Pickpockets in Durban, South Africa

Mdubuzi, a pickpocket in Durban, South Africa, stole a wallet from a woman watching a car race. Bob stole it from Mdubuzi and returned it to the victim.
Mdubuzi, a pickpocket in Durban, South Africa, stole a wallet from a woman watching a car race. Bob stole it from Mdubuzi and returned it to the victim.

“We do what you do,” Bob told the poker-faced pickpocket. “Same job.”

Looking at his blank expression, it wasn’t clear that he understood. Perhaps he didn’t speak English. If he did understand, his mind must have been racing. What could be worse for a pickpocket than being confronted by a stranger? Even one who claims to be a colleague.

“Here, I’ll show you.” Bob put his hand on the young man’s shoulder, dipped into the man’s pants pocket, and extracted a woman’s wallet—the same one we’d just watched—and filmed—the pickpocket snag from someone’s handbag.

Bob opened the wallet. There was no money in it. The pickpocket watched in stunned silence as Bob turned away with it.

“Excuse me, madam. Is this yours?” Bob offered the empty wallet to the victim who still stood just a few yards away, engaged in the spectacle she’d come to witness. The woman accepted the wallet gratefully, but puzzled. She hadn’t realized it was missing.

“You see?” Bob asked, returning to the pickpocket. “Same job. You understand?”

“I understand.” the young man said. Clearly, he didn’t know what was coming. Best to say little, he seemed to think. Speak only when questioned.

It was our first visit to Durban in many years. The climate had changed drastically since the abolishment of apartheid and the switch in governments. Violent crime in South Africa was frighteningly high now, to the extent that the U.S. State Department, as well as Britain’s and Australia’s governments, recommended that business travelers to the country employ armed bodyguards.

Visitors were warned to stay in their hotels after dark and use extreme caution at all times.

Mdubuzi uses stealth to steal from women's purses, his forte.
Mdubuzi uses stealth to steal from women's purses, his forte.

It was a warm spring Sunday when Bob and I landed in Durban’s city center. We had intended to wander through the outdoor market when our attention was drawn to a huge crowd on the edge of Central Park. Though we couldn’t see beyond the spectators, roaring engines soon informed us that they were watching car races. We hung back a bit and studied the rapt audience.

“Watch those three,” Bob said, and I followed his eyes. “Watch their body language.”

Within two minutes of our arrival, our eyes were fixed on a trio of suspicious characters. These three did not strain to look over or between the heads of the crowd. They seemed to be as interested in car races as Bob and I were. Instead, they looked at the backs of the spectators. They lingered and loitered a few minutes, then moved on and looked for new opportunities among new backsides.

Engines roared and tires squealed. Loudspeakers blared some exciting results. One of the young men had a plastic shopping bag in his hand; as in fact, many people did. But his bag was folded flat in half twice, which gave it a bit of firmness. It could have contained a greeting card, or a small pad of paper. On closer inspection, I noticed the red advertising copy printed on the bag was worn off to the point of illegibility. The folded bag must have been held in a sweaty grip for hours.

Three pickpockets surround a woman spectator at a car race.
Three pickpockets surround a woman spectator at a car race.

The three men positioned themselves around a woman whose purse stuck out behind her. One man moved in on each side of the woman, blocking her purse from the views of anyone to her sides. The third man slowly crowded into the woman from behind, stretching his neck as if trying to watch the race. Slowly, slowly, his left hand raised the flattened bag to the purse, where his right hand crept up to meet it. Then, with the plastic bag as a shield and his right hand poised above the purse, he gave the woman a little jostle. A gentle, natural jostle, appropriate for a tightly crowded audience engrossed in vicarious thrills. His skinny elbow raised and lowered then, and Bob and I caught a quick glimpse of brown leather before it was folded into the flattened bag and plunged into the thief’s deep pants pocket.

Excerpt from Travel Advisory: How to Avoid Thefts, Cons, and Street Scams
Chapter Five: Rip-offs: Introducing… The Opportunist

© Copyright 2008-2010 Bambi Vincent. All rights reserved.

More from Bambi Vincent

Street crime in St. Petersburg, Russia

Prowling and preying with impunity, the pickpocket pair cared little about hiding...
Read More

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *