Sunday, April 26, 2009

The honesty shop

About 80 kilometers beyond Laingsburg in the heart of the Klein Swartberge and close to the Gamtoosdam there is an amazing little shop. It contains all kind of local products from preserved jams and fruit rolls to hand made articles like handbags and purses. For the tired traveller there is also the usual stock of coke and chocolates, but they are not the main items. These are all locally produced. However what makes the little shop particularly unique is not its local features, but its name and the special ethos it represents. It is called the honesty shop. Which means that there are no shop attendants, nobody to serve or look after you, nobody to check that you have paid. It is up to the customers to make their choice, check the price and then to leave the correct amount in a bottle put out for that purpose on one of the tables.

Many years ago while visiting Vienna in Austria I came upon a similar custom. There you could buy some of the city’s main newspapers on the street without anyone attending or checking. As at the Gamtoosdam you could take the magazine of your choice and then leave the right amount in an attached container. Apparently there are other cities and places in the world where the same principle is applied. The wonderful thing is that in all these places honesty appears to be a way of life, a spontaneous act, a honoured tradition. People don’t even think about or consider the possibility of cheating or stealing. They just do what is right and asked for.

While visiting the honesty shop at the Gamtoosdam some other visitors remarked that it is only the remoteness of the place and the fact that criminals don’t usually go there, which makes such an experiment possible. Perhaps this is true, but then still it remains a brave and extraordinary venture, especially in a country where we have come to expect the opposite. For me the honesty shop at Gamtoosdam, however small and obscure, today represents a tremendous sign of hope. While it remains a monument to courage and trust, it is also an appeal to seek and express the very best that is in all of us. In fact after taking the items of my choice I had this strange inclination to leave behind more than the asked price. And I was certainly not the only one. It truly shows us what faith and a little trust in our neighbour can do.

Carel Anthonissen

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