Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Of houses and homes...

South African houses are strange.

I’m not talking about my previous entry describing such things as no built-in heat or a complete ignorance of window screens, despite this being a land of abundant bugs, here. No, I am talking about the way the houses are built.

Hubby is thinking about building and, in going over the idea with me, he has asked if I would be willing to work with the architect to build an “American-style” home. He doesn’t mean a New England clapboard or Pacific Northwest timber frame, either…he’s referring to the kind of layout that most Americans, living in tract homes, take for granted.

For example, have you ever been in a house that, when you entered from the front door you were in the dining room? Well, if you’ve ever been to South Africa, your answer will be “Yes!” I cannot think of a single American home I’ve ever been in that was laid out in such a way. And sculleries…I thought sculleries were the exclusive province of romance novels until I moved to Cape Town! And garages…what house in America, built after 1960, requires you to walk through rain or snow or blustery storm in order to bring the groceries in from the car?

A few years ago we were avidly visiting Sunday open houses (called a “show house” here) in search of a new, larger home. A couple of months later we were back on the show house circuit, looking for our rental property. In that time we visited dozens of houses and got a look at the bizarre building practices employed by South African home builders.

First of all, I am astonished at how many houses have built-in barrooms! We visited an interesting house that had dining room in what looked like was previously the foyer…when you entered the house you practically fell over a dining chair! To the left of this dining area was a galley kitchen so small that once the microwave oven was placed on the counter top and a dish drainer next to the sink, the counter space was gone. Through the dining room we came upon a tiny lounge (South African for “living room”) that managed to squeeze a sofa, TV, and free standing steel fireplace together, leaving a narrow space for walking through to the next room, a huge bar room. This room was two steps down from the lounge, twice the size of the lounge, and was dominated by a built-in bar backed by mirrored shelves full of liquor bottles. Sliding glass doors lead out into a patio and pool, and a rather shabbily kept garden with a cabana area with its own bar! I was astonished!

The person from whom we bought the rental property had a bar and her new house actually has a separate bar room built behind the garage and connected to the house by a glass breezeway. A beautiful provincial-styled house we visited also had the entry through the dining room (the lounge was upstairs!) and a fully stocked bar complete with ice machine and professional bar accoutrements.

When we bought the rental property, we removed the bar and brought it to our house. Today it sits in the garage, turned backwards so we have easy access to the shelves beneath, which are used for storage. The top is handy for putting bags on as I unload the car after shopping. Our liquor collection is behind the closed doors of our punched tin pie safe, only revealed when we have guests or when one of us infrequently wants something stronger than Coke Light or a glass of wine. I’ve never in my life seen so many houses with rooms dedicated to housing a domestic equivalent of the corner pub!

Garages are another story. In my present house, my garage opens out onto a covered patio, from which there is a quick right turn into the kitchen. My last house here saw me walk several feet in open air from the garage door to a covered porch, and from there I had to walk through the living room and halfway up the hallway to get to the kitchen door. This became somewhat of an ordeal, slogging two or three trips laden with heavy bags while the wind lashed ran onto the porch, soaking me and the bags as well. Unfortunately, most of the houses we have seen here do not have easy access from garage to kitchen. One house we saw recently would require you to climb a steep set of stairs out the back of the garage (assuming there was enough room to get around the car while laden with bags of groceries), out into an uncovered, unpaved space (grass), and then enter the house through sliding glass doors. From there, you’d have to walk through the middle of the family room and then the dining room, in order to reach the kitchen. Another house we saw just a few weeks ago, has had some extensive remodelling recently done, and the appearance from the outside was stunning, Unfortunately, in order to get from the garage to the kitchen without getting wet in a rainstorm, you would carry your bags through the side garage door which opens into the master suite dressing room! From there, through the bedroom, down the hallway past the other two bedrooms, then a right turn into the kitchen.

Most American tract homes are designed with the garage having a door that open directly into the kitchen. My house in Northern California had it, the house my father and stepmother bought in 1962 had it, as did the homes of most of my friends. It seems so simple that you don’t even miss it until you find yourself dodging slanting sheets of rain and having to make multiple trips through the weather to bring in the weekly shopping!

