Sunday, December 27, 2009

December 26, 2009 - State of Fear

There is one thing that represents South Africa to me. It isn't a giraffe drinking at a watering hole or a herd of elephant walking up a river bank. It isn't majestic, misty mountains or vast sweeps of savanna. It isn't rolling fields of sugar cane or groves of citrus trees. It isn't tasty curried snacks named after small rabbits. It is key rings.

Everyone here seems to have a key ring bulging with keys and plastic tags labeling what each key is for. Each set of keys has a remote attached for opening the gate to their driveway. Security, personal and home, is a religion here.

This country, so like the US, New Zealand, Australia and Canada in many ways, is markedly different due to its high crime rate and resultant fear. There are an average of 38 domestic robberies, 50 murders, and 200 sexual assaults every day in South Africa. Although the murder rate here is declining, it is still 8 times higher than in the United States for a population 1/6th the size. The crime here is particularly brutal; there are an unusually high number of rapes, hijackings and armed robberies. The violent nature of crime here has created an entire society living in fear, from its poorest members to its richest. It has also spawned an huge industry meant to assuage that fear.

From the moment we got here, we were issued dire warnings about where we could or couldn't walk or drive. We heard stories about how the bar/ restaurant overlooking the marina, which just happens to be located downstairs from the police station, was held up two nights in a row when it first opened. We determined that we wouldn't let such warnings and stories keep us from enjoying ourselves here. The only concessions we've been willing to make have been to lock the car doors as we drive around and to be circumspect in breaking out our camera in public.

Fear is pervasive. South Africans that we have come to know inquire whether we've had an "incident-free visit." On parting we've repeatedly been wished a "crime-free stay" in their country. After six weeks here we find ourselves becoming more fear-based in our thinking. Living with fear is exhausting.

We've traveled around a good chunk of the eastern part of this country over the past six weeks. During that time we slept behind a lot of barred windows and negotiated a lot of security systems. We even slept behind a locked metal security gate securing us from the rest of the locked and barred house. But we hadn't seen anything yet.

Driving into the tony suburb of Kloof, to spend Christmas Day with friends, we were astounded to have to drive through three security check points to get onto their street. At the bottom of their drive, we pressed the speaker button to announce ourselves and wait for the gate to roll open.

We were greeted by our friends in the the driveway and led into the house through an entrance replete with a metal gate and a wooden door. As I divested our chilly bin of our contributions of wine and shrimp dip to the feast, the centerpiece of which was lamb roasted on a spit and beaten with branches of rosemary soaked in olive oil, I noticed a gun leaning against the wall in the corner of the kitchen. Later Sten would be shown the safe room, where the rest of the munitions are kept behind a door that would make any bank vault proud.

Mid-afternoon the weather turned cold and misty, so I went out to the car to get some long pants. But first I had to figure out how to unlock the iron gate covering the front door, which had been closed and locked after we arrived. Criminals have learned that it is easier to enter homes when people are at home, as doors are usually unlocked. So homeowners have responded by locking themselves in during the day as well as after dark. At night armed guards patrol wealthy neighborhoods like this one, protecting homes with electronic security systems and cameras. In townships and poorer neighborhoods, gangs of vigilantes protect streets where police fear to tread.

Nobody here trusts that the police or the government will protect them. All over this country, people are taking steps to protect themselves and their property. The new president of the country has condoned vigilante justice by saying that people can not be "blamed if they take the law into their own hands." What is so interesting to us is that this is one of the most policed places we've ever been. Every tenth vehicle on the road seems to be a police car. By international standards, South Africa has an adequate police force to protect its population. However, in comparison to the number of violent crimes that occur in the country, the force is understaffed and underfunded.

This is a beautiful country. The people are friendly. The landscape is spectacular. We are privileged to have had the opportunity to explore it. However, we couldn't live here. We couldn't live in fear, behind walls covered in razor wire. We can understand why so many South Africans with the means to do so have emigrated.

The morning after Christmas, as we sat in our rental car, prepared to back down the driveway of our hosts' home in Kloof, our host noticed that our back windows were rolled down. Before he opened the gate to let us out, he bid us farewell and said "You'll want to roll those up. This is Africa after all."

1 comment:

Steyn Fullard said...

Good Afternoon Danika and Sten. Wow...this is the first time that I came across your blog and I'm blown away. Seriously, is this what you guys do for a living?

Anyway, thank you very much for mentioning our Wine Estate. We're glad you had a nice experience. I will definitely be following this blog from now on.

Kind Regards,
Steyn Fullard
Marketing Manager
Weltevrede Wine Estate