The Bible and self-help books favoured by South African thieves

From Johannesburg to Cape Town, 'huge problem' of book theft crosses all race and class boundaries

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Book stores in South Africa are increasingly being targeted by thieves, with the Holy Bible topping their list of targets.

"I remember buying ten copies of the King James Bible," Michael Gumbi, manager of Book Galore in Johannesburg, told the South African Sunday Times. "They were all gone three days after I had put them on the shelf."

The paper says the bible is "stolen more often than almost any other book in South Africa".

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Senior pastor Stephen Zondo said the increase in bible theft could be a result of churches no longer being able to afford free copies for their congregations. "I'm against any kind of theft but if this means that there's a need, then spiritual leaders need to cater for that need," he said.

Book theft crosses all race, age and gender boundaries, said Gumbi. One woman in her 40s tried to leave his shop with four books written by the spiritual healer Diane Cooper hidden beneath her poncho. "Oops! I had forgotten I took them," she said when he confronted her at the door.

He said some thieves operated on their own, while other worked in syndicates. "They operate mainly on busy days when the staff will be all over, helping customers." His staff also have to deal with "the free-readers", he says – people who treat the shop as a library, borrowing books, taking them home and then "quietly" returning them.

"Book theft in this country is a huge problem for everyone involved in this industry," said Annamarie Goosen, manager at the Library and Information Association of South Africa.

An employee at a Johannesburg branch of Exclusive Books, South Africa's largest book chain, revealed that criminals there had a penchant for self-help books, volumes on local politics and business titles. Nelson Mandela's autobiography, the Long Walk to Freedom, and Steve Biko's I Write What I Like are other notable favourites among thieves.

Andrea Schmidt, the owner of specialist German book store in Cape Town, recalled how thieves stole a pile of South African history books that had been translated into German – and then attempted to sell them back to her.

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