South African houses often have sculleries. What is a scullery? Well, it’s difficult to explain because each South African household seems to have a different definition. The most common definition is a room where you wash the dishes, separate from the kitchen. Seems rather pointless to me…but it gets better (or worse, depending on how you view it). In America, most modern houses have the laundry area in the garage, near the hot water heater (called a “geyser”…pronounced geezer with a hard “g”). In South African houses, if you are lucky enough to be plumbed for a washing machine, it will be in your kitchen (front loader). Space for a dryer? Not bloody likely. And dryers sold in South Africa tend to vent hot humid air into the room as they have no vent pipes to the outdoors. I’ve gotten around that by buying a costly Bosch dryer that condenses the moisture taken out of the clothes and deposits it into a water tank that is emptied periodically…usually once per wash day. It works well, keeps the humidity and heat in the house down, but sells for approximately three times what a “normal” dryer costs.

You also are unlikely to find garbage disposals or dishwashers in South African kitchens, and in some kitchens you won’t even find a refrigerator or a sink! Why? Because they are out in the scullery! When he was looking for his first house here in SA, Hubby would email me photos of houses he saw and liked. He was particularly taken with a house that had dark wood and green malachite counter tops in the kitchen. I have to admit, the effect was stunning. But as I peered at the pictures of the kitchen I began asking questions…where is the fridge? Where is the kitchen sink? What is all that huge empty space in the middle of the room used for? Why is there no counter space next to the stove? He didn’t seem to think this was much of a problem until I suggested that he imagine himself making a cup of coffee and a sandwich in that kitchen…how much hiking around from point A to point B would be required? American kitchens tend to have a more efficient layout, requiring fewer than four steps from the sink, stove, refrigerator, which are set out in a triangular pattern. A centre island may be used, something I have seen only once in South Africa.

The scullery idea has some merit, but more like a pantry-cum-mud porch than in its present incarnation. When I see a house with a scullery, about the only thing I can count on being there is the sink. Some houses have a dishwasher or washing machine in the scullery, some have the refrigerator, and others have extra cupboards, like a pantry. Almost all of them have a door to the outside, which is convenient for carrying laundry out to the wash lines. But for the most part, the scullery seems not only superfluous to me, it seems to be inefficient. I don’t like them at all, despite their apparently being a big selling point around here.

Electric stoves are the norm here, despite the energy crisis we are currently experiencing, and I find it surprising that more people have not converted to gas. Now, gas mains do not run in the streets here like they do in America, but I have two 19-litre gas bottles installed outdoors, connected via copper piping to my kitchen stove, and in three years of living here, I’ve used two bottles of gas. Not such a bad deal…and they are amazingly cheaper than the electricity I would be using for the same cooking! But while gas stoves…very nice commercial-type ones, at that…are readily available here, builders continue to install electric stoves with ovens so small you are challenged to roast a large chicken, never mind a Christmas turkey!

It amazes me that South Africans think nothing of having their dining rooms just inside the front door. I have seen dozens of homes with this set up, and it always seems to be just so wrong! I have never cared much for open plan design, and this particular twist on the concept I find particularly offensive. I like my kitchen behind closed doors so that when my guests sit down to table, they aren’t forced to view the mess of dirty pots and pans that went into the creation of their feast.

I also do not like the concept of having to walk through one room in order to reach another. In that house with the extraordinary bar room, one had to walk through the dining room and the living room in order to reach the bar. If you were sitting there swilling beer, every time nature called you’d have to pass in front of the TV in the lounge and dodge the chairs in the dining room just to get to the hallway that leads to the loo. The traffic simply does not “flow” in so many of these houses…the rooms feel like afterthoughts, tacked on in the cheapest, most expeditious manner possible.

So, if Hubby decides we shall build, it appears I will be tasked with educating the architect in the subtleties and pragmatics of American home design. It will have thermostatically controlled ducted heat/air conditioning in zoned areas that can be cut off from each other…why heat or air condition the guest room if no one is visiting?

We’ll have a huge geyser…solar heated, of course…so we never run out of hot water. The windows will be double-paned, energy efficient, and will open in such a fashion that window screens can be used to keep insects out. The doors to the outside will be screened as well…no more mosquitoes!

