Crime in South Africa - life behind burglar bars
Returning home with mixed feelings
It’s strange to come back after many years of absence. Bruce was born and bred in South Africa during the Apartheid era, when crime was virtually unknown. I spent three of the happiest years of my life here in the late 80’s, in an unprotected house, all by myself. Now crime is rampant and people live in their own private jailhouses. Burglar bars are one of the many measures to keep the safety in and the burglars out. This is the way our friends and family live. “You will get used to it”, they say. Is this the price of freedom?
We pull up to the house. Open sesame. Somebody opens the gate from the inside with remote control. We quickly sneak in just in time before the gate closes shut.
We park the car next to a massive garden wall with electrified wire on top.
Calvin the blood hound greets us with a happy grin. I don’t know what to think, normally dogs scare the hell out of me, even little ones. Calvin slobbers all over me. I am white and therefore a friend. If I had a black skin, I wouldn’t feel so safe. A racist dog? Weird. There are a few exceptions, like the garden boy or the maid, two part-time employees. Calvin won’t bother them. Unlike the robber who got chased by the police through the neighbourhood and somehow ended up in Sonja’s kitchen. The unwelcome intruder didn’t have much of a chance and Calvin grabbed him by the leg until the police arrived. They nearly had to amputate the limb to separate the dog from the criminal.
Sonja opens the burglar bar guarding the main entrance. Every door of the house has got one of these and they get locked and unlocked 100 times a day. Better safe than sorry. We are given our own set of keys, one for this door and one for that one. And here you have the remote control for the gate. Never forget to lock it.
We are shown to our room. The windows are covered with burglar bars as well. We have to get used to this.
Let’s go for a drive. Nobody walks anywhere, it’s safer to be locked up inside a car. We open the gate and drive out. Our mind is already on the beautiful beach and of course we forget to lock the gate behind us. The resulting blame we get from our hosts doesn’t help much. The same night the neighbourhood watch patrol rings the doorbell. How did they get in? “We just wanted to let you know that your gate is wide open”, the man says in a stern voice. Oops...
The shopping mall is full of people, all potential criminals. That they like to hang around close to the ATM machine is pretty obvious. How to withdraw money without getting robbed or even killed? I will cover Bruce while he is getting the loot. My eagle eyes are scanning the whole neighbourhood. Nobody bothers us and we walk back to the car very briskly, in full alert. Sonja watches the whole scene from afar and laughs. “Don’t give everybody such a dirty look, they are just shoppers”. We feel embarrassed but it will take us a couple of weeks to relax.
We go for a hike up table mountain with a few friends. It’s safer in a group. There have been robberies but the situation seems to have improved since the police set up a mountain patrol unit. Mike shows us his latest purchase, a taser. If anybody comes too close he will get zapped.
On the way to visit Bruce’s parents we decide to buy a cake. What better place than the popular Compass Bakery factory shop. We are surprised to be greeted by a security guard who shoves us through a metal detector. We burst out laughing, this is beyond absurd! The kind of entrance you would expect at an airport but certainly not a bakery.
We stay in South Africa for a month and travel extensively. Once we get used to the safety precautions and relax we love every minute. South Africa is still one of the most beautiful countries in the world and we will come back some time soon. For now we are happy to return to our home in Nova Scotia where we can enjoy unobstructed views without walls and burglar bars. The weather may not be as good and as warm as in South Africa but you get used to it. That’s the price we pay for our kind of freedom.
Update June 2012: Things seem to have improved
We went back 2 years later, in April 2012 and found that South Africa had become a lot cleaner and more secure. The police presence was noticeable, especially in areas frequented by tourists. On a hike along Table Mountain we even encountered two policemen on offroad bikes. For the first time in years we felt safe walking around. Everywhere there were town employees picking up garbage. Nowadays, South Africa must be one of the cleanest countries on earth. Even though we were not supporters of the Soccer World Championship 2010, we felt that this event has made a huge and lasting improvement on the safety and cleanliness of South Africa and tremendously improved the countries infrastructure. We would recommend South Africa as one of the top travel destinations worldwide.
Unfortunately, as far as crime goes, not much has changed for the average South African. The bulk of the population still lives behind burglar bars. In a country where millionaires mansions and slums are only a few miles apart, defense systems have become a vital part of survival.