A recent petty petrol theft brought home the reality of South Africans' damaging desire to look good at all costs.
As day-to-day South African crime goes, the December 27 incident at a Durban petrol station, where a driver in a new Mercedes-Benz coupe drove off without paying for R980 worth of fuel was pretty small potatoes.
Fortunately, these days, virtually all service stations have CCTV cameras, so it was clear the petrol attendants had been cheated. In days before surveillance footage, they would have been held accountable for that loss.
The unregistered Merc was, clearly, newly purchased, because it had no number plates.
It’s common practice for people to buy cars late in the year and drive them around on “garage” plates before registering them in the new year – as that model-year vehicle.
Clearly, though, the fuel thief planned to pull off the heist because they had removed the garage plates, which are generally stuck in the rear window.
What made this incident stand out for me was not the callous nature of this casual theft, it was the fact that someone driving such an expensive vehicle – which shouts “look at me! I’m loaded!” – couldn’t afford the fuel.
The driver wasn’t concerned about the possible impact on the luckless attendants.
Maybe the driver was a senior civil servant, tenderpreneur or even well-paid private company employee … so stealing came naturally.
However, the incident also reminded me of the South African desire to look good at all costs.
I’ve seen expensive new cars trundling along well below the speed limit because – it seems to me, anyway – the owner didn’t take the cost of fuel into account when he bought the car.
I also hear from colleagues about people who live in rooms in backyards but still drive swanky cars. Or sit on plastic chairs in their bare apartments while fancy wheels sparkle under the carport downstairs.
My son, out visiting from Amsterdam, was astounded at the “keeping up with the Joneses” culture, which is quintessentially middle-class South African.
He doesn’t own a car – and, to be honest, doesn’t need to in Europe, where public transport is ubiquitous – and cannot understand the rush people have to get themselves into serious debt to acquire an object which loses 20% of its value the moment they drive it off the showroom floor.
As someone whose job is in finance, he shook his head at our interest rates. Even a juicy 10% on a hire purchase agreement on a R400,000 car is R40,000 a year, which goes in interest only, without repaying the principal sum borrowed.
Factor in insurance, and such a car costs you R6,000 a month before you even take it out of the garage, never mind the rest of the repayments.
On Twitter a few days ago, consumer journalist Wendy Knowler was, correctly, giving the thumbs up to someone who had put off buying a new car for years because there were always other priorities for her money.
Years ago, when we looked at the house we now live in, I was ashamed of my five-year-old VW Jetta among the BMWs and double cabs. Yet, we were the ones who made the real offer which got the house because, clearly, the others were living beyond their means. (We kept that Jetta for another 21 years.)
The car I currently drive is 16 years old, my wife’s is a 2015 model. They’re both paid off. They’re not flashy, but the fuel in their tanks is paid for.
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