The garage will be attached to the house in such a way that I can step directly from the garage into the scullery. Yes, there will be a scullery, but unlike the traditional South African one, mine will be more of a utility room, housing the washer and dryer, a space for ironing and a hanging rack for the clothes. There will be pantry cupboards, a laundry sink, and space for an upright freezer, as well as a cupboard for brooms, mops, and the vacuum cleaner. There will also be a storage room adjacent to the garage, one with a workbench, good lighting, rack shelving, and places to store such things as the lawn mower, garden tools, ice chests, and various other bits and pieces of suburban life that simply have no place in most houses.

The kitchen will be laid out with the “golden triangle” of the sink, stove and fridge, and my stove will be gas. The breakfast bar here gets good use, and I like the no-stain, easy to clean black granite counter tops, so that will be repeated in the new kitchen. I’ll get another Franke 3-bowl sink, but this time it will be hooked up to a garbage disposal and a lovely dishwasher will be tucked in under the counter right next to it. I love my wrought iron pot rack, so the new kitchen will definitely have one, and I’m sold on ceramic tile floors in the kitchen and baths. The rest of the house, however, will have French Oak floors, like my present bedroom.

The main bedroom will have a huge bath with a big American-style walk-in shower. A Jacuzzi for two, and double sinks, and the heated towel rail Hubby has grown so fond of on winter mornings complete the bathroom “must haves.”. A walk-in closet and dressing room are a must, and each of the two guest bedrooms will have their own small baths.

With a proper foyer and hallways connecting the various rooms, rather than walking through one room to get to another, the house will be All American in design…at least inside. I’m wondering how a New England Colonial might look here, though…

Monday, April 14, 2008

Unwelcome advice

I used to work with a woman I’ll call Dana, who was a fundamentally nice person, if a little overbearing and sometimes tactless. A year or two into our working relationship I was accosted by our receptionist, Eileen, who demanded to speak with me in private. She was, I could see, on the verge of tears so I followed her to the conference room and shut the door.

“You have to help me with Dana!” she demanded, almost before the door was closed.

I rolled my eyes, sure in the knowledge that Dana, with the very best of intentions, had stuck her nose in where it didn’t belong and had probably offered a tactless observation or suggestion. “What’s wrong, Eileen?” I asked. “What did Dana do?”

Eileen lowered her eyes and squirmed a bit. “I made the mistake of telling her I was pregnant…” she began, and looked up at me from beneath a fringe of dark bangs. “I expected her to be happy for me, maybe even excited…”

“Let me guess,” I interrupted. “She wasn’t overjoyed for you…instead she said something like “how are you going to support a baby on your salary?” right?

Eileen lowered her eyes again, slowly shaking her head. “Worse,” she said softly.

I waited.

“She suggested I should have an abortion,” Eileen whispered, tears choking her voice.

I tried to comfort her as best I could, but the trouble was, I could see Dana’s point. Eileen lived in a tiny little rundown apartment with her boyfriend, a beefy, blustery fellow who was unemployed more often than not. My private opinion was that Eileen was pregnant because she couldn’t even afford birth control…she wasn’t a stupid girl, just poor, and receptionist wages tend to be marginal, at best. I expected that once the responsibility of impending fatherhood came to roost on Boyfriend’s shoulders, he was going to be history, leaving Eileen the task of raising the baby herself…and probably with the help of welfare.

And just then, a thought struck me…just because Dana’s advice was unsolicited, unwanted, and even offensive was no reason to think of it as “bad advice.” Even unsolicited, unwanted and offensive advice can be the best, most fitting advice for a particular situation. And in this case, Eileen needed a baby like a diabetic needs a box of Godivas.

I gave Eileen a few pats on the back and suggested that she give Dana a wide berth for a few days, but not to hold it against her, as she meant well. Dana always meant well, even if she was a bit daft in her delivery.

I don’t know what eventually happened to Eileen. A couple of months after our chat she quit her job and moved back home with her parents. I suspect Boyfriend figured out his carefree days were coming to a rapid close if her stuck around, so he headed out for less restrictive pastures. But the epiphany about the purity of Dana’s advice…the fact that it went straight for the core of the issue…has stuck with me all these years.

