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SA: Crime

by Nomad Sun Oct 21st, 2007 at 06:33:50 AM EST

The moment I stepped into the kitchen and saw J. and A. sitting at the kitchen table, looking grave, I knew something was wrong. It was an ordinary Wednesday and I had been running late at the department, caught up by my writings as usual. In the house where I am renting my cottage, I am generally the one who flips off the lights and the blathering television while everyone else has already retreated within their rooms. Finding J. and A. - in her pyjamas - in the kitchen set my alarm bells ringing. My first concern was that something had happened to A. - she had only been in SA for a few weeks and I hadn't been able to fathom how streetwise she was.

Diary rescue by Migeru


Over seven months in SA, and I've seen plenty of culture shock, a considerable part which was (or is) my own. But you weather it out, you adapt and before you know it you're a custodian for a new European. C. was English, fresh out of university and South Africa was his first major foreign country. You remember those days of your first independent endeavour, your first big journey? It deserves a whole other diary to sing praise to that intoxicating, virgin journey into the unknown, setting off solo, perhaps even better than that first time of having sex. And it generally starts out equally uncomfortable and awkward. It was no different for C. .

C. was going to work for a charity and would come to valiantly thrive within an environment that deals with some pretty gruesome facets of SA. Yet the moment he got out of the plane he was literally shaking on his feet. The pressure of living in Johannesburg got to him. I can't wrong him for it; it got to me too. So we (myself and my girlfriend who was here at that time) took him out for diner, then to our house, fixed him a room and talked him through it for the next two weeks. And just when he was beginning to settle...

Two weeks and one day later C. found himself in Bree street, in the city's business district, looking for a taxi-rank. After sunset. With him, another volunteer three days fresh in SA: barely eighteen, from Germany and she was even less prepared than C.

They had managed to stack mistake upon mistake. They had brought their backpacks, were wearing their fancy European clothes, looked severely unsettled to walk around in a street where they were the only two whites while it was getting dark.

You just had to add the big fat white arrow and "Target" above their heads.

So they got jumped. Six men grabbed C., ripped open his pockets, got his phone and wallet (which contained all his bankcards and paperwork) and ran. The German volunteer saw the knife, but did not lose anything. Except for her already tattering sense of security.

Three days later her parents had bought her a plane ticket and she was flying back to Germany. Guess Johannesburg also has a bad rep in Germany. The German volunteer had been in SA for a whole of six days. C. stayed and is still around, actually has extended his stay and, making the circle complete: became a custodian for the next English volunteer. Who, BTW, was threatened by two men with a knife a week ago when she was walking back home. She rebuffed them verbally and the men scampered off.

This is Africa. It's not for sissies. And that while South Africa has the closest thing to the modern western world. If you have money you can live your life completely the gated, substituting the western way inside your bubble. Outside the walls, on the ground, reality is a little different to what I was used to in Utrecht.

Some areas are fine during the day. But you don't go in after sunset. You just don't.
Even during the day, I don't recommend to lug around with a backpack - carry your stuff in a plastic shopping bag, if you must.
If you're on the street a lot during the night, just don't bring your creditcard.
Expect that you can lose your phone. Sometimes it's the only thing opportunist robbers want - even when you've a car.
Keep on hoping that you will not run into a gang of tsotsis - because there are robbers, and then there are tsotsis. (Tsotsi = "thug" in Sesotho)
As a white, you're singled out worse, but I am near to 100% convinced this is largely a haves vs have-nots playing field.
Know the signs. Know the customs. Train your awareness. Embrace defensive style living.

So when I saw J. and A. as I came walking in that Wednesday evening, my first concern was for A. - she didn't have a car yet and she was a foreigner. J. is from SA, born and bred.

But it was J.

As a student industrial design, he had been working on his project within his room earlier that evening, when his door that leads to the garden had abruptly been swung open and two unknown men had rushed inside. Our garden, although fenced, borders a public park on the backside - allowing an easier entrance than most houses in our neighbourhood.

The men threw J. against his bookshelf, aggressively demanding valuables. J. went into berserker mode. Perhaps he had unconsciously already registered both men were (seemingly) unarmed. Perhaps it was the brazen rape of his private space. The soft-spoken, placid J. shook off his attacker, roaring like an animal, rushed screaming into the hallway, into the toilet where he locked himself in.

Realising there were more people in the house, the robbers must have dashed through our kitchen and hallway, noticing the brand new shoes of another housemate left in the hall and, taking those, fled the way they had come.

Two weeks later, our landlord had our wall of the backyard topped up with barb-wire.

