Honour among thieves

Attending the World Editors’ Forum in Vienna last week, I learnt some valuable things about the state of the newspaper industry. I also learnt exactly how many things you can legally do to a pig. But I left Austria unsatisfied, with several unanswered questions.

For example: Are Austrians insanely trusting, or do I come from a society of natural-born criminals? A case in point: Catching a train in Vienna appears to operate on the honour system. You get on, you don’t get mugged, you get off and, incidentally, if you have bothered to buy a ticket, well, good for you.

I caught a train with an Israeli and, because I had bought a weekly ticket, didn’t join him in buying a daily one. He automatically assumed I was cheating, saying: “You can’t do that here! This isn’t South Africa!”

Does the entire world assume that all South Africans are criminals at heart? And that South Africa is a lawless place where you can pop in on your honeymoon and get a very good deal on the Safari/Winelands/Wife Murder package? Are they correct?

I spent a few hysterical minutes imagining what it would be like if the Gautrain was based on the honour system. All the wonderful twisted logic of the South African would come into play.

“I’m not paying, because nobody else will.”

“The poor don’t pay, so I’m not going to be that rich minority paying for the masses.”

“If I pay, they’ll just use the money for corruption and stuff.”

And my particular favourite: ‘The police should worry about murder and violent crime, not silly things like me speeding or not paying for my train ticket.”

Yes, I’m afraid all South Africans are naturally dishonest, with a cheap moral compass made in China. The only thing we can do now is somehow to spin this as a positive national attribute. After all, if the Wall Street bankers can make avarice and disrespect for society a laudable trait, we should be able to do the same.

So I propose that we applaud our thievish nature. If we are all entirely without a sense of civic morality, we can’t be caught by surprise. We know that everyone in our country is potentially a criminal, so we’re ever vigilant. We know that our government will, if we let it, become as corrupted by power as the worst of breed Africa has to offer.

It’s a radical proposition but I think there’s a reason why Austria gave birth to Adolf Hitler and we have thus far only managed tinpot faux dictators. It’s that silly honour system of theirs. Those Europeans are way too trusting. We, on the other hand, know that everyone from business to government and organised religion is just looking for an opportunity to break the law. It takes a thief to catch a thief, but it takes a South African to stop a South African from becoming too good a thief.

Chris Roper is the editor of M&G Online. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisRoperZA

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Chris Roper
Chris Roper

Chris Roper was editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian from July 2013 - July 2015.

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