One of the most violent countries in the world
Tourism has been thriving in South Africa lately, with more and more people choosing the country as the place to spend their vacations.
Not all of those people are aware of the dark side of South Africa — it is one of the most violent countries in the world, with more than 50 murders committed each day. So I was looking forward to my visit to South Africa with some trepidation.
It didn’t really do my sanity any good when the couple welcoming me at Johannesburg went through some ‘dos and don’ts’ — lock your doors, lock your windows and make sure no suspicious people are nearby when you stop near a traffic light. Don’t go out by yourself when the sun is down. And don’t even think about exiting your car at night before the electric gate has closed.
My first South African experience was a bad one: I was caught accidentally skipping a stop sign while still getting used to the lay-out of our hired car. The self proclaimed policemen did not wear uniforms and did not show their identification. A heavy fine was demanded, and the policemen refused to issue a receipt or take me to their office.
A country of fences and walls
But I continued on my journey until I encountered a guesthouse in a small town to stay for the night. Iron bars were attached to the
windows of this small establishment and the whole building was surrounded by an electric fence. “24-hour armed response”, read the sign on the gate.
Not a great start, but the owner of the establishment, Mahmoud, was reasonably friendly and made me feel comfortable enough. Despite this, every noise made me shiver that night.
After a short stay, I bade Mahmoud farewell and continued my travels.
I noticed that nearly all the buildings in the entire country were surrounded by fences and walls and protected by an armed response unit. I do understand the worry; there are tales of people being raided night after night — and they were tourists too.
I arrived at my next homestay, which was — you guessed it — surrounded by a fence. This was even though it was situated inside a gated community. The owner told us not to worry: “There’s a van with armed men inside patrolling the perimeter every 30 minutes,” she said. But no bad events occurred — it was the next day when I received my first view of South Africa’s dark side.
I left the gated community with the intention to visit a local supermarket. There was a seemingly completely empty junction up ahead with traffic lights present. I took a quick glance sideways and slowed down the car. But I should have taken a more thorough glance, because when the car had come to a halt I noticed a man with a huge machine gun at the side of the road. However, luck was on my side — before the stranger had even noticed me, the lights turned green and I hit the gas.
Segregation is still largely present in South Africa
Crime is that much of a problem in South Africa that most supermarkets have guards at the exit. Every customer must be able to prove that the value of products in their basket matches the price on their receipt. No exceptions are made.
I did actually catch some attention because of the color of my skin — segregation is still largely present in South Africa. The abolition of Apartheid put an end to the official racist laws, but people still find ways to discriminate against others.
For example, I encountered just one restaurant that wasn’t run by white people and there is a checkpoint at Saint Lucia that somehow prevents a lot of black citizens from entering the area. Moreover, some areas are still called “white neighborhoods”, while others are known as “black neighborhoods”.
When I left the supermarket, I saw a policeman peeking around the corner of the building with a shotgun. Not peeking as in “let’s see if everything is okay”, but peeking as in “somebody is about to be shot”. I didn’t really want to stick around to see, so I returned to the walled and fenced safety of the homestay.
So, what’s the problem?
To understand the problem of crime and corruption in South Africa one must take a look at the underlying causes: Inequality; poverty; racism and the normalization of violence for the children being raised by gangs in townships.
The government recognizes the problem, which they say is caused by “political transition” —the breaking down of mechanisms of social control without replacing those mechanisms with credible alternatives. But they are, they say, hard at work fixing the country.
I am thankful I saw only hints of the problems ordinary South Africans deal with on a daily basis. It really is a beautiful country with beautiful people — as long as you don’t tempt fate. I would definitely recommend a visit!