The incredible events that occurred in the daily lives of many of the ‘street people’ were often overshadowed by what we personally experienced side by side with the steady flow of ‘normal’ lives. They accepted us (often initially grudgingly) in their social and commercial lives and eventually in the normally ‘private’ aspects of their existence. These were not anchored in any way but had fluidity that hinged on pure survival whether that was food, shelter, money or avoiding those you had wronged or the Law. The machinations of those on the fringes of society to enable them to gain money usually at some one else’s expense, are in themselves a comedy, a drama, a horror movie and most often, illegal in process. They provided us with real time/real life experience and information on what they did to live. The large majority of the excluded members of society have for various reasons become addicted to the crutch or coping mechanism they were using to be able to continue on a path with no foreseeable future. In most cases, it is either drugs or alcohol and by that I mean not only in copious amounts if the money’s there, but usually the more extreme variants of whichever substance they are addicted to. This becomes a closed circle as they use more and more of the substance to have the confidence to perform whatever nefarious plot they have hatched and so most of the ‘profit’ from the job goes to the supplier and they remain stuck at the same level. However some of the characters that inhabited this world stand out for sheer bravado, self-deluding egos and imagination, as their lives and the activities they got up to read like the characters in a bad novel or any good B series TV movie. To realize that all of this is taking place often quite openly while ‘society’ goes on with its business around them brings an air of surreality to the proceedings that are always overlaid with the constant threat of violence, which can break out instantly. With the addition of the states of mind that go with the excessive use of substances like drugs & alcohol leading to psychosis, paranoia and many other psychological imbalances which give rise to hair trigger reactions to everything, meant being there with them required walking on a tightrope and constantly adjusting to deal with the superego’s of the players.
Take Jim as a not uncommon example. White and well-educated with a normal dysfunctional family upbringing, a highly qualified and experienced site manager easily employed but preferring all types of fraud as an easier way to make a living (which is interesting given the extra levels of stress and danger they brought with them). The drug of choice was sleeping tablets, 10 to 20 at a time, which only calmed him down so he could manage his anxiety and appear coherent. The purchasing of pills required a ‘scrip’ or prescription obtained by paying a fully legally qualified doctor (MD) R250.00 (often from Ghana or Nigeria) and the chemist dispensing them R 200.00 so the minimum amount needed daily to supply the addiction was R 450.00. Most prescriptions only provided the amount needed for 24 hours. The doctor simply agreed you were depressed, anxious or whatever syndrome you decided to adopt and took his money. All within the law. His wife Pamela was overweight and blowsy; the main user of the pills after taking them aged 15 and continuing with the full blown excess after she was medically certified as being dependent upon them a few years later. She was not averse to prostitution if necessary to fund their purchase and happy to spend money endlessly on items of absolutely no use or even resale value (to buy more pills) for no good reason. They seldom had a fixed address for long but often used motels costing R 250.00+ per day for days on end and sometimes for months at a time. Often well-dressed, they were unable to keep the clothes for long as when pills were needed, money had to be found and any saleable item was fair game. Add her parents to the pot and mayhem ensues as they were the pill users who ‘turned’ their daughter into an addict and lived in the main by conning people and on Jim’s income. Living and often sleeping rough on the streets had made Pam, Jim and her parents inveterate and accomplished liars but the drugs had turned their memory into one which often had trouble distinguishing the truth from the fiction.
They had a male child aged 8 years old who was fostered by parents who truly loved and wanted to adopt him and bring him up but Jim and Pamela could not decide what to do so he was in limbo and he made them pay not wanting contact with them. Unless arranged through social services, contact was minimal for the little boy with his real parents and beyond the odd mention, they avoided the subject as it was obvious that it hurt them deeply, though they rejected any form of counseling as this would have brought to the fore much that was buried in their pasts. Their feelings of inadequacy seldom surfaced openly as they had at all times to present a confident front so much so that reality and fiction often blurred and their actions had little logic behind the motivation. The use of the pills was directly linked to the amount of fear and stress when performing criminal acts as they provided the necessary calm attitude to enable them to appear confident and assured to the outside world and their targets in particular. Confidence in what you are doing is the underpinning emotion of all acts of fraud especially those involving direct face to face contact with the victims and drugs or alcohol are an effective way for many people to attain it.
