Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Safety in South Africa

Undoubtedly the biggest concern most people have about traveling in South Africa is the security situation. South Africa has one of the highest rape and murder rates in the world, and everyone has heard the stories of daylight car-jacking on the streets of Johannesburg. After the safe and friendly countries of Central Asia, Lara and I were more than a little intimidated at the thoughts of spending every waking moment in fear of our lives.

The reality of course is far different than what you read in the media. In most ways the South African security situation is every bit as bad as it has been made out to be. Even here in Cape Town, arguably one of the safest parts of the whole country, most people live behind electric fences and alarm systems. At night the streets are strangely silent. There are a few streets where there is active night-life; security is provided by dozens of police in reflective yellow jackets. But you go there and back in a taxi, even if you live nearby. Many people won't even drive there because they would have to park in the surrounding neighborhoods and walk back to their cars in the dark.

South Africans we talk to are no more reassuring. We were warned to keep the doors of our car locked, to not go hiking alone, and to stay away from quiet streets, even in daylight. It seems everyone has a story of being robbed at gun-point or carjacked. One woman we talked to had been raped; a masked man grabbed her as she put he keys in the front door of her own house in a good neighborhood.

Yet, although we are constantly aware, these things somehow fade into the background. People still go about their lives. We still go walking downtown in the daytime. We still go to the video store after dinner. We still go hiking in the mountains. We are alert, but we do not live in constant fear.

But that is not to say that there is no impact. It is strangely oppressive to sit in our apartment at night, looking down on the city six stories below and feeling afraid to walk in the streets. After the open friendliness of the people of Central Asia it saddens us to be on constant alert, aware that anyone who comes up to talk to us may be a distraction for a bag snatcher or a pick-pocket. South Africa is a beautiful country that is well worth visiting. Most tourists have little to fear from the security situation; hotels, parks, and other tourist hot spots generally have good security. Yet I don't know that I could live here, imprisoned in my own house by an electric fence, and feeling a small joint of fear every time somebody walks past my car at an intersection.

No comments: