The Cashgate saga ought to give us time to reflect on why some people steal when others, apparently in similar circumstances, do not. When an epidemic has ascended on a community, it is not enough just to find a cure; we must also discover the causes and try to eradicate these causes.
Similarly, with the Cashgate episode: It is not enough to try suspects and punish those convicted; we must answer the question why these people stole public funds on such a grand scale. Apart from erecting structures for detecting this kind of crime, we must try to understand the characters and mentalities of the miscreants.
In ancient civilisation or absence of civilisations people believed that habitual thieves were possessed by evil spirits or the devil. Medicines were administered on them to exorcise the supposed devil; sometimes such people were just executed to prevent them from passing on the evil spirits to others.
Psychologists have identified certain individuals as suffering from a defect called kleptomania. This is the urge to steal when there is no need for that person to steal.
I remember an incident during my schooldays at Loudon Station, South Mzimba. At our boarding school, one or two boys regularly stole maize from the school garden even after we had ample meals.
One of them who was about four years older than I had a girlfriend in a village about four miles from the mission. She invited him to pay her a visit at her home so that her parents could see their future (nkhwenyana) to be son-in-law. That student, whose name I will call Robert ,asked me to accompany him on the visit one Saturday. I was 15 and he was about 19. The disparity in age meant I was a mere escort not a companion.
His fiancée received us into a clean nthanganeni, or girl’s dormitory. After putting on the mat a plate with maize meal and a chicken stew, the girl said help yourself and walked out.
As we were eating ,Robert looked around and noticed a skin of multi-coloured threads. He ripped the bundle apart and pocketed some of the threads and then put the bundle back where he had picked. I was quite surprised what he was going to do with those threads since male borders never practiced embroidery. This was just the example of kleptomania, the urge to steal. When we returned to the mission, I did not see him making use of his loot.
Some people steal to save themselves from a desperate situation such as starvation or illness. Whenever there is widespread unemployment in the country, theft because of hunger or poverty increases. But even in situations like these, some people do not steal.
Many years ago, I remembered reading about an unemployed African-American in one of the cities I cannot recall the name. One evening while he was returning from a fruitless search for a job, he came across a bag lying on a deserted street. He picked it up and discovered it contained thousands of banknotes. He stood still and stunned. He turned the bag around and found the address of the company which owned that property. He went there and delivered the bag. The manager, naturally very grateful, offered the man a job immediately as a security guard, over and above cash prize. When a journalist asked him why he had not taken all the money since he was not likely to earn as much in many years to come, the man said: “I could not bring all such money to my home and look my wife and children in the face.”
Yet in Cashgate saga, we read of junior servants having kept millions of kwacha in the house with the full knowledge of their family members.
Some do-gooders like to say employees steal from their employers’ money because they are underpaid, pay them adequately and they will stop stealing. This is an oversimplification of the facts. There are employers whom you can never satisfy no matter how much you increase their pay. By habit, they always spend more than they earn, not because of need but to flaunt their wealth.
After over-spending, they first borrow from friends. But there comes a time when they fail to repay what they owe and alienate friends. But the urge to spend such on alcohol by this time has become irresistible and they stretch forth their arms towards their master’s money. Next time you open the pages of a newspapers you see their photographs under a heading ‘Wanted so and so’.
How can we reduce incidents of theft? Preaching from the pulpit, civil education from makeshift platforms have been tried with doubtful results. What is left is law enforcement by the police and courts.
In some societies, theft and robbery are much less prevalent than in others. Is this because the levels of punishment differ? Is theft rare in those countries where they amputate arms of the convicted than in those where they imprison such people?
There is ample evidence that adequate retribution reduce cases of theft in society. The punishment need not be sanguinary. But it must be severe enough to deter would-be-thief.
We are told those who are homosexuals by natural inclination should be tolerated not punished. What about those who suffer from kleptomania, who even when you throw them into jail will steal again when released?