But now it looks like our house holds even more valuables. For opportunist, trial-and-error robbers like those that assaulted J., this could possibly keep them at bay. For the organised, highly effective crime syndicates, it means that the "Target" sign above our house grew a bit bolder.

Crime. It's a problem in Johannesburg, and for the whole of SA. Johannesburg has an infamous reputation in the Netherlands, and apparently likewise in England and Germany. When my girlfriend came here this winter, she was cautioned genuinely that "every minute someone is killed in SA" - a claim so outrageously daft I won't lower myself to address it.

But these urban legends of places far away do set your thinking frame, your perceptions, conceptions and expectations. The trickle-down effect of correspondent journalism with a focal on the sensational.

The first time I walked on Louis Botha during daytime, one of the more colourful streets in Johannesburg, I was not afraid - but I sure was uncomfortable. I've been walking since, confronting my own discomfort time and time again. As I've moved from location to location during the months, I've been walking three different routes towards the university. I've not been robbed, nor have I suffered through an aggressive approach. In contrary, I've met an amazing variety of people, from street kids, to cab-drivers to chef-turned-hoodlum-turned-dagge-dealer. And finding out how the convoluted taxi-system operates has been a similarly bedazzling experience, one every visitor should go through at least once for that sheer bewildering first time.

The one brush with crime so far was when my girlfriend's cell-phone (with my SIM card...) got stolen in a Pick-`n-Pay supermarket in, of all places, Rosebank, the uptown shopping mall. But I am more and more bracing myself that, one day, I too will be confronted by what seems to be Johannesburg's booman.

I stick to the anecdotal this time. The things ET readers probably have been craving for all along - a breakdown of numbers, trends, documentation, links, backgrounds, an erudite analysis on causes and effects - will have to come another day.

This is a diary interruptus.

Poll
Based on what you know, living in Johannesburg appears to you:
. Abysmal 42%
. No worse than any other big city 28%
. Perfectly liveable 21%
. Even worse after having read this diary 7%

Votes: 14
Results | Other Polls
Display:
I wanted to give a breakdown of my understanding on crime statistics in this diary and interlard it with personal experiences. But once I started with the personal experiences, it seemed to develop a life of its own. I went with it.

Now its more a journal entry than one of those sophisticated ET diaries.

But I like it, and I'll stick to that defense.

The names of the persons appearing are, however, not the original names.

by Nomad on Fri Oct 12th, 2007 at 06:52:00 AM EST
Sorry to hear about all this, Nomad. But yea, that is reality for a white person with money in a poor developing city. Tough luck for us, tough luck for them too. Before I took my first trip to sub-Saharan Africa last fall, a good friend who has worked and traveled a lot in various parts of Africa, gave me the low down...whch was similar: down carry too much money, and don't go out at night (for sure alone). Crazy stuff happens, and you gotta keep your eyes open. But, certainly, that can be expected when another person is hungry or without much in possessions.

Anyway, your poll didn't have enough categories...I would say "its like any other big city, but maybe a bit worse than most".

Hope your friends are okay...and hang in there!!

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia

by whataboutbob on Fri Oct 12th, 2007 at 07:15:17 AM EST
be sorry... As you write, this is the current reality. There's really little to be sorry about.

BTW I severely dislike the commonly used label white. Or black. Or coloured. It reiterates a nineteenth century narrative of divide and conquer - one that in Africa has been abused to the extremities of human conception. Reading the SA apartheid constitution is as much drama as it is absurdity. Skin colour has so many racial connotations... But it's very hard to find or introduce a new frame in a country that's suffered through so much division. I'd rather wish people would focus on the common aspects of humanity, though...

Let me stress again, however, that the reality I've experienced here so far is that colour of skin doesn't help you at all. If you strut around well endowed, you're gonna be singled out. As far as I can tell, it's about wealth vs abject poverty. People have their cars smash-and-grabbed no matter who's driving the car. Percentage wise, there still are more luxurious cars being driven by white people - but the "black diamonds", the black (there's the word again...) middle class is still growing. And they are equally weary of being at risk.

I've been walking alone, through the night, literally dozens of times... You don't want to do it in Noord street after sunset. Or in the more obscure alleys within the Yeoville or Hillbrow neighbourhoods. But in those latter areas, hardy anyone does that.

Next time, I'll bring the numbers - the neighbourhood that had the highest reported successful robberies last year was Sandton - one of the richest areas to live in! And the only reason why I've highlighted a lot of incidents in my diary, is because I am living near Melville - the hang-out areas which draws in lots of people with money. So that area also gets targeted.

by Nomad on Fri Oct 12th, 2007 at 10:32:46 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I expect that the likelihood that a white person has valuable stuff is a lot higher than for blacks or coloured. So in that sense they make more rational targets for someone looking to steal.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Fri Oct 12th, 2007 at 10:53:30 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Heheheh.  I voted "perfectly livable," but I'm biased... ;-)

It would take hours and hours to list the SA crime stories I've got.  (And, for the record, I have no small number of horrific non-SA crime stories, too.)

