Theft against tourists leaves international guests with a sense of danger, vulnerability, and inhospitality in a country they do not live in, says the writer. Picture: Supplied
I’m from Los Angeles, travelling throughout South Africa. It’s my first time visiting Africa. I’m literally on the other side of the world, which is 16 000 km away. My friends and family said it’s a dream to come out to this amazing country. But when I was in Stellenbosch, four girls from Belgium and I, had about R8,200 stolen amongst us. 

I’ll never forget the feeling. You check your money, and you check it again hoping it’s actually there. But you know the truth: You’ve been a victim of theft. And at least for me, I felt violated and ashamed that it happened to me.

To make things worse, the police wouldn’t come out to take our reports. (But more on all this later). The entire affair points out a simple point: For the economy and tourism to thrive and continue in South Africa, the government needs to prosecute those who would steal and harm others, especially guests in this country.  

According to the South African statistics, 10.29 million tourists came to South Africa for the year of 2017. That’s almost 20% of the population. Fin24 says, “The total contribution of travel and tourism to the gross domestic product (GDP) of South Africa was R402bn”. Fin24 estimates that tourism makes up 9.3% of the total GDP and has quadrupled since 2012.   

Although Business Day disagrees that tourism contributes so largely to the South African GDP, it admits that almost 5% of all people in South Africa are employed because of it. That’s one out of every 20 people.   

Business Day also states, “The [tourism] industry created 32,186 new jobs in 2015, increasing the tourism workforce from 679,560 in 2014 to a total of 711,746.”  

Paul Cook says crime committed against tourists spoils the beauty of this country and the great spirit of kindness and hospitality that other South Africans have shown. Picture: Supplied
To put that into perspective, tourism generates more than mining. Hence, there’s no doubt the important economic boon that tourists bring here.  

Although it seems like common sense that more should be done about this type of crime, more isn’t happening. The general attitude amongst the police and locals was that this kind of stuff just happens. And that’s what needs to change.  

And no wonder. Crime and theft is a major problem that the government needs to admit and stop. In 2017, 2.12 million crimes were reported. Of those crimes, property-related-crimes comprised the lion’s share. 540 603 incidents were reported. (Keep in mind that’s only what’s reported.) That means 25% of all reported crime in South Africa is theft related, and that translates roughly to one theft a minute throughout the year.   

Sadly, the bleak attitude towards the alarming frequency of larceny can be seen in how ours was handled. Although two officers came looking for the suspect (who happened not to be around when they came), the police had a sense of hopelessness about recovering the money.    

Here are the facts of the case. We stayed at a hostel at Stellenbosch. There was a long-term guest who alleged he was a Portuguese PhD engineering student at the university. There was a key missing in the room. According to a hostel employee, there was the only person that was there during the times the money was stolen was this “student”. It turns out he was really from Mozambique. His information wasn’t locatable at the hostel. I checked with the university, who couldn’t find the suspect being registered as a PhD engineering student there. And the hostile and nervous hostel owner, who was going through a divorce and hence, financially troubled by her legal fees, wanted the investigation dropped.   

To make matters worse, the owner also blamed the girls for being careless for carrying so much money with them. These girls already felt violated by what happened. The owner then said she wasn’t going to do anything about it and in fact, couldn’t. Understandably, they left feeling angry and violated about the whole situation. Sadly, the way everything was handled, more than the theft itself, definitely painted South Africa in a dangerous light for us all.

Although law enforcement eventually helped after I persisted, I’m sure that we would have left feeling better if the police came out immediately and heard what happened. Also, they should have made this type of crime a priority by following up and interviewing the suspect and the hostel owner; separately – of course.  

To be sure, the police are busy with a number of crimes on their docket and crimes against property are not seen as a priority. But, three points stress the flaws in this argument.

One, theft against tourists is more than a crime against property. It leaves international guests with a sense of danger, vulnerability, and inhospitality in a country we do not live in.   

Two, it also spoils the beauty of this country and the great spirit of kindness and hospitality that other South Africans have shown, especially to me.

And three, it portrays South Africa in a negative light when victims go back home and report to others what happened.  

For South African tourism to survive and grow, a sense of kindness and care for tourists needs to be fostered by prosecuting these thefts. Otherwise, guests won’t feel welcome and safe in this beautiful country. Thus, it should be clear that the growing black market business of theft and violence against tourists can easily kill South African tourism, which would be a huge loss for the country.

Finally, although there’s a long way to go for South Africa to achieve law and order, prosecuting theft against tourists is good place to start. Doing so, sends such a clear message to everyone and would also make national residents safer too. As American Romantic writer Calvin Coolidge said, “Ultimately property rights and personal rights are the same thing.”

* Cook is the author of a blog called The Legal Lens

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.