Like you, I have been the recipient of unsolicited, unwanted, and even offensive advice, but I no long reject is for any of those reasons. I try to see past all that and ask myself “Is there any truth in this? Filtering out all the emotional reactions, is there something in this information that I should be considering?” Much of the time there isn’t, but on occasion I have unearthed valuable little gems of wisdom from a source I might otherwise have rejected. As a result, I have learned not to judge before I actually think about it.

Injecting some common sense along with the insulin…

My husband is diabetic. He’s been struggling with it for about six years now, never seeming to be able to get the upper hand even with privation so extreme that he simply cannot keep it up. Some of us would rather trade quality of life for quantity, and a life lived eating tasteless cardboard food washed down with nothing but water just seems to lack some essential element for joy.

Curiously, even when he was being religious about his diet, his blood sugar would go up during the night when, in fact, it should be dropping (the morning meal is not called “break fast without reason, after all). After five years of struggling with diet and pills as a means of control, Hubby was finally put on insulin. That first night taking the long-acting insulin at bedtime was one of great anticipation. Imagine our disappointment when, in the morning, the blood sugar was still elevated. After more months of struggle and ever-increasing dosages of the bedtime insulin…and no improvement in his glucose control…he was prescribed a moderate dose of short acting insulin before each meal in addition to his normal pills and long-acting insulin doses.

His instructions from his doctors, both when he was just taking tablets and later, when the insulin was added, was the same: test on rising and again two hours after each meal. For the longest time this made no sense to me but, being neither diabetic nor a doctor, I didn’t make much of it. But when Hubby was put onto the insulin injections before meals, I spoke up.

“Why not,” I asked him, “check your glucose level before you eat…that can help you choose what to eat if we are out, it can help me plan meal preparation. If I know your blood sugar is low, I can cook a meal with more carbs, like spaghetti, but if it is high, I can go for a higher protein, lower carb meal.”

At first he demurred. The doctors were very clear that he should test two hours after eating and write down the results. But I persisted. What was to stop him from testing before and after? He agreed to try it...and the results have been nothing short of astonishing.

In the past he would choose his food rather blindly, going by his appetite, tastebuds, and a vague sense of what was ok to eat and in what quantities. Two hours later the finger prick would tell him if he had chose well or not…usually not. It was always a case of finding out just how incorrectly he had chosen, but without knowing what his blood sugar was going into the meal, failure was practically inevitable.

Now, he tests 30 to 60 minutes before dinner is ready to be served, usually as I go out to the kitchen to prepare it. If his sugar is above a certain level, I increase the amount of veg in the meal and decrease the amount of carbs. If it is below a certain level, then more carbs can go into it. He can make choices knowing high sugar means no potatoes, lower sugar dictates how many (baby) potatoes he can put on his plate. And not only has his glucose remained within acceptable bounds during the day, his morning readings are now approximately half of what they were before he started this before-meal testing.

So if you or anyone you know is diabetic and struggling with blood sugar levels, stop shooting in the dark. Take a blood sugar reading immediately before a meal and then choose both your foods and their quantities according to that reading. It won’t cure your diabetes, but it can give you so much more control over it!

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Yum...winter cooking!

It is starting to cool off here in Cape Town. The days are still warm and bright, but the nights are cold enough that we've put the sweaters on the doggies and even let them sleep indoors the other night.

So, now it is time to start the winter cooking...all those lovely warm dishes that simmer on the stove all day or snuggle in the oven giving off lovely smells. Yesterday I made the sauce, today I have a yummy lasagna in the oven.

Want the recipe? Leave a comment and I'll publish it for you!

Thursday, April 03, 2008

FAQs re: Sweet Violet

I often get questions, most of them in person, but occasionally on a blog or forum or even in email. The same questions seem to get asked repeatedly, so I thought I’d publish some of them here. If you have questions that aren’t answered here, feel free to leave a comment and ask. No guarantees that I’ll answer it, but if you don’t ask, you have a 100% probability of never knowing the answer!

“Goeiemôre, tannie!” or, “What do you mean, you don’t speak Afrikaans?”
I am short, round, blonde, and well past the first blush of youth. When I enter an establishment like a dress shop or restaurant, I will inevitably be greeted with “Goeiemôre, tannie!” often followed by some other incomprehensible remark or query.

At first I was a bit disconcerted. Afrikaans is a guttural language like German and can sound harsh to the unaccustomed ear. Could they tell I was an accursed American and they were cursing at me? Were they making a crack about the red dot on my forehead? English is widely spoken here, why aren’t they speaking it to me?