OK, I'm going to preface these remarks by saying that I do realize that crime is a serious problem in South Africa, and needs to be dealt with seriously.

But here's the thing:  I hate the crime hysteria.  Hate hate hate hate it.  Cities are dangerous, Johannesburg probably more so than most, but good god, it's not actually a war zone.  It has this terrifying reputation that I think is off-the-charts bullshit.

When I moved there, one of my colleagues (who'd never been there) told me essentially that I could expect to be gang-raped within 30 seconds of stepping off the plane.  OK, maybe that's a bit of hyperbole on my part, but only a bit.

Here's one better:  Back in 2004, a friend who was living in Baghdad at the time asked me, "Aren't you afraid of living in Johannesburg?  I mean, it's so dangerous."  Uh, what?

I think its reputation has suffered from several things:  

  • the sensationalist scaremongering local press,
  • the sensationalist scaremongering international press (if I read one more quivering I-just-got-posted-to-Johannesburg-and-had-to-install-rape-gates story written in the first person by some new Western newspaper correspondent, I am going to scream),
  • a white population that was for generations insulated against the violence that the apartheid system unleashed upon the majority of the population and are now struggling to come to terms with what it means to live in an urban environment in the developing world, since they had never really considered themselves part of the developing world before,
  • the new generation of expatriate South Africans, the ones who fled for whatever reasons, be they overtly racist ones or more subtly racist ones, to live in what they expected to be "easier" and "whiter" cities abroad -- in Canada, in Australia, in New Zealand, in the UK -- only to discover how acutely they miss their homeland, and who now must justify to themselves as well as to the rest of the world why they would leave such a place out of fear.  No, it wasn't fear of a black-run government, it wasn't fear of losing our obscene privileges, it was fear of Crime, with a capital C, may I apply for asylum now?  Assholes.

One of the things that used to drive me crazy was the fact that anytime you got a group of white South Africans and/or expats of any hue together in a social situation, the conversation could reliably be predicted to fall into one of two categories:  the "crime conversation" and the "Zimbabwe conversation."  I remember sitting at a braai and noting that the group to my left was having the crime conversation and the group to my right was having the Zim conversation, and I thought right then that I maybe needed to get the hell out of there.

Hmmm.  That braai was hosted by a dear friend who has since died, not as a victim of crime but as a victim of a freak Western Cape wave.  Some people commented at the time that there was some irony in the fact that he had lived for so many years in South Africa, doggedly visiting over and over and over its most disadvantaged, crime-ridden communities with his expensive camera gear in tow, and he is not gunned down or stabbed, he does not die in a robbery or a spasm of meaningless violence... he drowned, the only violence in his death being the violent action of the Atlantic that knocked him unconscious.

But others who knew him better agreed:  He would have wanted it that way.  He hated the crime hysteria, and he would have hated to have become one of its statistics, and beyond that, a cliche:  the foreigner swallowed by the brutal country.  No, for someone who loved that battered country so well, that would have been an unbearable end.  Far better to be swallowed by the sea.

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Fri Oct 12th, 2007 at 07:42:43 AM EST
excellent comment.

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.
by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Fri Oct 12th, 2007 at 09:37:24 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Again.

You've to pardon me as I'm most likely going through these epiphanies individually and slowly slowly, taking in the news drip and finally your mind reaches the point that it says, "Now, hold on, something doesn't add up."

This:

the stormy present:


  • the sensationalist scaremongering local press,
  • the sensationalist scaremongering international press (if I read one more quivering I-just-got-posted-to-Johannesburg-and-had-to-install-rape-gates story written in the first person by some new Western newspaper correspondent, I am going to scream),
  • a white population that was for generations insulated against the violence that the apartheid system unleashed upon the majority of the population and are now struggling to come to terms with what it means to live in an urban environment in the developing world, since they had never really considered themselves part of the developing world before,

is spot on, and it needs to be the centerpiece of everything I should write next on crime. I've observed and realized all three of your observations in course of my time here. I haven't bothered with the ex-pats yet, so your last point was insightful.

The news feed, which I briefly touched upon, is the remarkable source for most of the conceptual fears of every westerner arriving here. The international news feed seems partially based on the sensational local news feed - who merrily targets foreign individuals who are also merrily to report how shocked they are finding out that, gollygosh, things work differently around here and that you can't walk around flashing your opulent blingbling wherever you want.

