South Africa – Second Cultural Report

As mentioned in the mathematical report, South Africa is very much affected by crime. This is reflected in anything from the burglar bars in all windows to the omnipresent fences and walls around houses and compounds. You have to pass through a security check each and every time you’re visiting someone who’s living in a gated community. In case people aren’t living in gated communities with private security, they live in houses surrounded by double barb wire electrical fencing and hire their own security, which more often than not consists of armed guards with big dogs. Only the poorest people can’t afford this kind of security measures, and sadly, insurance is consequently much more expensive for them than for the people within the security gates, and yet the poorest are quite often so poor that getting robbed will ruin them completely.

All people tell stories about being victims of some sort of crime, either robbery or carjacking, which is very common, too. I, myself, was robbed (allegedly) at gun point the last time I was in South Africa, in December 2006. I had lost my way and found myself in a  part of Johannesburg where you shouldn’t walk around alone, and was stopped by 3 – 4 black kids, claiming they had guns and wanting “my money, not my life”. They made off with my 200 rand and my cell phone, at 10 am, in broad day light. I learned not to take crime lightly and haven’t been exposed to any more crime, because I learned to accept the limitations on my freedom of movement.

As a rule of thumb, you shouldn’t walk anywhere, but always go by car or taxi. However, you can’t just stop any taxi at the street because there’s a considerable risk that it’s a scam and you’ll never arrive where you were going, but actually end up somewhere without your valuables. You cannot just stop and ask for directions as you risk finding yourself at gunpoint if you open your window. You can’t walk around a township alone, and also most CBD’s are not safe, though city councils in a lot of places have installed security cameras. The police isn’t of much use, an example is that I never managed to report the robbery that I was suffered, simply because they never picked up the phone though I called more than 30 times.

South Africa is a very paranoid country, which undoubtedly has consequences for innocent people from time to time. For instance so many people feign a car accident and hijack the car of those who stop to help them that you’re simply told not to stop if you see a car accident. The fear of contracting HIV means that you’re told never to perform first aid on a bleeding person without protective rubber gloves and security glasses. You cannot pick up hitch hikers either, out of fear they’re going to point a gun at you and take your car as soon as you let them in.

You lock the doors of your car as soon as the sun sets, and in the dark you only stop at red lights is there’s traffic going in the other direction, in which case you must keep in eye at your rear view and side mirrors to spot possible carjackers hiding along the road. Normally, people will feel slightly panicky about stopping at red light if somebody has stopped right next to them, because they fear the people in the other car will open the door and jump out and carjack them.

Everywhere you’ll find people earning a living by watching your car when it’s parked, as it will most likely no longer be there or will be less some vital parts when you return if you just leave it without somebody watching over it. You won’t find a lot of shopping streets like you do in a lot of European cities, but there’s an abundance of shopping centres with guarded car parks and security personnel. All of these takes a tip of 2 – 3 rand, but that’s well worth paying for being able to park your car and go shopping and go back and but your groceries in your boot, even when it’s dark, without fear of robbers.

There’s a lot of guns around, and in at least 2 – 3 news broadcast a week, there’s something about people who were shot and killed by robbers breaking in while they were at home. There’s a high tendency of privatising public services such as the minibuses (which for some reason are called taxis in South Africa), which leads to a lot of shoot-outs  as the competing companies are fighting over the right to run the various routes. This is broadcasted about every 2 weeks.

It’s a very widespread point of view that capital punishment should be reinstated. Actually, the amount of violent robberies have increased since the fall of the Apartheid regime, and the poor people have become more poor in spite of the fact that the economy as such is growing. There’s about 6 rapes an hour, and in a lot of cases the victims are very small children, sometimes even less than a year of age, which is probably to do with the myth that you can cure AIDS by having sex with a virgin.

AIDS is another omnipresent aspect of life in South Africa, and the amount of myths about it is unfathomably large. The government doesn’t seem too willing to admit that HIV should be treated with medicine, and the echoes of the scandal when the minister of health, Tshabalala-Msimang, said it could be treated with garlic, beet root and lemon are still reverberating. She was admitted to hospital with a liver condition some months ago, and the vice-minister of health was fired for participating in an international conference on HIV and AIDS in Spain, which the ANC didn’t allow her to participate in.

Of the almost 6 million HIV positive South Africans, less than one percent receive their ARV’s from the government, the rest will either not receive any treatment at all or get it from NGO clinics such as Medecins Sans Frontieres, which means that they’re always at risk of having their treatment cancelled because the NGO in question will discontinue their project in that particular neighbourhood. At the same time people are not really sure how it’s transferred, and women are at risk of being beaten up if they demand safe sex. In terms of HIV-infection, being single is much safer than being married, which is the case in most of sub-Saharan Africa.

Maybe in order to counterbalance all the sad aspects of life, most South Africans that I have met are seemingly happy people who laugh easily and always are ready to celebrate something. There’s a flipside to this, as people tend to get excessively drunk and drive under the influence of alcohol when they’re going home. It’s always hard to decide whether to go with them to the next bar (our local at the CSIR campus closes at midnight or around 1 am) and in a lot of situations I have decided that it wasn’t safe and stayed at home. You’re better off staying in the places that you know and feel safe at, or by only exploring a little bit at a time so you don’t end up in a completely strange neighbourhood, and if you can ignore the claustrophobic aspects of this, you can easily live a rather normal life in South Africa.