasn’t the room just labelled ‘Detectives’? On the door was a metal square embellished with the words CRIME ROOM. Someone had seen the problem with this sign, however, and had remedied it by scratching the word ANTI above the word CRIME. The anti-crime room … Before reading the ‘anti’, however, I hadn’t realised the bizarre-ness of calling a room (any room) a crime room. Whereas before I had visualised a room full of detectives standing idly by, now I saw a room full of fervent people doing secret, illegal things, fervently. A detective made his way over to talk to us (18:40pm), and without asking for too many nit-picky details (or any details at all), asked if we’d like to get the vehicle finger-printed. That seemed optimistic beyond belief to me, since they didn’t even know what had been stolen yet or where the crime had happened. After a brief chat between the stand-by detective (and, granted, he was standing by) and Fakabonti, we were lead back to the crime reporting counter – this time, hopefully, to actually report the crime.
Fakabonti invited us to sit, and got out a notepad and a pen. (18:50pm). Debbie opened her eyes incredulously when she saw that he was going to take record of our crime by writing down everything we said by hand. My dad went through the incident in meticulous detail, when a thought suddenly occurred to me and I whispered jokingly to Debbie: “I bet this is the first time you’ve encountered crime first hand!” I smiled until she nodded and said yes, yes this was her first crime. (19:01pm).
Suddenly, I started to think of all the hundreds, the thousands – well, the many tourists coming to South Africa this year. Debbie’s incredulousness and complete naïvety surprised me. I had never met someone before who had no experience with crime – the somewhat normal give and take (mainly take) of society. The thought of hundreds of tourists bumbling around the police station, trying fruitlessly to report the theft of their cameras, filled me with a precognitive admin-related dread. Fakabonti slid the pad over for a fact-checking. Duncan read through it and gave it a nod. (19:15pm). Another detective meandered over to discuss taking fingerprints. Well, I thought, as we eventually (19:28pm) made our way out, at least in South Africa we’re optimistic.