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.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Gated in Johannesburg

I arrived in Johannesburg this morning for some work related stuff and some sight-seeing hopefully sandwiched in. Several people have asked me if I was scared of going, and the person who invited me and arrange my accommodation sent me a semi-reassuring email last week saying not to leave my luggage unattended at the airport and not to walk around at night by alone. But a couple of online searches on the internet at Heathrow left me feeling pretty terrified. But I have walked around Mexico City, Rio, Columbo, Mumbai and Preston city centre and coped. And actually, the airport felt very civilised - moreso than JFK at New York. The city has a smattering of tall buildings, which look like some were built in the 60s. We were driven to our guesthouse which had a very reassuring electric gate, and is in a "bohemian district". We were shown a 1-storey street of small shops and cafes which seems to make up a kind of cultural centre. After napping we decided to go out at get some breakfast.

But that's were events took a slightly surreal turn - we had been given a key fob with a button to press to make the electric gate open so we could go in and out as we pleased. But as much as we pressed it, the gate wouldn't open. The lady who seemed to be in charge of the guesthouse had vanished, and we appeared to be the only guests. Wandering around the compound felt a bit like being in the Twilight Zone, and when we tried phoning the numbers of the owners of the guesthouse we couldn't get through.

So eventually we got in touch with the guy who'd invited me and set up our booking and he lives about a 10 minute walk away so he said he'd come over. "I don't know what you expect him to do when he gets here," my fella snapped (by this point spousal relations were on shaky ground). "He might have a trick to get the gate open that we don't know about," I suggested, uselessly. So we sat watching tv with the sound turned down, waiting for him to arrive.

Finally, he appeared at the gate. And in an act which suggested experience which I have no knowledge of, he quickly pulled it open with one hand. Apparently these gates break down sometimes and have to be manually opened. By the time we got back from our coffee it had been fixed.