And so the circle repeats. Cutting through this bullshit has only been one step during the conceptual revolution I've been passing through this year.

So I made it a priority to address the crime situation first - it seems to be one of the major projections of the west (and as your Baghdad friend shows, outside of the west, too).

I don't know whether you noticed, but my previous diary was actually on the Zimbabwean crisis... So much for prejudices.

by Nomad on Fri Oct 12th, 2007 at 09:48:19 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I think there's a tacit acknowledgment of the extent to which SA's astonishing level of economic disparity and the history of disenfranchisement of the majority both contribute to the crime level in the colloquial use of the word "redistributed" to describe theft.  As in, "Ag, I woke up and realized that somebody had redistributed my car last night," or "Eish, some okes broke into my house while I was at work and redistributed my TV."

I did note your Zim diary, and I thought it was good.  The "Zim conversation" is not really the same thing as a serious discussion of what's gone wrong there.  The "Zim conversation" was more a matter of excoriating the Mbeki government for failing to, I dunno, invade or something, and it was a lot more white-farmer-centric than your diary....  I just get really tired of hearing about poor oppressed white people. :-\

Anyway, I'm certainly looking forward to your next installment.  I'm rather enjoying your conceptual revolution, thank you. :-)

And I think you have a pretty steep learning curve.  I know people who've been there for years who aren't where you are yet.  And probably never will be.

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Fri Oct 12th, 2007 at 10:36:47 AM EST
[ Parent ]
to nomad & stormy - thankfully, I had not heard any of this about SA "crime" until this article (How about that!). Good you two got to me first!

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Fri Oct 12th, 2007 at 10:38:22 AM EST
[ Parent ]
A great diary, Nomad, thanks. Ditto with Stormy's comments, much food for thought.

I've always been vaguely aware of crime rates in places like Johannesburg and other places I've travelled. I've never really attempted to put it into any context other than keeping myself as safe as possible but I wouldn't say this turns into buying into the hysteria that is perpetuated through the media.

Perhaps because I've never been subject to violence or attacks or muggings that it isn't real enough to me to make me overly worried.  I don't have any tendency to avoid places because of rumours about the crime rate.  I stick to the general rule that as a foreigner anywhere (even being in another part of my own city) I am a target, and it makes sense to minimise any opportunities to go for me.

by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Fri Oct 12th, 2007 at 12:22:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
One of the things that used to drive me crazy was the fact that anytime you got a group of white South Africans and/or expats of any hue together in a social situation, the conversation could reliably be predicted to fall into one of two categories:  the "crime conversation" and the "Zimbabwe conversation."
I'm reminded of the old (circa 1996?) joke about 'vintage South African white whine'.
by Gag Halfrunt on Fri Oct 12th, 2007 at 12:26:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]
love your writing, nomad...

write a whole book, i'd love to read it!

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Fri Oct 12th, 2007 at 10:02:24 AM EST
Thanks for the diary, hope there are more to come. :-)
by Fran (fran at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Oct 12th, 2007 at 03:43:52 PM EST
Sppechless.

the thing I like msot of barcleoan is that I cna go anywhere anytime alonw wiht people.. whatever.. ntohing.. just nothing..

that's why I also like pickpocketting of tourists... no violence involve...all style robin Hood or Mafia Hood without guns..

Great diary

A pleasure

I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact. Levi-Strauss, Claude

by kcurie on Fri Oct 12th, 2007 at 04:35:55 PM EST
Thank you, Nomad!

Our knowledge has surpassed our wisdom. -Charu Saxena.
by metavision on Sun Oct 14th, 2007 at 04:51:13 PM EST
Very interesting diary, glad you shared with us.  I was involved with issues of security and crime most of my career with fifteen years of it overseas in some of the world's worst cities for crime.  I have only passed through Jo'berg a few times but never actually spent much time on the ground there, but from what I've heard from others in my career crime is probably worse there than in many but not all cities by any means.  One just has to take reasonable precautions.

It's good you point out that street crime is not really an issue of race or color but is most often a sign of socioeconomic inequities and despair.  Victims/targets of crime are persons of any race with apparent wealth or at least objects that are wanted.

Sounds like you have a level head and a good sense of the streets.  I hope you will take the time to share your knowledge and instincts with your colleagues, especially those who may not have your skills.   Some people become traumatised when they become victims especially when away from home.  I suspect it is especially difficult for persons (or their families) who have never had to deal with feelings of personal insecurity.  Bravo to you and your coworkers for sticking it out in spite of the relative insecurity.