One of the most often used frauds’s by Jim involved getting hold of bank accounts either from the deceased but mostly by the theft of bank cards, personal details and purses and wallets. There were many gangs of Zimbabweans, Francophone Africa’s nationals and other Southern African nationals who would provide the cheque books, cards and ID books and would purchase the correct clothing for wearing to do the con job as well as any necessary tools like cell phones, briefcases, or convincing looking expensive but low quality jewelry and accessories. It would appear that different nationals had their niche in the fraud so the Zimbabweans were the providers (transport etc.)and were directly involved in the enactment of the fraud while the Francophone nationals worked in the bank (some were even managers) or had access to the details needed through employment in commercial or government departments. Members of their community could be relied upon to provide information and church was the ideal venue to meet at, as well as allowing the soothing of consciences. The stolen ID books (nowadays cards are replacing the ID books) and other items came from many different sources like the proverbial pickpockets to the muggers, house breakers, and shopping mall thieves. These suppliers of the financial/personal information also involved the citizens of other African countries like Nigerian nationals, since the Nigerians were big buyers of stolen goods and the providers of most of the street narcotics. Since different areas were targeted, transport was also provided, usually a BMW, Audi, or if possible a Mercedes so as to appear financially okay upon arrival but not to stand out, as that got you remembered. They would then use the cheque books with the Identity Books which were made out correctly or if they had them, the original books, but instead of having the photo of the bearer, the true bona fide owner of the ID, it had Jim or Pamela’s photo. They used them to buy items for resale from all types of shops selling electrical/electronic goods with those stocking easily resaleable items, top of the list. Big nationwide outlets or chain stores were a firm favourite as these were used for purchases using the cheque books and ID books/cards of middle level electronics from computers (especially laptops) to cell phones and power tools. The resale value of most items was 45–50% but depending on the brand of item, could go as low as 35% and as high as 60%. Much as the fraudsters liked high end goods, it was easier and quicker to sell only middle cost and quality items as the market was bigger with every area having many outlets from small one room ‘shops’ to quite large semi high street stores. No store owner ever appeared to be averse to a non taxable profit. They did however also supply goods to order which generated a high profit margin but not very often, and usually it was for commercial vehicles ranging from tankers, graders, very large trucks, and other heavy duty equipment like generators. These were mainly only enacted for several vehicles or items bought at a time as the fraud would generate a R 2+ million profit at a minimum. The goods went to other African countries but sometimes to the Middle East and reputable companies would buy these goods through subsidiary companies which officially they had no ties with so there could be no comeback involving them should anything go awry.
Supermarkets were often the last ‘con’ or fraud pulled at the end of a busy day (2 to 3 places already fraudulently conned) since they provided food (at no cost) and some even sold alcohol, but all had cigarettes and baby’s diapers or nappies as well as milk formula for babies. These were sold on to the local ‘spaza’, a small all item grocery shop, at exactly half price so that R 3,000.00 of shopping yielded R 700.00 in cash (half the price paid for the cigarettes at R 1,500.00 or nappies/formula costing roughly the same amount) and toiletries as well as better quality expensive food. Jim’s payment for the supermarket con was R 300.00 plus food etc. but he took only 25% of the other con job’s profit as the number of people involved multiplied with those working inside the bank itself and those who acted as intermediaries and providers. However a laptop bought for R4, 500.00 and sold for R 2,000.00 cash gave Jim R 500.00 in one shot and a working minimum was one computer and one supermarket a day.
Caution was not a byword but they seldom went overboard by hitting the same area let alone the same place more than once a month. They would travel quite large distances to other places and take a rental house where they could all live and work from for a month or two. The smaller urban environments were often easier at accepting and allowing transactions since the one problem they had was the verification system in place to validate the amount written on the cheque. They needed a person working inside the particular bank (not necessarily the branch but part of the group like ABSA or Nedbank) who they were also defrauding and was essential to provide authenticity and change the cell number for the SMS from the one of the real account holder to that of the phone that Jim was given to use so it could be answered if need arose when the bank called. The bank frauds included the appropriation of funds from closed or deceased accounts (usually in the range from R 15,000.00 up) which required the person in the bank to access this information and sometimes specialist IT hackers(more on them in the future) were brought in if the amounts were large enough(R1/4 million upwards). These people sold on the information for a good sum(a percentage of the total to be taken as well as an upfront sum to ensure some recompense for the risks they take should the fraud not work) and stayed away from the participants usually remaining at a distance from the action though they were part of it when at work since they were inside the system itself. The corruption that money engenders in people brought in other players as well, like law enforcement and the inevitable Intelligence Services who further stirred the pot to produce more stress, which upped the amount of pills required to maintain a passing facsimile of normality, at least one good enough to fool most people for a given period of time. We will go into the roles played by these officials of the state in a further article and their methods of coercion, most of which not only fall outside the law but are expressly forbidden let alone untoward practices. Jim was ‘in bed’ with them as he was fully compromised having by the sheer law of averages been detained and prosecuted several times and had spent ‘time’ inside meaning imprisonment.
