Sunday, November 17, 2013

Indications of a violent society

My week in Johannesburg continued to be slightly weird.

In my everyday life, since I left school, I've only ever encountered violence through tv, film and computer games. Most of it is clearly fictionalised and there's often a very moral element behind it, with bad guys getting punished. But in South Africa, violence feels more real and closer to you. The houses are hidden behind thick walls and electric gates, topped off with electrified wire or spikes. Regularly you hear dogs barking in gardens or see security guards patrolling the streets. The people who live in Johannesburg are very serious about security. "The price of inequality" said one of my friends who was with me.

The reminders of violence continue when you talk to the people who live there, who often have pretty awful stories to tell, even if things haven't happened to them personally. One day we walked round a botanical gardens, noting the "no guns" signs everywhere. Such a sign would be infeasible in the UK, and while it was reassuring to know that someone had designated the park as a "no gun" zone, the fact the sign was necessary at all made me feel much less reassured. And there didn't seem to be a way of enforcing the policy in any case.

And on passing an open door in the guesthouse I was staying I heard this telling snippet of conversation from the unseen man inside: "The thing you have to remember is not to point the gun at anyone's face..."

We had been advised not to walk around by ourselves, particularly at night, and as we were staying out in a suburb we needed to get taxis into town or to tourist destinations. Except it didn't prove as easy as just phoning a taxi because more often than not they didn't come. Sunday ended up being a wasted day as we couldn't get a taxi to take us anywhere AND the electric gates broke again so we couldn't get out anyway.

Maybe it was our accents or international phone number that caused the taxis not to appear but we were advised to get someone else to phone a taxi for us, so in order to go anywhere you had to go through two levels of assistance. And for someone who's not used to that, it felt annoying. Because of that, on a few occasions we walked back to our hotel from the street of restaurants nearby. Most of it was well lit, but the tree-lined side street we were staying on was very quiet and as it was on the edge of a built-up area, was adjunct to undeveloped land. On a couple of occasions as we approached our guesthouse there were figures in the distance, hanging around, which caused us to increase our pace and breathing.

On Friday night, as we walked back, I was saying to my fella "Oh, I think the warnings about crime and danger are exaggerated here," and just then we heard a woman screaming and running towards us, followed by a couple of men who stopped and turned round when they saw us. The woman, who was understandably very upset, told us that the two men had just attacked her, tried to strangle her and grab her handbag. We helped her to get her to safety but if there was something to hammer the point home, that was it.

It could be a paradise. And I hope one day it is.

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