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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Letter from South Africa

Globe and Mail Update
Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2003
From the Field
Nolen Stephanie


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Johannesburg, South Africa — "Stop Being Afraid." A confident graffiti artist has gone after the Stop signs in my new neighbourhood in Johannesburg, adding in the "Being Afraid" for a neat command. It's a nice idea, but it's going to take more than a spray-paint command to dislodge the fear that is a consuming preoccupation, indeed an industry, in these parts.

Johannesburg has the dubious distinction of being the city with the highest crime rate in the country with the world's highest crime rate. There are 15 murders a day in Gauteng, the district that is home to the city — compared with 60 in a year in greater Toronto. Where most daily newspapers run a list of interesting news tidbits on page 2, the Jo'burg Star carries a column of crimes, each more horrific than the last, that leaves me slack jawed over my tea each morning. "Boy, 10, raped, killed," the paper told me yesterday. "Mother, Gogo, Daughter Raped by Gang." [Gogo is the ubiquitous Zulu word for granny, and a favourite of the headline writers]. "Gang Rapes Blind Gogo." "Nine Police Officers Shot on Duty Last Night."

It all takes a bit of getting used to. When my new insurance broker came to assess the house, I showed off the electric fence, the 12-foot perimeter wall, the armed response unit, the fancy eight-eye alarm system and the panic button like a proud new mother. The broker was not impressed. He took one look around, nudged the French doors to the verandah with the toe of his boot and muttered, "No bars. No rape gates. Dunno if I can insure you."

I hated the idea of barring up my lovely, airy new house, but I sought the advice of South African friends. Everyone has their story here — the time the home invaders smashed in the front wall, the time they sawed through the rape gates. (The bluntly-named rape gate is a large steel contraption soldered onto the bedroom doorway, on the principle that when the inevitable invaders come, they can make off with your stereo but not get to you.) The time they bypassed the electric fence and the searchlights to rappel through the roof. The stories are always about "They", no other description of the bad guys. The lack of details somehow makes the stories even scarier.

The advice of my friends was to take every possible safety precaution, and then just stop thinking about it. So I called up Ivo, a fellow recommended for installing window bars. But when he came the next morning, he didn't have time to measure the windows. "Got to go to a rush job," he said laconically. "Over the other side of town -- last night, the family was sleeping, the kid, five years old, hears a noise, gets up, the burglars snatch him when he's wandering into Mum and Dad's room. Mum hears the kid screaming, runs out, the burglars stab her with a screwdriver. Dad hears her screaming, runs out with a gun, shoots one of them dead -- the swine." At that point, the father was in jail, the mother was in hospital, and Ivo had to go round and put bars on their windows, a rush if possibly belated job.

By the time he'd finished, I was ready to have him encase the whole house in sheet metal. But the next morning, I was feeling calmer, and made light of my Canadian-in-Joburg panic to a taxi driver. He barely let me finish before launching into his story: his father was shot seven times in the chest by a would-be carjacker in their driveway, his brother ran out and shot the fleeing assailant, his brother went to jail, his father died, and his wife, who as in the car at the time, emigrated to Australia. So much for my new sanguinity.

The question for a reporter, of course, is why the level of violent crime is so high. Just as everyone has a story, everyone here has a theory — but even Charles Nqakula, the Minister of Safety and Security, admitted this week that he has no real answer. The disparity between rich and poor is part of it — South Africa's is the worst in the world. And the legacy of apartheid is still a strong factor. Much of the previous police service was implicated in apartheid-era crimes; people say the African National Congress government did not move nearly quickly enough to train new police officers. Organized crime has moved into the vacuum in a big way. The South African Police Service was quick to point out, releasing new crime statistics last week, that the murder rate is down by 31 per cent from 1994, when the country was coming out of a civil war, and down 1.7 per cent from last year. (Attempted murder, however, is up 37 per cent from last year; not much comfort in that statistic.)

And while burglar bars and rape gates and alarm systems are a preoccupation of middle-class South Africans, the truth is that the vast majority of violent crimes are carried out in the black townships, in areas dominated by gangs and still badly under-policed. The great bulk of the murders reported last year occurred in the crowded, desperately poor squatter settlements that house rural migrants, or in drug-ravaged down-town neighbourhoods that white South Africans have told me urgently I must avoid at all costs.

Me, I think will order some tasteful white iron bars for the bedroom door, and then I will stop reading Page 2, and do my best to follow the spray-painted advice: it's time to stop being afraid.

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Why did the magician's inquiry get nowhere? Too much smoke and mirrors. Jerry Kitich, Hamilton, Ont.