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Tsotsis (thieves)

A friend and myself were almost mugged in Kuruman today (well, my friend had it worse than me). We were walking along a side street in broad daylight, middle of the day with lots of people around. A guys walks out in front of us and stops like he's looking at something on the ground. I give him a nudge with my arm but he doesn't move and it becomes clear to me that he's being a distraction for something else. I walk around (as he's blocking a kind of choke point) and we cross the main street that connects to the side street. We realize we're being followed.

Now, you should know this is the most crowded street in Kuruman. The most popular grocery store (Shoprite) is on one side, the bus rank and taxi rank are on the other, with the inevitable liquor store right in the middle. So not sure what to do, we start walking toward Shoprite, maybe 50 yards down the sidewalk from our current position. One of the tsotsis gets in front of us and stops. Without really considering what I'm doing, I grab him and push him to the side--not savagely, but hard--and start walking fast up the sidewalk, pushing a path through the crowd. I assume my friend is right on my ass, until I'm almost there when I turn back and he's gone. I go back and see him shaking off the last of the tsotsis, backpack askew. Turns out they grabbed his bag and went for his cell phone, but he managed to get hold of his phone and wallet, and his bag was saved by his waist strap. Probably 30 people witnessed this, some inches away, and did nothing.

Nothing was lost, so we lucked out in that regard. However, we thought a lot about ways we could have performed better. Obviously the biggest mistake we made was my friend not howling bloody murder when they finally grabbed him, so that I could help, but mostly to create a scene and maybe attract some police. It's the same mistake that I made when I lost my shoes--the fact of people trying to rob you is so jarring it's hard to think what to do. Also when we first crossed the street, there was a KFC we could have run into, which I suppose would have been the smart move...though if they were willing to try robbery in broad daylight on a crowded street, what's to stop them from doing it in a restaurant?

Finally, me pushing the guy who stopped in front of us. I'm of two minds about that part. At the time, I basically thought (to the extent that I thought it all, mostly it was just blind instinct) I'm not stopping, asshole, as it was certainly the first step in being surrounded. But could it make him pull a knife or something? It seems like a bad idea to be escalating in any way, but letting yourself be surrounded doesn't seem like the best way to avoid violence either.

I carry a pocketknife, and I was hoping like hell I wouldn't see a need to pull it out. Certainly I wouldn't fight someone for my stuff, or phone, or money. But say one of them just decides to take a poke at a lekgowa for no reason? It wouldn't be the first time.

Anyway, I don't think either of us were in any real danger. These guys were gone like smoke when they realized they couldn't get anything right away. Only a fool would stab someone on the street. But it's hugely stressful to go through something like that. I was amped for hours afterward, playing the scenario over and over in my mind, seeing thieves everywhere. It's jarring to go from chatting about 19th century German history to if this fucker pulls a knife I'm going to kick him in the balls as hard as I can and run screaming.


  1. Ryan, that's a very articulate description of what it is like to be assaulted on a street in Kuruman by a bunch of tsotsis with robbery on their mind. My assault was in broad daylight, there were people watching, there were 4 young men who surrounded me after the boldest stopped me physically by grabbing my shoulder and keeping me from walking forward. In my case, I did yell. As soon as he put his hand in my pants pocket, I yelled as loud as I could and he released his grip on my wrist and I ran into the street, yelling the whole time. People watched and did nothing. Nothing was taken, except for my peace of mind and any feeling of safety on the streets, not just in Kuruman, but anywhere in South Africa. I consider that a pretty big loss. Thanks for listening. B


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