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Mediocre Bad Guys

by Phillip de Wet, illustration by Rico / 15.02.2011

What we think we have are cat-stroking masters of their craft, who plot their evil like a chess match and, when they do actually stoop to violence in pursuit of money or political domination, do so with style. Instead all we get are tsotsis, and other tsotsis with better shoes.

It’s probably the media’s fault. No, I’m not channeling an ANC spokesman; this time we may actually carry a little of the blame. See, deep down most journalists are frustrated writers, but there is damn little room for a dramatic turn of phrase when you’re writing about Joburg’s pothole problems or the Cape Town toilet saga. When it comes to cash-in-transit robberies, however, we’re suddenly free to talk about “military precision”. We can describe the sophistication of car hijacking syndicates, or breathlessly speak of the helicopters used by rhino poachers. Best of all is when the criminals themselves apparently adopt monikers straight out of The Godfather, like Glenn “The Landlord” Agliotti.

So we end up with the idea of smart men in smart suits doing dirty work, which pays for fast cars and sex-kitten women. We tend to believe that they engage in stylish violence straight out of a Tarantino flick, that they sometimes toy with the cops just for the hell of it, that a room goes hushed when they walk into it.

Then they end up in court, and we realise that the average South African criminal mastermind is, like the average South African criminal, just a punk. And not a particularly clever or cool one at that.

Agliotti – who swears blind that The Landlord is a name the cops made up for him – wears good shoes. That’s pretty much as far as his arch-villainy goes. We’re talking about a man who tries to paint himself as an innocent victim after being convicted of smuggling drugs. Somebody who tells different lies to different people – all on the record – while trying to weasel out of jail time. For all his erstwhile swagger, he’s no chess master. Nor is he the kind of guy who’d go down in a hail of bullets while shouting “fuck you, pigs, you’ll never take me alive!”

Agliotti’s good friend Jackie Selebi managed to make it into the top policing job in the world, as the nominal head of Interpol, while actually being bad guy. That may lead you to believe he’s got at least a little somthin’ somthin’ going on. Until he tries to convince a judge that “the dog ate my homework” is a legitimate defence.

Brett Kebble is, in my book at least, as close as South Africa has ever come to a real Bond villain. He built up a mining empire from nothing using nothing but a fast mouth and some rather dubious financial structures, then started cashing in by using company money as his own. But he transcended mere white-collar crime when he started putting together a network of influence that would have meant, given another decade or two, that he owned just about everyone holding a top office in SA: politicians, cops, perhaps even judges. While becoming a celebrity society man by throwing elegant art prize parties. Can you say SPECTRE? Then he ends up dead at the side of the road, either because he was some kind of crybaby who couldn’t handle the pressure and just wanted to end it all, or because the peeps in his crew decided he was the kind of crybaby who would sell them out rather than go to jail himself.

Sandi Majali, another literal has-been, allegedly thought he could steal an entire company just by changing names on the paperwork, and that nobody would notice. This after we’d been under the impression he was smart enough to entangle the ANC in a web of corruption, so that nobody could touch him because of the dirt he had on others.

These guys are, in a word, stoopid. They end up in crime because they are either too lazy or too dumb to make it legitimately. They often start off doing what is, in essence, menial work, like smuggling cigarettes, and just kinda stumble into bigger things by sheer luck. Then they run the constant risk of arrest or death by murder to make what is, in the vast majority of cases, less money than a shrewd banker or owner of an engineering company can pull in with fewer sleepless nights. That money they invariably spend on bling cars (or ugly imported shoes) and in so doing draw attention to themselves, instead of lurking in the shadows where they are untouchable.

It’s not just the ones at the top, of course. The average serial murderer in SA isn’t Hannibal Lecter, he’s a a serial rapist who offs his victims, and those are about the saddest human beings you can imagine. The dude who pulls a gun on you in your driveway may be a tough character in a bar fight, but his take on your car is so small he’d be earning more after a couple of years of working his way up to manager of the local Spar.

It’s the men at the top we expect to set a certain standard, though. Decades of Hollywood movies have led us to expect their consort to be stone fox assassin-models, not sad trafficked Russian prostitutes. Television shows us elegant (if malevolent) strategies punctuated by clinically delivered violence, not crime bosses who would have a hard time beating a smart 10-year-old at checkers.

The more we learn about them, the more the South African criminal masters resemble South African celebrities: dull as dirt and vapid to boot. If we’re going to put up with high crime rates, we really deserve better.

*Follow Phillip de Wet on Twitter.
**Illustration © Rico.

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