Armed robbery is, by definition, something which happens to other people.
Or so I had believed.
The error in my understanding of the words was brought home to me with outstanding clarity at a few minutes after seven o'clock last Saturday morning, as I walked into my office in Pinetown to attend to the month-end cashing-up and balancing.
Offering a cheery "Sawabona, Mngani" to the kind (but unknown) black gentleman who held open for me the front door of the establishment, I sallied within, waving generally at the three people gathered around the till on the main counter. I had not, at that time, even registered two others lying stretched out, face down upon the floor by the reception area, with their hands above their heads.
I suppose I should immediately have realised that all was not as well as it could have been, but my thoughts were elsewhere, and, as I have stated, I was under the impression that armed robbery was something that happens (even in South Africa) to other people.
It did not occur to me that anything was seriously amiss even when I noticed that one of the black gentlemen by the till was holding a nine millimetre pistol in his hand, and that the weapon was pointing unerringly in my direction. I think that in my innocent and carefree confusion, I may have assumed him to be a security guard.
I was rudely relieved of my foolish misapprehension when the gentleman with the pistol barked, in English, "GET DOWN ! LOOK AT THE GROUND, OR I WILL BLOW YOUR HEAD OFF !"
Even then I was slow to comprehend, and glanced at Brian (our front office Sales Manager), in confused askance.
Comprehension then struck me in a flash.
For Brian -- the only white man in the group -- was whiter than I would have believed possible, and his eyes resembled inverted soup bowls.
"DON'T LOOK AT US, OR I WILL KILL YOU !" Screamed the man with the gun, as I was shoved from behind by the kind gentleman by whom the door had been held open.
I fell forward, and, in the prone position, began studiously to examine the tiling which covers our front office floor, as the full gravity of our situation began to dawn upon me. I do not actually remember feeling frightened at that instant: everything had happened so fast and unexpectedly. I could hear shouting from the direction of our offices at the rear of the building, and the sound of running feet.
The blissfully fearless moment soon passed, regrettably, when I felt a rough hand upon the collar of my jacket, and something very cold and extremely hard being forced behind my right ear.
"Where is your gun?" demanded the voice from behind and above me, menacingly.
"I am not carrying a gun ... " I stammered: fortunately -- upon this occasion -- truthfully.
Rough hands confirmed the fact, then reached into the back pocket of my trousers and relieved me of my wallet. My watch was stripped roughly from my left wrist.
"Give me your keys and cell phone !" commanded the same unseen voice.
They were still in my right hand, and I complied with no spoken objection.
Everything again became a little confused thereafter; the floor tiles had lost their fascination, and I closed my eyes tightly. The unknown volunteer doorman had, fortunately, released me (presumably in order to attend to his other duties), and numbly, I listened to what was happening around me.
Someone was demanding the safe keys, and I heard a yelp from a voice that I recognised as Brian's (although of a much higher pitched tenor than was normal).
"I am not the boss! I do not have any keys !" A squeaky Brian again.
"Who is the boss?"
Of the fact that Brian had indicated me, I was in no doubt when I received a kick in the ribs ... Brian, you chicken bastard!
Almost immediately, another voice demanded, from directly above me. "THE SAFE KEYS ! WHERE ARE THE SAFE KEYS ?"
"My business partner has them !" I mumbled.
... Brown, you chicken bastard!
More (or possibly the same) rough hands confirmed that I had no additional keys about my person, and the same (or a different boot) administered its owner's departing displeasure at having to continue in his quest.
There was a short period of silence, broken only by some shuffling and a few muted whispers, then I heard the front door open again, and another barked command.
"GET DOWN ON THE FLOOR ! SHUT YOUR EYES !"
Another body flopped down next to mine, and guiltily, I sensed a small feeling of relief at no longer being alone upon the cold stone tiles at the front of the shop.
When departing footsteps and returning silence indicated the cessation of the search of our new guest, I opened one eye the barest fraction and swivelled it to identify my new colleague in adversity.
I recognised him immediately as one of our regular customers. " 'Morning Alec." I whispered, almost inaudibly.
"Fock!" Came an equally muted reply, in the familiar Scottish accent.
I could not have expressed our situation any better and there seeming to be nothing more, worthwhile, to be said upon the subject: we reverted to 'eyes-shut' silence.
Shortly thereafter, I heard more hurried footsteps, and the tentative voice of my business partner, George, informing one of our unseen assailants that the safe was located in the small office behind our telephone switchboard and reception area.
"LOOK DOWN ... !" Commanded an altogether more authoritative voice " ... IF ANYBODY PUSHES A PANIC BUTTON, WE WILL KILL YOU ALL !"
From a purely personal point of view, I may assure you that -- even had I been in a position to do so -- any such action would have been the very furthest thing from my mind at that particular time.
I heard more shuffling, and the clang of the safe closing, then footsteps towards the front door.
"I will stay here until the others have escaped ... " said an harsh voice " ... and I will bulala the first person who opens his eyes or moves!" The speaker was clearly well educated, and spoke good English, although with that distinctive Zulu twang.
I had no reason to doubt the veracity of his statement, or indeed that his education had probably extended to the competent use of firearms. In consequence, I continued assiduously to play dead for many minutes after I heard I heard a car start, and depart in a seemingly unhurried manner.
Alec was the first to move.
"Fokkers 'ave gone, fock 'em !" He informed us.
They had, indeed, departed. The whole incident could not have lasted more than about ten minutes.
Slowly, we all stood and looked dazedly about us and at each other.
We had all lost watches, wallets, keys, sunglasses, cash and dignity: but fortunately, were all relatively unharmed: physically.
Normality only returned when Alec farted, and enquired, sensibly, "Roit, where's the fokkin' whiskey?"
We actually became quite jovial after the requested elixir had been produced and distributed -- and the police had been telephoned; mutually congratulating ourselves upon our fortunate escape.
But I did notice that the odd hand (including my own) was shaking a little, until after the first couple of mugs-full of Scottish relaxant.
As it turned out, even the company had not done too badly.
The robbers escaped with the previous day's cash takings of about twelve thousand Rands (which had still been in the till), together with a pile of old invoices that had been securely padlocked in a bulky canvas bank bag which resided -- as a precaution against any such possible misfortune -- in the safe. The serious cash was, as always, in a cracked old toilet cistern that has lain, carelessly for the last couple of years, upon the top of the cupboard in the shareholders' toilet, which leads off our office.
In addition, Brian lost his car (it was recovered, only slightly damaged, by the police in Clairmont Township on Sunday morning) and his prized running shoes (which have not yet been recovered, but which we shall replace).
I have learned three valuable lessons from my experience of last Saturday morning.
Firstly: that carrying a firearm whilst engaged in one's normal daily business, would be a pointless -- and almost certainly dangerous -- exercise. I shall, most certainly, desist entirely from the practice, forthwith.
Secondly: that anybody may, at any time, be subjected to violent crime.
And thirdly: that one should never throw away dusty and cracked old toilet cisterns.
'Sawabona, Mngani' (Zulu) - "Good Morning, friend"
Bulala (Zulu) - kill
Fock (Scottish) - Fuck
Author's post script:
Although I have treated the incident with a certain degree of levity, such was NOT the manner in which it was experienced last Saturday morning, and George and I are truly grateful that none of our staff or customers (or, indeed, ourselves) was seriously hurt. - KK
Originally appeared 2006-07-10