Apartheid's Stepchild

South African journalist David Cohen’s book PEOPLE WHO HAVE STOLEN FROM ME is out from Picador. Though it reads like a novel at times, it’s a work of narrative non-fiction that offers a view of life in Johannesburg after the fall of apartheid.

Cohen uses one company, Jules Street Furnishers, to examine the crime wave that has struck the city since the end of the old regime. Jules Street is the longest straight road in the city; as Cohen demonstrates, nothing is very straight in this part of town. The book opens with a raid on the store; in the middle of the night six vehicles pull to a stop outside the store. After the gang removes the iron bars protecting the store, they ram the place, driving one of their vehicles through the store’s front windows. After thirty minutes of looting the gang departs; moments later, when the coast is clear, the security company arrives. The chase is timed perfectly to insure failure.

Jack Rubin and Harry Sher have been partners for decades in Jules Street Furnishers. In many ways the history of the store reflects the history of the city and South Africa as a nation. From humble beginnings as a bicycle shop, Jack and Harry have built a modern emporium offering TVs, VCRs, living room suites and beds. They sell these icons of modern living on credit; this means they’re intimately involved with the customers who don’t meet the payment schedule.

Various characters share the stage with Jack and Harry, from Beautiful who delivers their tea at precisely the same time every day, to Obi and Veli, ex-carjackers who risk life and limb repossessing items customers stop paying for. These were my favorite characters; their forays into the townships like Soweto and Thokoza, made famous by the ANC’s struggle against the whites, are some of the most illuminating about life for blacks in the new South Africa. One woman explains that she no longer needs her fridge but she has no job; no job, no need to keep anything cold. She does need her hot plate, though, to make porridge at every meal.

In between the anecdotes from Jules Street, Cohen gives some glimpses of the Jewish migrations from Europe and Palestine in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries; the gold strikes fueled a rush of people to Jo-Burg, much like the 49ers to California. It’s a rich mixture of African, European, Indian, and Islamic cultures; through it all Jack and Harry preside over their extended clan of family, employees, customers, cops, robbers, and security experts. It’s often funny and poignant on the same page. PEOPLE WHO HAVE STOLEN FROM ME is a terrific read telling an interesting and worthwhile story.