Well, it seems that my short, square stature coupled with my age and colouring fools most people into thinking I am an Afrikaner and they are actually greeting me in the politest of Afrikaans terms! “Tannie” (pronounced “tunny”) means “auntie,” and it is a term of respect for women of generations above your own. And “Goeiemôre” (hooya mora) simply means “good morning.”

Interestingly, among the local black people (Xhosa…pronounced “koh-szah”), that term of polite respect for a woman of an older generation is “Mama” or “mamee,” spoken with the slightest bob of the head. I have been called that frequently as well.

So, despite my quintessential Northern European looks, I don’t speak Afrikaans because I am an American. But I do now understand quite a bit, including why the local Afrikaners open conversations with me in Afrikaans!

Where are you from?
TV has been in South Africa since the mid-70s. There are four broadcast channels (three of them government owned and operated) and there is DSTV…satellite TV…that brings us such wonders as BBC Prime, National Geographic, History, and Discovery channels, among others. Much of our programming…at least half of it…comes from the US. I regularly watch CSI, Las Vegas, Oprah, Dr. Phil, even Days of Our Lives. Lost, Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, Boston Legal Smallville…all are available on the small screen here, not to mention a healthy helping of American movies, both new and old (Turner’s Classic Movie Channel also plays here).

You’d think with all that American programming flooding the screens, large and small, people would peg me as an American the moment I open my mouth. I don’t have a regional accent that might throw people off…I’m from California so I sound pretty much like most of the actors on TV and in the movies. It tends to surprise me, then, when people say things like “Where are you from? Australia?” or “I can hear you are from the UK.” I forgive the ones who mistake me for Canadian as the Canadian accent is different from the American in such subtle ways that many Americans can’t tell the difference. But Australia??

So, to answer the question: I am most recently from the San Francisco Bay area (Northern California). I was born in Oregon (which is the state immediately north of California and known for its deep piney woods) and spent my school years in San Diego (Southern California). I have also lived in the Boston area and in Tucson, Arizona. My travels have taken me to at least 30 of the 50 states, perhaps more. I just tell people I’m from San Francisco because few people here seem to have heard of Silicon Valley, my home from 1974 until I moved here in late 2003.

When are you going back?
This question seems to have two meanings: 1) when are you going back for a holiday in your homeland? And 2) when are you moving back to America because what kind of moron would want to live permanently in this godforsaken country?

I am amazed at how many South Africans seem to hate their country! In America it is a really big deal when you take a job overseas and almost unheard of for an American to emigrate to another country. Despite a moron like George Bush driving the economy inexorably towards a second Great Depression, record numbers of home foreclosures, a swiftly shrinking middle class, and a rapidly widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, Americans seem to focus on finding ways to fix (or at least live with) the vagaries of the political and economic scenes.

Not so South Africans. Throwing down their toys like petulant children who can’t have their way in the sand box, white South Africans emigrate in droves…mostly to Australia or the UK…and nobody thinks it is the least bit odd. Maybe it is just my jingoistic American upbringing, but I find South Africans shockingly lacking in patriotism. When confronted with this sentiment, invariably they remark they weren’t that way before the new (read that “black majority”) government came into power. I find that rather scary, since the old (read that “white apartheid”) government was one of the most corrupt on the face of the earth.

These people, then, are surprised when I tell them I do not plan to go back to America except for the occasional family visit (and no, I haven’t done that yet). They cannot imagine leaving a place like what they fantasize America to be...they are shocked when I tell them that middle class Americans don’t routinely have maids and nannies and gardeners (middle class South Africans do), that the average American lives from payday to payday (South Africans tend to have savings) and that in America, unless you have union representation, you can lose your job tomorrow for no more reason that the boss wants you gone (it is difficult to get fired in South Africa…lots of job protection legislation). And then they don’t believe me!

Why am I not planning to move back to America? Because my husband is South African and his job is one that is helping to build the new South Africa and its infrastructure. American business will survive without the presence of one retired secretary.

