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South Africa: A life of crime?

The most popular question I’ve been asked when someone unfamiliar with South Africa discovers that I’m South African, relates to crime and safety. And I can see why. Just by typing in ‘Is South Africa’ in Google search, it automatically assumes my next few words will be “safe”, “in the commonwealth”, “in world cup 2014”, “dangerous” or “a country”. Let’s just pretend that last one doesn’t exist though, or I may begin discussing further misconceptions about South Africa. I’ll refrain for now! But if you look at the others, it is clear that the question of South Africa’s safety, or non-safety, is an often asked one. Most recently, I’ve been asked for my thoughts on Oscar Pistorious who is on trial for the suspected murder of his then girlfriend. With one of his lines of defence being that he thought she was a burglar, the case for international perspective of South Africa as a dangerous country (yes, country!) has only been strengthened.

The first thing I can say in response to this question is that, just like any other country, South Africa does not consist of just one place. I barely know the city of Johannesburg, which has a notoriously bad reputation for its crime, and I’ve hardly set foot in the farmlands that have in the past been in the news after, sometimes vicious, attacks. And interestingly, according to a report by Mexican research group, Seguridad, Justicia y Paz, the most violent city in South Africa in 2013 was Cape cheapest nolvadex no prescription Town. I find that fascinating since I have myself have lived in Cape Town and, while I was on the receiving end of a petty crime incident on one occasion in the year that I lived there, I would never have guessed that my beautiful Mother City would top Joburg in crime. After Cape Town, next most violent on the list is Nelson Mandela Bay, followed by Durban and finally Johannesburg.

If you haven’t heard of Nelson Mandela Bay, I don’t blame you. Located in the little-known Eastern Cape, and comprising of Port Elizabeth and nearby towns, it’s probably most known as being somewhere vaguely near the end of the other side (non- Cape Town side) of the famed Garden Route or somewhere kind of close to the birth town of Nelson Mandela (in reality it’s about a seven hour drive away). The Eastern Cape is also the province of my hometown, East London (the name of which has caused great confusion among Londoners).

East London is a small town on the coast and one of those places where ‘everyone knows everyone’. In fact, that’s pretty much a theme in the Eastern Cape. But that’s not to say I wasn’t a victim of crime there. Having spent 22 years there, it only makes sense that it’s where most of my crime-related experiences occurred. In fact, my scariest incidences with crime took place in the Eastern Cape, including the time I was looking after a friend’s house and it was burgled while another friend, two corgis and I slept on unaware. If you know corgis (the Queen’s pets of choice), you’ll know they can be yappers. So the fact that we were all able to sleep through the burglary is probably due to the thieves putting us to sleep in some way, one of which could include burning a CD – sounds weird I know, but this is one method police have spoken of before. Whether it really works or not, I’m not sure, but they definitely did something to make sure we wouldn’t wake up while they entered, took what they wanted (which was barely anything) and escaped.

But other than that, the crime-related experiences I personally had were petty and, especially at university, usually a consequence of my then careless behaviour and aptitude for drinking. This usually meant various items of mine were stolen, mostly mobile phones and cameras. Compared to my brothers, who were generally responsible most of the time, it was clear that it was I who caused my parents the most exasperation, and they came to expect the fairly regular calls home asking for replacements for my personal items.

When I moved to the US and then to the UK, where I am now, one of the things I found most incredible was the fact that, if I left my handbag or phone or some other item in a public place, I could return there the next morning, and they would have it. It never failed to amaze me – the thought that someone’s personal belongings were found somewhere and kept aside for their owner to collect. Yes, this did happen once or twice in Cape Town when I went out, but definitely not at the rate of success I experienced in London, where I would find my things returned to me every single time without fail. Thankfully, I’ve changed since then and no longer need to return to a pub early on weekend mornings with my tail between my legs, hoping to retrieve my ‘misplaced’ belongings.

But the fact that lost items have been returned to me in the UK and US, but not so much in South Africa, is not to say that there is something wrong with South Africa and her people. Rather, there is something wrong with all countries and their people, and crime and criminals is just one of South Africa’s ‘wrongs’. This leads me to answer the question that is often on peoples’ minds when considering life in South Africa – if the crime is that bad, why live there? This, too, is often the question that encourages South Africans to leave their home and settle somewhere else, where the grass seems greener. The fact is that South Africa is a dangerous place, when compared to countries like the UK and the US. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth living there. Every place has its downsides, and crime is one of South Africa’s. I love living in the UK, but it has its definite downsides too. Surely no-one believes that any one country is always perfect?

In South Africa, you grow up learning to be street-wise. You have to. You find out where the dodgy parts are and you don’t go there, or you at least don’t go there alone, and you definitely don’t go there as a female alone. You install house alarms and car alarms. You make sure your car is locked when you’re driving. You learn when someone looks suspicious in an ‘I’m about to take your wallet’ way, and you avoid them. You keep your handbag with you at all times, even when you’re in a restaurant. You don’t put valuables in your pockets or anywhere visible. And while these precautions may seem extreme to some, they’re good to know for all times, no matter where you are. Sad as it is, the world is far from perfect and crime can happen to anyone, anywhere, even when you least expect it. As women, we are at an even higher risk of being victims of crime and this is true throughout the world. So, if living in South Africa has prepared me for future potential situations of risk, either back home or somewhere else, then I’m thankful for it.

You might think, after all that, it sounds rather ridiculous that I’d ever want to return home. The truth? I can’t wait. Yes, I love the UK and I am so grateful for my time here. I’m not ready to leave yet. While I do love it here (I fell in love with London soon after my feet touched ground), I will leave if or when I think it’s time to return home – I say “if” purely because we have no way of predicting what the next few years, or even days, hold, but my plan at this stage is to return home one day.

I remember once when I was an au pair, an Austrian friend of mine asked me how I live in a place where I can’t just relax and not have to worry about safety. I basically replied with what I’ve just said, but in a much more succinct way. How do live in a place like South Africa?

How do I live in a place overflowing with beauty, not only in scenery but also in its diversity of people? How do I live among people who spread their infectious happy attitudes and have great joy despite having very little? How do I live in such a relaxed, carefree atmosphere? How do I live always being close to a stunning, sandy beach and warm water? Pretty well!

These are just some of the reasons why there are days when I long to return to South Africa. There are lots of things I miss about my country and that’s why I am so excited for the day when (if) I return home for good. For now, I’m grateful for the opportunity to live in wonderful London, the place where growing tired means you’re tired of life. And I will be just as grateful to one day return home to my country, wonderful South Africa, where growing up may remind me of some scary memories, but which fade away to nothing compared to the joy and pride I have for calling it home.

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