He would happily sell anyone and by that I mean anyone, if it meant that he remained free and unfettered and it was to his advantage. Loyalty among thieves though spoken about with much performance is not based on the reality which is every dog for himself. This makes all dealings very edgy as all the participants are aware of the possibility of one of them being compromised and so being an informer which made them wary of outright committal to any fraud without resorting to ridiculous cloak and dagger intrigue. On many occasions, the temptation to laugh at the sheer inanity of the action was hard to restrain though it would have been suicidal to do so openly. One such event ended up with two sets of participants unable to meet to put the fraud (at a large shopping mall) into action as the place chosen was situated next to a Conference Auditorium with hundreds of police officers attending a course and lectures on that day, a fact completely unknown to Jim and company beforehand. The ensuing panic and heightening of paranoia led to people being dropped off at different locations and staying out of contact for a couple of days before feeling safe enough to make contact with the others and resume the job. It would have been entertaining if not for the totally illogical conclusions being drawn from the limited information (mostly imagined) and the lunatic attitudes and actions of those involved. The continuous arguments between Jim and his wife made being with them very fractious and trying as they would turn on each other and us at a moment’s notice if their focus and medicated calm was disturbed by a perceived threat or problem. These arguments would also involve the other players to a varying degree and could and did lead to them parting and leaving in a huff or Jim and Pamela being dropped off with no money and having to walk the 20 kilometers back to home, even when home was on the pavement or in the bush alongside a road.
Pamela did not ever stay at home when Jim was on a job preferring to be in the thick of the action so she was quite sure of the sums involved and what percentage she could personally expect. Both of them had excellent mental accounting skills and were proficient at calculating endless variants of what to do and how to spend it when whichever plan they were working on was being produced, a production that was made more appealing and based less in reality due to the calm produced by the pills and the relaxation they brought to Jim and Pamela. The features of both changed radically over the decade as they began to show more of the abuse their systems were subject to in their ever more difficult life, a life that degenerated often into squalor and the brutal reality of moment by moment living. Begging with a child is a sure way to gain instant money, clothes, and food from passersby or motorists by standing near an ATM, at an intersection or on the traffic lights. Pamela lost custody of her son aged 2+ when it was reported to Social Services that she was begging with him all day, everyday. She was bringing in around R 400+ a day with food, clothing and of course nappies and milk formula with their instant resale value extra, so that often Jim did not need to work the next day. The amount addicts of all variants can obtain in a day by begging or ‘biting’ as they call it, is quite astounding and they are experts at not only choosing the exact spot to ‘bite’ at but the best time of day as well. Many regular addicts can support an addiction at a minimum of R300+ a day by ‘biting’ as they are good talkers and will invent a lie on the spot to extract as much as possible. The clothing and food alone can bring in another easy R 300+ daily and if you can push for milk formula or nappies from the people giving to you for your spurious children, then the cash amount rises quickly. Many will talk very convincingly about non-existent young children and the difficulty of feeding them and clothing them to gain extra goods to resell. They have an overriding need to fill be it gambling, sex, alcohol, the high life, or whatever it is that they rely on to make life bearable even if only marginally at best or at least an illusion that it is so. Like Jim and Pamela, they will trade up to a more opulent lifestyle when their income allows even if they know it will only be for a short time. They would far rather spend R 3500.00 on five days in a motel with the living expenses (food, travel, consumable substances) than pay R 2000.00+ for a month’s rental of a place to live. The ‘now’ is total and like children, they will rather enjoy jam today than jam tomorrow.