Why did you move here?
The short answer is, my husband is South African. Yes, I know he was entitled to a green card upon marrying an American citizen, and because he’s a degreed engineer, he probably would not have had much trouble getting a job in Silicon Valley. But we are both people who tend to think things through and weigh our options before making a decision, so we “did the math.” The result was quite shocking.

We found that we could have a better quality of life in South Africa than in California…and his job prospects weren’t that keen outside of Silicon Valley. We discovered that we could live a more affluent lifestyle on his income alone than we could in California with both of us working. In California I owned a house in a working class neighbourhood and drove a 14-year-old mini-truck. I worked 40 hours per week, commuted 2+ hours per day, did all my own housework, laundry, and gardening.

In South Africa, we live on my husband’s income alone. We live in what the real estate agents call a “very sought-after area,” on a beautifully landscaped 1/3 acre lot with a large, gracious house on it. I have a maid twice a week (who also does laundry and irons), a gardener once a week (who spends the whole day working on the garden), and I drive a Mercedes ML…the SUV. The proceeds from the sale of my house in California was invested in rental property, among other things.

So, I moved here to have an improved quality of life and to support my husband’s desire to work at his career where he felt it would make a difference to his countrymen.

And to have a maid.

How do you like it here?
I love it here. Cape Town is remarkably like the Bay Area in climate and topography. I grow many familiar plants in my garden here, from pepper trees to blue plumbago to hibiscus to bougainvillea. The area is similar to the Bay Area in other ways…politically liberal, upwardly mobile, and affluent. Cape Town is a beach and port city, and I live close enough to the beach to get the sea smell in the morning…but far enough away not to have to endure the immediate brunt of the winter storms.

Most everyone I encounter speaks English and most of the goods and services I need are available at costs we, in America, would consider ridiculously cheap. It isn’t paradise…we have our problems here, but on balance, there is nothing I have experienced in Cape Town that would send me scurrying back to the States.

Did your family come with you?
No, my children are grown and have families, careers, and lives of their own. Perhaps when things stabilize with the US economy and the cost of international travel doesn’t bite so deeply into the pocket, they’ll make a trip across the pond to visit. But their lives are in America and I expect they will opt to remain there.

Americans tend not to emigrate, remember?

Why do you wear that dot?
Ah, the dot. From the stares and double-takes I get, one would think seeing a plump little blonde woman wearing a red dot on her forehead was unusual or something!

Seriously, though, I do get stares and double-takes from people when they see my dot. Some looks are positively hostile, some just rude (extended stares), but most just convey curiosity about something unusual. So why do I wear the dot.

The short answer? My husband is Hindu and the red dot signifies, in the Hindu culture that I am married (Snopes.com notwithstanding). He wears a wedding ring out of respect for my culture, and I wear the red dot in public out of respect to his. Yes, I also have a wedding ring, a beautiful wide gold band channel set with eight brilliant cut diamonds alternating with nine baguettes.

My mother-in-law favours a rather pinkish red dot with a slightly nappy surface, preferably quite small. I prefer a larger dark red dot with a circle of black around it, but there are as many styles (and colours) of dots (also known as “bindi” or “kum kum”) as there are grains of sand on a beach. Unmarried women may wear dots as a fashion accessory, but the red ones are considered to be reserved for married women.

A common question is how the dot is affixed to the forehead. Modern dots are commercially produced and are sold in packets. “Fancy dots,” dots with crystals and pearls and other decoration, generally come in small packets, perhaps no more than six dots to a packet. Plain dots can be found in packets containing 50 or more. They all have one thing in common: they are stuck onto a card with a tacky adhesive. You peel the dot off the card and stick it to your forehead. Particularly costly (or favourite) dots may be used over and over again with the application of a dab of surgical or eyelash glue. My favourite dots come in packets of 45 and cost about $1.25 a packet; my mother-in-law’s dots cost half that.

So, there you have it...the questions I most often field here in South Africa. Is there something you might want to know? Leave a comment with your question and I'll get back to you!

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Look in the mirror before you point the finger of blame

If I hear or see one more South African moan about the ineptitude of the police in this country, I may have to fetch them a serious klop.

A few months ago a company in Cape Town hired a pair of twin brothers to work in their aluminium blind manufacturing business. The owner was a nice, compassionate sort of fellow and when the brothers were in financial need, he advanced them some money against their future wages. Shortly thereafter, one of the brothers…I’ll call him David…stole some tools and other items and was thereafter fired. What his boss failed to do, however, was report the incident to the police.

