If we keep creating chicken thieves, it won’t be long before our South Africa moment

Author, Benjamin Rukwengye. PHOTO/FILE. 

What you need to know:

  • Mr Benjamin Rukwengye says: We must ask more of a system that pushes a man to steal a chicken. Of a system that normalizes killing a chicken thief.

This week, in Lira District, the Uganda Police rescued a young man who was on the verge of getting lynched. His crime? Stealing a chicken!

The story had me toying with a couple of theories. Was he a first timer or a repeat offender? If he was a first timer, what had pushed him beyond the edge? Lockdown? Are things as bad “in the village” as they are in Kampala? But if he was a repeat offender, that’s more evidence for the joke that our policing system is, right?

And that’s before we get to the fact that he was just about to lose his life. Think about it, a man was on the verge of losing his life, over a chicken – which averages about Shs20,000. Then there’s the mass that was swiftly dispensing “justice”.

Was it personal? Had they lost property before and decided to take it out on the young man? Is mob justice and action an admission that the justice system is anything but? Or did they have their own issues and the hapless chicken thief just happened to be low hanging fruit?

These kinds of questions rarely beget any definite answers or concrete solutions. It is a bit like wondering whether those who moan about the theft or misuse of public resources and power, do so because they haven’t had the opportunity to partake in the exploits.

What they do however, is to create the kinds of reflection which allow for connections between small daily actions and their relationship to complex social issues. Which now takes us to Mzansi, where the jailing of former President, Jacob Zuma, has thrown the country into a fresh round of looting and lawlessness.

Without going into the details of his case, it’s hard to make sense of how uBaba became president of a country that likes to project itself as first-rate. The raft of accusations and court visits spanning over close to two decades is just incredible. But seeing as the country’s visa policies are as unpalatable as they come, it’s probably best to exercise caution here – lest I have to deny that I wrote this column, some day.

That said, scenes of hundreds of people looting shops and stores, setting buildings on fire and pelting police with whatever projectile makes you think of that chicken thief and the questions he brought to mind. Is this really about Zuma? Are these guys really risking it all because they believe that someone with more than 700 counts of fraud and money laundering, who was once accused of rape, who once lost his job as vice president over allegations of corruption, has been unjustly treated?

Or do they have their own issues and now is a just a good time to “air them out”? You know, like poverty, injustice, unfair policies, unemployment, oppression, police brutality, cronyism and tribalism and colorism? Your average black South African hustles in pretty much the same way you do, because these issues are pretty synonymous with most African states. 

Inversely, tribe is also probably the closest rallying point way to access whatever morsel is available, even to the lowest-rank civilian. So, when they show up to loot white-owned stores, or as we have seen elsewhere with post-election and political violence, it is a confluence of two tragedies.

Tribesmen protesting an unceremonious exit from the table; and the wretched dealing with pent-up anger and frustration about the systemic injustice and depravation. Where there is no big man victim to rally around, the cause manifests in a chicken thief who will get clobbered to pulp.

The woke like to say that Africa isn’t a country but it’s harder to find differences – in many things – than it is to find similarities. The guys who show up to loot a high-end store probably did their internship snatching handbags. They have also likely been part of lynch-mobs, and it’s easy to argue that should an opportunity to engage in mass violence arise, they will be at the frontline. 

We must ask more of a system that pushes a man to steal a chicken. Of a system that normalizes killing a chicken thief. Because that system is probably built around the same systemic and socioeconomic failures that beget South Africa as we see it today. Otherwise, how long before the chickens come home to roost?