Anyone who knows me very well knows I’m not the most humble person in the world. Which is not to say that I’m conceited, just confident. I also tend to assume the best in people because, well, things have generally worked out pretty well for me so far.
I’m not naïve either – I like to think that I’ve been very vigilant in South Africa in many ways (and you better believe my head is on a swivel looking for potential car jackers when driving at night here) – but as anyone who has traveled with me can attest, I sometimes get myself into sticky situations by assuming the best about others when I shouldn’t.
Last week was one of those times. I was accompanying Naama to a doctor appointment and we decided to make a quick stop at an ATM to make a deposit.
ATMs are a way of life for an expat in South Africa, even more so than in the U.S. (who uses cash these days?). Not only are ATMs our main lifeline to local currency (and having Rand handy is still a necessity in South Africa), but it’s also how we pay a lot of our bills. Without a bank account to make electronic transfers and with very few non-retail or restaurant businesses accepting credit cards here, we pay almost everything else by making cash deposits in ATMs. Just key in the account number (VERY carefully) and a reference code, add R4 and 1.35% for the deposit fee, and put in the money. So every month one of us visits different banks to pay our satellite TV, our power, our pet sitters, etc. Even doctor visits and hotel reservation deposits!
Anyway, we were ahead of schedule for Naama’s appointment so we thought, why not use these 15 minutes to pay that latest doctor visit deposit? We pulled up Google Maps, looked for the nearest Nedbank ATM, and off we went. Dammit, this ATM doesn’t accept deposits! Where’s the next closest one? Ok, let’s head to Sunnyside. We’ll only be a few minutes late for the MD.
So we pull up to a busy street across from a local mall – tons of people everywhere. Sunnyside is a busy urban area of eastern Pretoria filled with businesses and folks just going about their business. It’s noon – a probably fine to be here this time of day. I even remark to Naama, “It’s nice to see a part of Pretoria that’s not so posh and lily-white, but feels really diverse and middle class.” We pull into a spot, aided as we often are by an under-employed young man. Guys who ‘help’ you park and watch your car for a tip (R5 = $0.40) is common here – part of the grey economy in a country with a 26.6% unemployment rate and lots of unskilled labor. Hmm, I notice he’s got a couple friends with him, one of whom is standing behind the car, which seems odd, but I don’t think much of it. I look back after turning the corner and it seems like there’s some movement around the car, but I convince myself it’s probably nothing. After all, it’s noon on a bustling street! What could happen?
Literally 5 minutes later, we’re back at the car. The line for the ATM was way too long to do anything without being late for our appointment. Huh. Where are those guys? Nowhere to be seen, which never happens… Why wouldn’t they want their tip? “SHIT”, I think. The car looks fine, but I pop the trunk and… my backpack is gone and with it, my work laptop and notebook, my Kindle, $200 in cash (USD and Malawi Kwacha), a brand new raincoat I’d bought in the US, and a whole host of other things that were going to be annoying to replace.
I’d seen the warnings around town in parking decks here to double-check that your doors are locked: “Beware Remote Jamming!” Apparently, there are devices that can interfere with the car remote-locking function on your key we all take for granted these days. Turns out they weren’t being alarmist (car theft pun intended).
We go to Naama’s MD appointment while I work rapidly on my phone to de-authorize the stolen laptop in iTunes and Dropbox. I try to wipe it, but it will only work if/where it’s reconnected to the internet. My mind is racing – what else was in my bag? Had I written any passwords in my notebooks that I need to change? Why didn’t I trust my gut about those guys? Where’s the nearest police station?
Right afterwards we go to the police station where a very nice man took a very detailed, hand-written testimony about what had happened, what was missing, etc. They mention there might be CCTV video on that street and will look into it. Uh-huh. Surprisingly, I did get a call from a nice sergeant the following day to ask about the incident and tell me another dept. was going to get in touch to fingerprint the car, but I never heard from them. It’s possible they called while I was out of the country, though.
Thinking back on it, I’m focusing on the positives. What if I hadn’t taken the immigration documents Naama and I had been compiling (including docs that would have been difficult to replace like birth certificates, police clearance documents, etc.) out of the bag a few days earlier? What if I had seen them opening the car when I looked back and confronted them? What if they’d broken into the car the old-fashioned way and smashed the windows? Yeah, things could’ve been much worse.
And in the end, it’s just stuff. I’m fortunate to be in a situation where I can just use my other MacBook since this one got stolen and where I don’t have to face these kind of security issues on a daily basis. Although it’s annoying, I can afford to replace everything that was taken and then some. I consider myself lucky to have had this reminder about taking security seriously here while losing very little in the bigger scheme of things.
– By Jon