Another employer, only a few blocks away and in the same business, hired David without checking his employment references. A kind-hearted man, when he discovered that David and his brother, Tom, were homeless, he offered to help them get a small, inexpensive place to live. He paid the first month’s rent and the security deposit for a little furnished flat nearby on the promise that he would be paid back out of David’s future wages. David and Tom moved into their little flat on a Sunday afternoon.

Monday, David failed to show up for work and he didn’t call in. After a few more days of absence, David’s boss became uneasy and actually called David’s former employer. It was then that he discovered that David had been fired for theft.

Three weeks passed and on a Friday morning, the owner of the furnished flat received a call from Tom. After extending his apologies, he explained that he and his brother must leave immediately for Johannesburg due to an emergency concerning their mother, and they would not be staying in the flat any longer. What, he asked, did he have to do to get the deposit refunded? She referred him to her husband, who drove over to the flat, only to find that the television, DVD player, and microwave oven were missing.

While her husband went to the police to lay a charge of theft against their former tenants, the landlady called David’s employer to ask if he had a way to contact David. The employer, Clifford, told her that David had not been to work since the day after he moved into the flat. He also said that he had contacted David’s former employer and learned about David having been fired for theft. He believed Tom still worked there, however, and he gave the landlady the name and telephone number of Tom’s employer.

The landlady regretfully informed Clifford that the security deposit he had paid on behalf of the brothers was now forfeit, and suggested that he might want to join her husband at the police station to lay an additional charge of theft. When he said he had no proof that he had paid the money to them, the landlady countered that she was a witness to the transaction and that they had bank records of the transaction.

“You must do this,” she insisted. “If you let them get away with this, more people will be victimized. If David’s former employer had reported his theft to the police, you would not be out this money now, and I would not be dealing with the theft of my property, either.” The man declined to “get any further involved.”

When she called Tom’s employer, the landlady was informed that Tom had not shown up for work for a week. She inquired about David, as this was the employer from whom David had stolen, and suggested that the man should lay a charge of theft against him that could be combined with the case that had been opened for the theft from her cottage. The man stated that he had no desire to become further involved, he just wanted to wash his hands of the matter and forget about it.

And so these two young men continue to deceive and victimize people with impunity because nobody wants to be bothered with reporting the crime to the police. Apprehension would have been dead simple had that first employer made a complaint to the police, for David went to work only a block away and his brother remained employed at the same place. It would have been a simple matter for the police to watch Tom and be lead directly to David …if only the employer had reported David’s theft to the police.

Because he could not be bothered, because that employer took no action, now Clifford…who has a family to feed, is out R5500 (in buying power, the equivalent of 55 bags of groceries). And the landlord and his wife, who make just enough money off the rental to pay the monthly bond (mortgage), must now replace a 24” TV, a DVD player, and a stainless steel microwave oven.

But the public won’t know that at least two of the victims of these brothers refused to contact the police, thereby leaving them free to victimize others. The public will simply assume that the mini-crime wave (who really believes that their crimes began with the first employer and ended with the unfortunate landlord?) is the result of the ineptitude of the police in catching them. When they are eventually caught and a list of their crimes is published, the public will see it as proof that the police are bunglers and can’t even catch a petty thief when he takes a job only a block away from the scene of one of his crimes.

So, the next time I meet up with a South African who moans about the ineptitude of his police force, I’m going to have to ask him if he has ever been victimized and, if so, did he make a report to the police. Does he know of people who have been victimized and failed to report it? And when he tries to justify his or his friend’s lack of action by saying “It wouldn’t do any good, they don’t do anything,” I will be forced to inform him that he is the reason the police don’t apprehend the criminals before they amass an impressive list of victims. He, and people like him who fail to report crimes and thereby allow criminals to move on to another and another and yet another victim, keeps the police blinded and unaware and actively prevent them from getting these people off the street.

So, the next time you are tempted to blame your police force for being soft on crime, take a look in the mirror and ask yourself if you are doing your part to keep your community crime free. Being too lazy to report a crime cripples your police force and helps the criminals. Are you part of the solution, like this landlord, or part of the problem, like those two employers?