Yes they do think about the future and like everyone else try to plan somewhat but the irregularity and unreliability of their income makes all their plans become pie in the sky. The problem is a constant one as they lack stability in any measure because the continuing necessity of ensuring an adequate supply of narcotics, alcohol or whatever it is they rely on, makes every plan fail from the start. In their world, cash is king and they will keep stupid amounts of money in their possession which leaves them open to robbery, a part of life they experience quite often. The number of itinerant vagrants/hobos and street people passing by where you are based, especially when you sleep rough outside, is high, with new faces appearing daily and most moving on to somewhere else soon after. Their flashy lifestyle also makes them obvious targets as they embody the ‘flash the cash’ attitude when feeling flush and are quite openly reckless in their spending as it is a plus for their street credibility and additionally puts down those they want to appear above. I must point out that there are different classes of street people and some are seldom welcome anywhere as they have no off button when it comes to physical violence being used to gain what they need. It is well known among them that there are places in every part of the country where you can dispose of a body without it causing enquiries from the authorities beyond finding out the name of the deceased. Guns are not as common as is believed though they are instantly and easily accessed especially in the cities, but other weaponry is everywhere and since a lot of it is really home made or home modified with no regard for the legal limits, its effect can be traumatically devastating.
Fraud if well planned and meticulously carried out is very lucrative indeed and, for those who have the ability to self regulate and be patient, can and does lead to a comfortable lifestyle backed by solid investments. One such fraud involved a Zimbabwean national (Joseph) and certain Congolese nationals who ran a very well put together car and insurance scam. The person they used to carry out the fraud, like Jim or Pamela, was given a completely valid and legal new identity with bank accounts and all the necessary paperwork. The bank accounts (run very efficiently by the Zimbabwean) were active for a minimum of six months but he preferred 9 to 10 months for the sake of financial appearances so that transactions over that time period upped the credit rating given by the main companies supplying these ratings. Then, the person with the completely authentic ID and bank account, using the credit rating, would purchase a very expensive top of the range Mercedes, BMW , prestige sports car or even a 4x4 and hand it over to the Zimbabwean who had buyers waiting, often back home in Zimbabwe or Zambia. It was sold very quickly usually within 72 hours of purchase. He would continue to make regular payments on the purchase of the car to the finance company or bank for 4 to 5 months before the ‘buyer’ who did not exist, suddenly died from whatever cause, normally accidental and certainly, unforeseen. The car had been bought with an insurance policy in place to cover the remaining outstanding sum owed on the car in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability and naturally, death. Through the use of a person in the right government department dealing with these matters, a death certificate was obtained and the car was therefore paid in full and what happened to it afterwards was officially up to the beneficiaries of the deceased. He even went so far as to arrange a funeral where the ashes were laid to rest publicly and the bank, car sales company and insurance company were invited. They seldom ever turned up. If the car had cost R 2,500,000.00 and costs of the fraud were R 500,000.00, then the profit left was R 1,000,000.00 as it would be sold for R 1,500,000.00 to facilitate a quick sale and not keep possession of it for longer than could be arranged. Jim or whoever would receive a total of R 25,000.00 though mostly this was paid monthly in dribs and drabs with a balance of around R 7,000.00 at the end to ensure complicity. On an annual basis, he ran between 6 and 8 of these frauds with some years lean and a few record breaking years to compensate. The Zimbabwean owned residential property and farms in both Zimbabwe and South Africa and spent most of his time indulging his passion for vintage cars, slowly increasing his collection while living very well with minimal stress.
The underlying feeling of pent up anger, which is present in the overwhelming majority of street people is always very close to the surface and is constantly reignited daily by the attitudes of those in ‘normal’ society around them who neither acknowledge or are aware of them beyond a fleeting glance while passing them by in the street. The official arms of the authorities harass and demean them as and when they wish with no regard to consequence as they have no fear of retribution, legal or otherwise. Though undergoing this denigration daily, the people on the margins of society are still capable of acts of extreme generosity and humanity which given their personal circumstances is astonishing as it most often reduces their own situations appreciably. Even the rescuing of a dog or cat found living on the street or in the bush is done with the knowledge that it means taking responsibility for the life of another creature. And they will willingly help a really damaged human being if they ask for help and they can help, without making a song and dance about it or needing to let everyone know how kind they are. Their humanity is very close to the surface but locked tightly away to avoid giving any indication of ‘softness’ or vulnerability. The unwritten law on the street, which you hear said many times, is ‘I am a Lion and the rest are game’ or, as long as I appear tough, confident and capable, then I am all right as others will think twice before taking me on. It is not easy to ever truly be relaxed when you live on the street as sleeping with one eye open is a truism and having a space to only yourself is seldom if ever, possible. This is very wearing on the human psyche and leaves the person insecure and constantly overwhelmed physically. The strain is one of the reasons that so many resort to any form of escapism as the daily grind of their harsh reality is an inescapable fact of life for the vast majority. In the next article, we will look at the police service, the Intelligence Service, fraud and the internet.
What is not written does not exist.