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Phillippa Yaa de Villiers

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Museum of Crime

I have to admit that I am often a bit of an ostrich. Get locked away in my own world where I watch the minute movements of grass. So for a change I decided to read the newspaper. Open myself up to all that REAL stuff happening out thyere. CRIME. Everyone is horrified by crime. The newspapers report on it all the time, yet little seems to change. We are terrified, overwhelmed, and even at the level of our imaginations, disempowered by crime.

OK, I have to admit that I am emotionally involved. The murder of Lucky Dube took me right back to the murder of my friend Gito Baloi. The cost of crime to our country is often measured in loss of tourist dollars. But what of the wealth of human achievement and integrity that we lose when people of the calibre of Gito, Lucky, Dr Sadera Bhamjee, Dr Louisa Els, Amy Biehl, Dumisani Dlamini, Jackie Semela, Brett Goldin and the many other great minds we have lost to the ignorant thug’s weapon?

For me, this topic demands interrogation. We have such double standards about crime. Horrified as we are by crime statistics, we adore murder mysteries. Murder dinners. Murder seems to capture the imagination in a way. It not easy explaining the double standards in our society to an eight-year old. No, you can’t have that sub-machine gun you saw at the toy shop you know you’re not supposed to play with guns, now go play outside mummy wants to watch her slasher movie.

It is in this contradiction that I find the seam of creativity. Why not have a museum of crime? After all, it’s what we’re most famous for, after apartheid and Nelson Mandela. Why not open up the debates and let us really engage with all the players. Let’s face it, the most compelling stories are those where the conscience is under severe stress. Let’s go there, South Africa. We really need to know the difference between right and wrong. The prevailing moral code seems to be: get away with as much as you can.

So… the museum of crime … In this museum you could hear true accounts of the lives of criminals, view footage of them in their daily routines (might be a bit difficult but who knows, some criminals are exhibitionists) What are the causes of crime? what makes a criminal? we go home to where they grew up, where they cut their criminal teeth. If alcohol and drugs fuel crime, let’s ask why alcohol and drugs are still available in those communities. Let’s really look at the roots – under a microscope.

An ex-con friend of mine once said: “jail is full of innocent people.” So, if people have been through a trial, what makes them assert their innocence? Are they lying or do they really believe that they did nothing wrong? And victims. How did they recover? How did they move on from the experience?

A history of crime in South Africa, in its social-colonial context, could do much to help today’s South Africans understand where it comes from. Instead of showcasing famous criminals, the Daisy De Melkers, the Chaukes, and so on, why not use their stories to take museum visitors on a journey into the history of the country. The centuries of land-theft disguised as development, and how this finds its place in the current forced removals – creating new generations of hungry, homeless, desperate people. more potential criminals without a

Or, one could do both. those celebrity criminals have their following, they are compelling in their own ways. One could have a horrible hall of fame, our most horrible criminals and what they did. But for all these serious sociopaths, there seem to be many who choose crime out of desperation. Or do they? Is the argument that poverty creates criminals just a myth?

I want to know whydunnit from whodunnit. From minor crimes like littering and vandalism to the big ones (murder, rape, child molestation, kidnapping, armed robbery, defrauding pensioners out of their life savings), we could demand explanations from the perpetrators. We could also for example ask white collar greed sufferers why they still feel that they don’t have enough.

We could invite museum visitors to design the perfect crime. To commit a crime. To imagine a life of crime. And what about those upholders of law and order who have become criminals themselves? Let us expose the dirty judges, cops and magistrates. We are always pussy-footing around these known abusers of the public trust. Let us expose them – and at the same time, teach kids about their rights.

There have to be consequences to crime. A museum of crime could also be a museum of justice. From crime we could go to court. We could employ actors to play out the different roles in the court and invite museum visitors to play prosecutor, or defending attorney. Visitors could be locked up in a prison cell and see how that feels. Not to replicate Con Hill, but to take people through the consequences of other kinds of crime.

and what if there was no crime? what would we talk about? Dinner parties would become salons of ideas and creativity, instead of festivals of fear. People clutching handbags in taxi queues would be able to relax and open a book. All the money and energy poured into the insecurity industry could go to paying nurses and teachers. The top brains in our schools would pursue those careers, the schools and hospitals would be well equipped and well run. And children and their families would be SAFE.

Lawyers, criminologists, psychologists, cops, government, come on, face it. We are known for this disease. To overcome a problem, we start by understanding it.

I have written some poems about crime – and poetry is the language of the heart, cutting straight through the rhetoric of rationalization to the feelings that violation creates. Perhaps we could start there – follow the heart of what crime means to us as people trying to make a life for ourselves and our children.


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