Siege from Within: Day and Night in Johannesburg
I was driving through an area of Johannesburg that, a week earlier, had burned during riots, when I realized I had a flat tire and I wondered if I should get out and fix it. The fear that grew in my breast as I debated my options made me realize that in many ways South Africa is under siege, a nation at war with itself, and everyone is a victim.
I'm not referring to the recent bout of xenophobia; that is directed at foreigners from countries like Zimbabwe. And I don't mean black/white hostilities, as in the apartheid era. There is still residual racism on both sides in the country, but that is sadly to be expected after so many years of institutional racism.
Today the war is about personal security, and the issue is crime. Depending on whom you talk to, Johannesburg has the first or second highest crime rate in the world. The rest of South Africa is not far behind.
Nearly every South African, black or white, has a mugging story to share. Here are some told to me on this trip:
"I was accosted at knife point by a man who took my wallet."
"My garage has been broken in to four times in the last month."
"I awoke one night to hear sounds coming from my daughter's bedroom. I stepped into the hallway and a stranger stepped out of her bedroom. Fortunately my daughter was visiting a friend that night, and they only took a few things."
"My daughter was accosted at gun point. She handed over her purse immediately, but even then the man shot her in the stomach. Fortunately, she survived."
That little word fortunately alludes to the fact that some victims are not so fortunate.
The sense of insecurity is visually reinforced everywhere you go. Middle and upper class homes are surrounded by walls, topped with barbed wire or pointed metal spikes. Homes and shops that are not enclosed have iron bars across the windows, and iron gates that protect the doors. Billboards in some neighborhoods shout "Criminals Beware!" warning them off by proclaiming special police or private security protection. (It doesn't seem to help. I am staying at a bed and breakfast not far from such a sign. All the same, this B&B has not had Internet access for weeks because thieves have stolen the cable running to the house three times in the last few months. The copper in the cable is worth the risk to them.)
Guidebooks and locals give lots of advice about how to keep oneself safer (there is no talk of avoiding crime altogether):
- Do not walk around outside after sunset, anywhere.
- Carry money in your front pocket.
- Do not leave packages or purses sitting on the back seat of your car. When you are stopped at a stoplight, someone might break your window, reach in, and grab the item.
- When you come to a stoplight behind another car, leave enough space in front of you in case you have to make a quick getaway from an assailant.
- Keep alert. Scan ahead as you walk for potential signs of trouble.
- Did I mention not going outside at night?
It's that last rule that has been impressed upon me the most. I expected when I drove around at night that there would be roving gangs of men ready to assault my car at every intersection! Not at all, because the warning applies to all black, white, men, women so that there are very few people out at night, although a fair number of people do still drive
If, during the apartheid era, the government had imposed a curfew that so limited movement after dark, it would be considered a most repressive law. But the criminals of South Africa have essentially imposed such a curfew, and everyone seems to accept it as normal.