Blog-tswana: African Justice

By Dave Fox
Sankoyo Village, Botswana

The stick leaning against the tree looks innocuous enough until I find out what it’s used for.

“If someone in the village steals, we hit them with it two times,” the chief explains. “If they steal again, we hit them more, or they go to jail.”

876 The stick is about four feet long, a centimeter thick, sturdy-looking – the kind of stick suitable for a caning.It’s on display outside the chief’s hut, propped against a tree – a quiet reminder to behave. The chief himself looks old and frail, but I suspect he is no longer the one who doles out the punishment.

Many alleged crimes in Botswana are tried at kgotlas, community meetings headed by village chiefs, in which anyone can speak, no one may interrupt, and decisions are reached by consensus. They’re an old tribal tradition entrenched in Botswana’s laws and culture. They are where important decisions are made about local laws and rules, and they are the venue where it is determined whether someone needs a good whacking. As far as crime prevention goes, they seem to be effective. Botswana has one of the lowest crime rates in Africa.

In contrast, South Africa, which borders Botswana, has massive crime problems. When I checked into my Johannesburg hotel, two days before flying north to Botswana, I asked if it was safe to walk around the area.

“Not at night,” the receptionist answered.

The Metcourt Suites Hotel was located a five minute drive from Jo’burg airport. A tall iron fence surrounded the grounds, and security guards minded the entrance. I didn’t like feeling imprisoned in the evenings, even if my “prison” included a bar and a swimming pool, but it was better than getting mugged.

On my third and final night in South Africa, our safari group arrived from the United States. We met by the pool for a pre-dinner drink and then headed over to the hotel restaurant for dinner. Just as we finished ordering, Karen, one of our safari members, realized she didn’t have her purse. But she couldn’t remember if she had brought it down from her room.

We scoured the area around the pool where we had been sitting. It wasn’t there. We looked around the sofas in the lobby. Karen went to check her room. She tore the place apart. No purse.

Karen was jet lagged. She had been flying for two days. I knew how easy it is to misplace things in a state of exhausted disorientation. “Are you sure it’s not in your room?” I asked. She invited me upstairs to help look again.

The purse was not there.

A group of four guys was sitting by the pool. They had been there earlier when the six of us were there. I interrupted their conversation and asked if anyone had seen a purse. They hadn’t.

“Why don’t you ask the front desk to check their security cameras,” one of them suggested. Good idea. There were several in the area.

“It’s not that simple,” the receptionist told me. “We can’t review them unless the head of hotel security is here. He’s in Pretoria until tomorrow morning. Are you sure she didn’t just lose it?”

Karen went up to her room to look again –- this time with Bill, the wildlife specialist I was co-guiding our writing safari with. No luck. Karen’s passport was in her bag. Without it, she would not be able to fly with us to Botswana in the morning.

I pulled Bill aside, we discussed whether one of us should stay behind to help Karen get a new passport. Bill dug in his bag for the US embassy’s emergency number. That’s when a hotel bartender stepped forward. He had seen the bag -– hanging from a chair by the swimming pool. He had seen another hotel guest walk away with it. The guest had charged a beer to his room. The bartender had the thief’s room number.

The staff told us to wait downstairs. A receptionist and a security guard went upstairs. They came down five minutes later with Karen’s purse. The people who had taken it weren’t in their room.

* * *

Close to midnight, I was nursing a beer at the lobby bar when the culprits returned.

“Could you come with me please?” a security guard said to them.

“Is there a problem?” one of them asked, in the tone of voice one uses when one knows there is a problem. They disappeared into an office.

I waited for a while to see what had happened, but I had to wake up early in the morning. I finally went to bed.

The same receptionist was working the next morning. I asked what happened to the guys who took the purse.

“They said they knew someone lost it,” the receptionist told me, “and they brought it to their room for safe keeping.”

“Why didn’t they turn it in to the front desk?”

“They said they were in a hurry to get to the casino.”

Really? And they didn’t have 12 seconds to drop the bag at the reception on their way out the door?

The police were never called. The thieves were allowed to snooze through the night at the hotel. The next morning in the hotel restaurant, a couple of tables away from our group, they munched their breakfast.

It was curious to ponder: Botswana has a low crime rate. South Africa has a high crime rate. If you’re caught stealing in rural Botswana, you get beaten with a stick. If you’re caught stealing in South Africa, at the Metcourt Suites Hotel at least, you get a slap on the wrist, a cozy bed, and an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet in the morning.

If you’d like to come along on a journaling and creative writing adventure, my next tour is to southern Vietnam in October, 2010. Visit for full details. Plans are also in the works for future creative writing safaris in Africa, and private trips can be set up for groups of four or more people. For more information, please drop me an e-mail or subscribe to my free e-mail newsletter using the form on the right.

Published on Tuesday, March 30, 2010

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