The American Embassy in SA posts this which includes information about criminal activity in SA/Jo'berg  I have found such assessments to be an accurate gauge of the nature and frequency of crime in a country/city, but because these warnings portray everything that "has happened" some people interpret them as "will happen to me" and that it not the case.  It should also be noted that the US State Department issues "travel warnings" for areas that are particularly worrisome and SA is not among the twenty eight countries that have current, active warnings.

I can swear there ain't no heaven but I pray there ain't no hell. _ Blood Sweat & Tears

by Gringo (stargazing camel at aoldotcom) on Sun Oct 14th, 2007 at 10:26:19 PM EST
Jo'berg

Jo'burg. Berg = mountain, Burg = castle. I noticed English-speakers mix these a lot.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sun Nov 4th, 2007 at 08:31:22 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Interestingly, in the article about the killing of the reggae star, the Indpendent cited the following crime "statistics"

According to statistics a murder takes place in South Africa every 24 seconds and a woman is raped every 21 seconds.

Which equates to 1,300,000 murders per year in S africa. which is interesting cos official govt stats say the number is less than 20,000. A 60:1 exagerration factor. Impressive !!

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Sat Oct 20th, 2007 at 09:21:37 AM EST
Incompetence on glorious display. Watching myth creation in action. It were these types of articles that got the fear in me before I came here - fear that has been completely dispelled by now.

Note that the Independent doesn't link which statistics they're using. Brilliant catch Helen; I'm going to use this for my follow-up.

I know SA has a relative high birth rate but it can't compete against 1.3 million murders, I'm sure. However, the population is still growing... How odd...

by Nomad on Mon Oct 22nd, 2007 at 05:19:19 AM EST
[ Parent ]
However, even with minutes instead of seconds, even 20,000 a year is still extremely high. That's higher than the total number of murders in the US (c. 17,000 in 2006), which has more than six times the population.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sun Nov 4th, 2007 at 08:40:28 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I think the most important thing about this diary is the idea of not making yourself a target. Here:
They had managed to stack mistake upon mistake. They had brought their backpacks, were wearing their fancy European clothes, looked severely unsettled to walk around in a street where they were the only two whites while it was getting dark.

You just had to add the big fat white arrow and "Target" above their heads.

and here:
Two weeks later, our landlord had our wall of the backyard topped up with barb-wire.

But now it looks like our house holds even more valuables. For opportunist, trial-and-error robbers like those that assaulted Josh, this could possibly keep them at bay. For the organised, highly effective crime syndicates, it means that the "Target" sign above our house grew a bit bolder.

I don't know about "don't carry a backpack", but Americans can be spotted a mile away by their JanSport or EastPack backpacks. Heck, if you're staying for any length of time, as soon as you can buy clothes and a backpack locally. Don't look the part. Don't carry visibly expensive accessories. And then, if you can't carry expensive accessories, why own expensive accessories. Walk like you belong. And regarding burglary, I am of two minds about alarms, fences and CCTV. Sure, they may deter opportunistic petty criminals and yobbish youth, but they do signal "this house contains valuable items".

We have met the enemy, and it is us — Pogo
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sun Oct 21st, 2007 at 11:22:26 AM EST
From what you say it seems that an european who stays more then a few days will almost certainly be mugged, especially if he does the things that seem so normal at home. What happens if you resist them?
by Deni on Mon Oct 22nd, 2007 at 12:56:52 PM EST
I'm not the only European that has not been mugged... There are countless volunteers/Europeans working in Johannesburg and Pretoria - including the townships. They never had a problem. Also in this diary, you're reading about the events that -did- happen, and not about the things that did -not- happen. It seems it had the opposite effect I wanted to achieve: Jozi is -not- a warzone. You can safely life here - yet crime is undeniable a major headache which constricts freedom of movement.

And to repeat myself, if one insists on maintaining the European standards, you're simply asking for trouble. There are areas in USA cities a tourist wouldn't and shouldn't go - same thing here.

I most strongly would recommend anyone not to resist the moment you get assailed by someone with a fire-arm or a group with knives. Don't resist. Hand over everything they ask. Don't look them straight in the eye. Some tsotsi gangs maraud while high on hard-drugs - it makes them unpredictable and violent. But as my diary also show, incompetent opportunists can be rebuffed and over-bluffed if you just know what to do when. Hence the distinction between opportunist robbers and tsotsis.

Lucky Dube was shot most likely because he resisted his hijackers. (The police already made the arrests of the likely perpetrators, so at least there's a spark of light...)

by Nomad on Mon Oct 22nd, 2007 at 06:17:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]


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