Saturday, June 6, 2009

Shelter from the storm.

“You live in South Africa? Wow. Do you feel safe? Isn’t it really dangerous?”

The majority of entries on this blog have to do with my students, school and – to a lesser extent – observations on life in Cape Town. A very small percentage are on the topic of violence and issues of safety, ironic as this is usually the first topic of discussion people broach with me when I tell them I live in South Africa and work in a township.

Granted, I have (touch wood), been very fortunate when it comes to my personal safety and experiences of violence since moving here almost a year and a half ago. I do have friends though – very close friends – who have themselves been victims of violence in Cape Town, ranging from being pickpocketed to having their homes and cars broken into to being held up at gunpoint to getting hijacked while they were behind the wheel. These people just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. They weren’t making themselves targets, they weren’t being overly risky. It just happened. It is the threat of random violence and crime that is perhaps most real for the average person living in Cape Town.

One cannot however ignore the fact that violence and crime happen all the time, everywhere, constantly. Not just in Cape Town, not just in South Africa, not just in poor countries. People of all walks of life are victim to violence, perpetrators are often similarly diverse. So why then, do people always think of crime and violence when they hear the words South Africa and township? Surely there are other things about this country and communities that are more deserving of recognition?

Well I suppose the statistics don’t help. ( Johannesburg is often called the murder capital of the Southern Hemisphere, and those who are familiar with townships often evoke images of shacks, squalor and desperation when thinking of these centres of population. Not that any of this is necessarily incorrect. Johannesburg is consistently rated as one of the most dangerous cities in the world based on rates of murder and violent crimes, and in townships you will indeed find shacks, squalor and desperation.

But how does this affect the everyday person living in Cape Town? How has it affected my life as a temporary resident? Well for starters, Cape Town isn’t Joburg. Statistically speaking, there is far less reported crime in the Mother City than in the country’s economic capital. But then, there are also many more people living there than here.

A good married couple friend of mine recently had their house broken into in Cape Town. We had all been out for dinner when the husband got a phone call from the security guard informing him that he had caught an intruder literally red handed – laptops, jewellery and passports in hand. The husband left dinner to attend to the matter and soon after we took the wife home to see what was going on. When we arrived, the intruder was being forced to kneel, hands behind his head, facing the wall. Who knows how long he had been that way. One of the security guards was standing directly behind him, a knee in the guy’s back. If the guy moved an inch, the security guard yelled at him and pushed him forward with his knee. 2 laptops, an xbox, 2 external hard drives, a myriad of jewellery and an assortment of colognes and perfumes were among the loot that was found on the guy when they apprehended him. Based on where my friend had her jewellery hidden and how much of the house he had covered, they estimated that he had been in the house for close to half an hour when they found him.

The police arrived about 45 minutes later. First came two black police officers who took an inventory of the goods that had almost been stolen and talked to the homeowners. A white officer arrived about half an hour later. Gruff, hostile and abrupt, he spoke to the other officers as though they were underlings. I did not like this man. After about an hour all of the officers prepared to leave. They cuffed the intruder who was still kneeling outside facing the wall (and had by now been doing so for the better part of two hours). Once they had cuffed him they ordered him to stand up. As he slowly eased back since undoubtedly his knees and legs were numb, the white officer lost his temper and yanked the guy into a standing position by his handcuffed hands behind his back, dislocating the screaming man’s shoulders in the process. Human arms are not designed to move this way. I felt ill. One can only imagine what happened to this man once he was in police custody.

I am not empathizing with criminals of course, and this is surely due to a Western (humanitarian?) upbringing which generally forces me to first consider circumstance before passing judgement. Regardless, I had great difficulty seeing the guy being treated this way.

I couldn’t help thinking that my friends were surprisingly calm about the whole break-in episode. Had it been my home that had been broken into and ransacked, the feeling of violation and I suppose fear that I imagine I would have felt would not have been palatable. But they were calm. When I spoke to the wife she told me that in the big picture, this wasn’t a big deal. Even if the things had been taken, they were just that – things. She then told me a story of a friend of hers who lives in Johannesburg. Her friend’s husband she said, concerned about the safety of his family and pregnant wife, had installed some security measures that my friend thought completely over the top. They included a metal wall that could lock off the top half of the house from the bottom half, and a bullet-proof saferoom. These seemingly overly cautious precautions ended up saving their lives when armed men broke into their home in the middle of the day and shot at the husband as he dove into the safe room where his pregnant wife was already waiting. When the baby was born (premature), because of the shock and excess of adrenaline that had been released into the mothers system during this experience, it was riddled with birth defects and died a few days later.

Based on knowledge of this experience then, it is not surprising that my friends’ reaction to their break-in was so subdued.

In recent weeks following the break-in at my friends home, my housemates and I too, have had a couple of scares though admittedly far tamer than any of the aforementioned. About a week ago I was at home alone and getting ready to go out. As Catherine’s room is the only room with a proper full length mirror, I went from my room at the back of the house to hers at the front. As I switched on the light in her room I heard a loud rustling sound and a quick movement behind the curtains. I froze. After what seemed like an eternity I crept into her room towards the curtain. When I pulled it aside there was nothing there but her window was open. I found this strange as Catherine is generally quite diligent about locking her window, but assumed she must have forgotten and wrote off the experience to a cheeky cat. After greeting me when she came home a few hours later, the first thing Catherine asked me was if I knew why her window was open. Apparently she distinctly remembered closing it as rain was forecasted. A survey of her room found her bicycle helmet which she religiously keeps on her bike’s handlebars, sitting on her windowsill. This meant that it had been a person responsible for the noise and movement I had heard, and that this person had unlocked Catherine’s window and been unable to pull the helmet through the bars on the window. Despite knowing that the person could not have gotten into the house because of the bars, this was still disturbing given that I had been in the house at the time.

Three nights ago my other housemate Suzanne was at home alone sitting on her bed reading. Her window was open when she was startled by a sound on the front porch. She moved aside her curtain only to be greeted with a man, no older than 20, staring her right in the face from the other side of the window. She screamed in surprise and he did not move. After staring her down for a few moments he then casually made his way down our front steps and climbed over the wall separating our house from the sidewalk (we have a front gate).

Although nothing actually ‘happened’ in either of these incidents, it has made us more wary and aware of our wellbeing. Noises on the roof that I have always thought to be (and almost certainly are), cats, now make me jump. I triple check that doors and windows and that my car is locked whereas before I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. These minor lifestyle adjustments pale however in comparison to the fear that so many of my students live with every day. These kids are robbed, assaulted, stabbed, raped…on a daily basis. Even the walk home can be treacherous. Driving one of my students home the other day, he kept thanking me for doing so as to walk home at that time of day he said, was dangerous. Gangsters would rob you if they knew you had even R5. It was 4:30pm and the sun was just beginning to take its first steps in its decent across the sky.

So what does all this mean? Who knows. Do I feel safe? For the most part I do. Do I take unnecessary risks? Not if I can help it. Do I live in fear or am I overly cautious? Definitely not. Violence can and will happen at random and to anyone. It may happen here more than the average town, but most of the time I don’t feel any less safe than I have on the streets of my hometown, which in part due to its low crime rate, has been voted one of the best places in the world to live. (

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