There’ll be lots to say here and on the radio about South Africa and race, and race and religion, and religion and sexuality, and sexuality and HIV/AIDS. (I’m acutely aware that even a five-week trip to a country offers only the skimpiest opportunity to grapple with subjects like these. If I can avoid the worst kind of superficiality and over-simplification even in the service of simply told stories, I’ll be relieved.)
But for now, a few thoughts on public safety in Johannesburg. It’s a strange thing—this isn’t a war zone, not remotely, nor is it a place engulfed in violent political turmoil (fellow Fellows are handling that kind of thing). But a low note of threat hums underneath everything here, even in the fancy-schmancy hipster suburb of Melville where I’m staying. I have a room at a small B&B favored by journalists and academics passing through the city and, while it’s thoroughly pleasant, it sets the tone. Locked external door. High walls. Bars on all windows. Security guard outside until 11pm. There’s a pizza joint on the other side of the road, seemingly deposited there so as to remove any need for guests to walk alone at night in search of grub.
At dinner with friends of friends a couple nights ago I was treated to The Briefing, a quick chat outlining standard operating procedures for living in this city. Get your keys ready in advance of arriving at your door. Don’t walk alone in the dark, even in this neighborhood. I was served a cautionary tale, a horror story about a visiting American PhD whose car was stolen soon after he arrived in Johannesburg, and not long before he was thwacked over the back of his head with a handgun and mugged. So don’t go wandering. Gas stations and banks are places of refuge, if you need one.
The Briefing was tempered by the lived experience of my hosts: this suburb isn’t so bad, actually. You’ll be fine during the day, especially in this or that direction. But habits of self-preservation develop. On arriving home by car, one doesn’t hesitate to drive around the block an extra time if you see a guy loitering nearby. If there’s a group of guys together—and there’s no woman with them—best cross to the other side.
This is all sound advice, and I’m not foolhardy enough to ignore it. But it’s made me wonder that if you’re not careful—or, perhaps, if you’re too careful—you could find yourself interacting with precisely no-one outside your sphere of work or friends, bar a trip to the Pick and Pay supermarket or a local restaurant. The fear is real, the threat is avoided and so the fear is not countered but re-enforced. Not a desperately insightful thought, but one that matters when you remember that the guys we’re talking about, when we’re talking about the fear of street crime in Johannesburg, are black guys.
That’s not to say that crime here is an exclusively black problem any more than HIV/AIDS in Africa is an exclusively black disease (although, one local academic tells me, you could be forgiven for believing that given the reach of most AIDS research here.) White South Africans commit crimes and white South Africans live with HIV/AIDS. But the threat and fear of crime in Johannesburg, expressed to me by whites and blacks alike, just can’t be divorced from the country’s extraordinarily complicated racial politics (like, er, duh). Seventeen years after Mandela’s election to the South African presidency, most blacks remain disenfranchised and disillusioned, a small black middle class and a smaller black elite notwithstanding. The much-vaunted Rainbow Nation exists, I’m repeatedly told, only at times of national—and that generally means sporting—unity. Right now the Springboks are trampling all comers in the Rugby World Cup (pity poor Namibia today), and so the Bokke green and gold is worn by black and white and Indian and colored alike (the last two both standard racial distinctions in South Africa).
But many white South Africans choose to support the Boks from abroad, emigrating to countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK. In a play I saw last night at Jo’burg’s Market Theatre, Death of a Colonialist, a white history teacher berates his adult children for doing exactly that. His kids argue that they left because it simply wasn’t safe to stay. And the teacher replies that for things like that to change, South Africa will need all its children to pitch in together and lend a hand. What are the chances? And, when you think about it—emigration apart—is the United States so very different?
A few more interviews between now and Sunday. Then overland to Swaziland on a minibus promisingly named the TransMagnific.
Alex Gallafent is reporting from South Africa and Swaziland on a Fellowship from the International Reporting Project (IRP).