The ‘Price’ of Panty Theft

They never shoulda gave you Negroes malls OR independence!

They never shoulda gave you Negroes malls OR independence!

Are you all fired up? Good. Then we can begin.

A story that is quickly eclipsing all others in Ghanaian news this week centers around three girls, a few bagful’s of panties, and human rights abuse in Ghana. The “facts” have been hard to decipher, since everyone with a smart device or PC has managed to put their own spin on it, but what is clear is that there was a theft and public humiliation afterward.

When I first got wind of this video, it was accompanied by a message that Ghana police were stretching their powers in making the three young women (allegedly Legon University students) crawl on all fours from Shoprite to the exit doors of the mall. As it turns out, neither Ghana police nor Shoprite had anything to do with the incident: it was the management and security personnel from Mr. Price, the South Africa based retail company that are the orchestrators of this miscarriage of justice.

The incident has truly knocked at the conscience of thinking Ghanaian society, particularly those who identify as ‘middle class’. If this sort of treatment can be meted out at an establishment like the Accra Mall – the symbol of upwardly mobile society and pulse of the city – then one has to wonder if any of us is safe in any establishment.

Thieves are routinely abused in Africa. That’s always been the case. I was seven when I saw my first mob attack. A young boy – he may have been 16 – had stolen a shirt that was hanging on a drying line. I was living with my grandmother in some flats at Asylum Down. In the midst of the caked, black earth, a throng of people came out of nowhere after the boy had been caught. They hurled insults at him, bloodied his face, kicked and beat him until a tall man in blue rescued him and locked him up in a ‘volcanizer’ shop. I don’t know what happened to him afterward, but that vision stuck with me. My cousin said he got off easy.

“In Teshie, we burn thieves with car tires,” she said simply. She was 10 years old. Burning people for theft was normal.

People are deeply polarized when it comes to how these girls were treated. Some say they got exactly what they deserved. Others say they even got off way to easily. Others still are appalled. I say we should all be disconcerted, and for good reason. There is no doubt that what these young women did was wrong. They cannot be excused for stealing. However, because anyone who has ever owned a business or baked a biscuit knows that people DO steal, we set programs and policies in place to cover that vice. That’s why retail store have loss prevention departments.

What Actually Happened

Unaware that there are security cameras all over the store, the girls were captured in the act, marched up to the front registers, and made to pay for their items. There are reports that they were made to kneel on the floor of the store premises before made to crawl out of the store by mall security. They were then jeered at and taunted by the (overwhelmingly male) crowd. The whole affair is sickening, but the worst has to be when a man reaches down to jab his finger between one of girls’ exposed butt crack. Their humiliation and molestation complete, they were eventually let out of the mall into the night.


What Should Have Happened

Every retail chain has a policy on how to handle theft. Some work hand in glove with law enforcement and have police on the premises to arrest perpetrators immediately. Others have loss prevention personnel on site with powers to detain thieves until they are arrested, made to pay a fine, or locked up in lieu of payment. Other retailers literally give thieves a pass, hoping that “good customer service” will encourage thieves to put down their stolen items and either leave the store or pay for them. Are we then to understand that Mr. Price’s policy is to compel thieves to pay – which would then mean they are paying customers, not thieves – and then force their customer to crawl through the floors of the enterprise on all fours? I truly hope they will release a statement clarifying their policy.

What is Our Role as a Society?  

When I saw the video, I saw a horde of Black men abusing three defenseless Black women. That’s what I saw. I sent a tweet, saying that I “hate feeling ashamed of Ghanaian men.” The gender police were quick to jump on pieces of my tweet.

Women were in the crowd too!

Women should have spoken up and intervened for these girls!

Are we now saying it is only men who bear responsibility in these instances?

And my favorite: Malaka should not feel ashamed of Ghanaian men. Judging the whole for the actions of a few is not fair.

Anyone who knows me (or vaguely thinks they know me because they read this blog) knows that I am a big supporter of Black men – on and off the continent – whether they be accomplished or have the potential for accomplishment. I praise them when they’ve earned it, and when they’ve disappointed me, I let them know. It seems to me to be a balanced approach; until the Thought Police insinuated otherwise.  There are some brothers and sisters may deride me for saying this, but I have absolutely no problem with a man leading…but you better freaking well give me something to follow. Ghanaian men in general continuously harangue about their role as “men” (a loaded noun on its own), as the heads of “this or that”, as “God-appointed leaders” because God made man first, and made woman from man (a point that is rehashed at virtually every wedding ceremony), and do this with such consistency that most of society not only accepts this, but believes this. But part of leading is protecting, and even more than that, deeply considering what true leadership is.

So if I as a woman am supposed to abdicate my role as a potential leader in order to make space for your presumed gender-based leadership, does that then require that I sit aside and allow abuse to unfurl in my presence even when its meted out against someone of my own sex? The presence of the women who also did nothing to stop this atrocity says yes.

Let’s face it. Women in Ghana are scared to speak up. We are raised to be silent, and when we do speak, we must choose our words carefully so that we say the “right thing”. Those that do buck the trend (of the Ursula Owusu  order) are called all manner of names. Still, that hasn’t stopped these women from speaking up against gender based violence, nor should it.

There have been some who have asked if the security guards would have been as quick to force a group of high school/university boys to crawl on the floor as they did these women. No one can answer that question definitively. What if it had been an old lady and her husband caught stealing? What if the thieves had been a group of White women? What about if they had been a trio of Lebanese men? Does the treatment you receive in our consumer establishments –whether you are in engaging in dishonest enterprise or not – hang so much on your race, class and gender at the time?  Does one’s privilege protect you from certain types of treatment and furthermore, liberate you to intervene (or not) in the face of another person’s mistreatment?

The bottom line is we all have a duty to protect one another, because we’re human beings, and because it’s right. Our first reaction in grotesque instances like these should not be to whip out a camera and hope that YOUR version of the video goes viral. To do anything else reduces our society to the lowest denominator of barbarism. If we as a Ghanaian society are going to adopt Western comforts, ideals and amenities like malls, independence from colonial rule and camera phones, we’d better be prepared to adopt the rules and norms therein.


What are your thoughts? Did Mr. Price’s personnel behave appropriately? Should specific cultural norms take precedent over corporate values in these instances? Discuss!