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.