Saturday, 01 August 2009

When second-hand becomes a crime

Any law that aims to reduce crime in South Africa is always welcomed by most people, but legislation passed on April 1 is set to create havoc for the county’s substantial second-hand bookstore industry - at best, introducing an administrative headache for book dealers and, at worst, resulting in the demise of the industry.

The Second-Hand Goods Act aims to reduce the trade of stolen goods, and focuses on items such as scrap metal, mobile phones, motor vehicles and parts, antique goods, household and office equipment, and, believe it or not, books.

Among other things, the Act demands that:

• Second-hand book dealers register with the South African Police Service (SAPS) and obtain a licence that is valid for five years, is not transferable and must be displayed in the shop at all times
• Second-hand bookstore owners have to be fingerprinted
• Customers who buy books valued at more than R100 will have to provide proof of identity, as well contact details such as telephone numbers and residential address
• People who sell books to dealers also have to provide their details
• Dealers are not allowed to remove stock to another location, such as their home
• New stock is not allowed to be offered for sale for seven days
• Second-hand bookstores will be subjected to inspections by the SAPS
• If stores are found not to comply with procedures, the SAPS has the right to close them down

The bill was originally drawn up in 2005, but did not get the attention of second-hand book dealers until last year, when newspapers carried reports that certain second-hand bookstores in Long Street, Cape Town had been raided by police on allegations that stolen books were being sold. Even more disturbing were subsequent reports that Long Street book-dealers continued to be harassed by the police, when the bill had not yet been signed into law.

To address the matter on behalf of the industry, the Southern African Book Dealers’ Association made a submission to the government requesting that books be removed the items targeted. The arguments behind the request included that books generally have low commercial value and are not targeted by organised crime, and that books are generally mass produced and do not carry individually identifying features. It was also pointed that the administrative burden placed on book dealers would discourage opening new stores, thus hampering the growth of the industry and possibly even closing some stores. It was also highlighted that second-hand bookstores play a huge role in providing textbooks to students at affordable prices. Textbooks are also often required by students urgently and the seven-day holding period on new stock would prove detrimental to both bookstore revenue and students.

All this was to no avail, however, as the government was adamant books would remain on the list.

Ian Balchin, head of the Southern African Book Dealers’ Association, says that from now it is a matter of entering into a consultative process with the legal services department of the SAPS. This will involve drawing up the regulations for the industry and it is hoped that the association will be able to negotiate better terms and ease the administrative burden for book dealers.

Of course, a big question is whether the police have the resources to run around checking up on South Africa’s roughly 300 second-hand bookstores.

A few second-hand book dealers I have spoken to in Johannesburg are obviously very concerned about the effects of the Act, while two smaller bookstores didn’t seem to know too much about it.

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