I’ve been noticing lately what frightening levels of anxiety permeate ordinary life in South Africa.
It started with the new house. New sounds, new routes, new patterns to daily life. New doors, with new keys. I haven’t lived on my own since about 2007. Granted, now there’s me and Kolya, but in a way that makes for an even warier experience when you’re opening the door and stepping into an empty house, or listening to peculiar creaks and clatters at night.
The new move necessitated scouring the new house for vulnerable security points. Rewiring alarms, new security gates, beams for the garden, learning to set a particular alarm configuration for when we’re at home, and another for when we’re out. Thinking through what I’d do if there were an intruder during the day; what I’d do if the alarm activates while we’re at home.
There’s a price to all this, of course. Aside from the call-out cost of ADT’s technical guys, or the amazing cost of security gates. There’s a cost in peace of mind. Kolya has added the words ‘scared’, ‘fright’, ‘big noise’, ‘alarm off’, ‘alarm on’ to his vocabulary. He wakes in a funk on mornings when I or Pam set off the alarm by mistake. Frequently when he’s falling asleep, he mumbles words of garbled worry about the ‘big noise’ or the alarm. He looks deeply perturbed when he hears the high-pitched bleeping of the system as it arms, and when he glances at its instrusive, flashing display. I identify with his anxiety. I find those noises and lights equally disconcerting as they add themselves to the daily backdrop of sounds and signs of my daily life.
Then, at the beginning of March, my mother, Kolya and I travelled up to Johannesburg for my nephew’s first birthday party. It was the first time I’d be staying at my brother and sister-in-law’s current home – a house they’re renting for a year or so while they build their new house. The interim house is wonderful – spacious, homely, with a pretty garden, and it has a little granny flat in the garden where we three visitors were staying.
In comparison with homes in other countries, South African homes must seem scary, with their arrays of crime-deterring paraphernalia. Gates, alarms, fences, high walls. But Johannesburg is in a league of its own. Electrified razorwire is commonplace. Entire gated security complexes are the norm. Even within these complexes, each house has its own sophisticated alarm system.
Aiden’s birthday party was on the Saturday afternoon. During the day I marvelled at how safe and peaceful Rob and Hayley’s house seemed. The granny flat was left unlocked all day; we left handbags and cameras and phones there without a thought. The place was like a little haven of easy living – exactly the kind of secure bubble South Africans aim to create.
That night, I went into Rob’s room in the main house to pick up Kolya where he was sleeping. Rob walked in ahead of me, as he needed to unlock his bedroom door to the garden, to let us out to the granny flat. Rob was talking quietly to me so as not to wake Kolya, but I noticed to my surprise that Kolya was awake and alert, although he hadn’t made a sound. Then Rob turned to the garden door, and I heard him shout roughly Get out get out get out. It was only when he shoved me and Kolya out of the room and yelled Lock yourselves in the bathroom, press the panics that I realised he wasn’t shouting at the intruder he’d seen in the garden. He was shouting at us.
The armed response arrived in seconds. They had the kind of weaponry you see in sci-fi movies. The intruder ran away. Nothing, it seems, really happened; nothing was lost. But in that moment, I heard in my brother’s voice the nightmare that’s shored up behind the safe, pretty bubble of suburban South African life. We glimpsed the shared vision, painted in all too vivid detail not by novelists or even journalists but by the friends and family, all of whom know someone – chances are you know someone – who was held up or mugged or robbed or raped or murdered. This is what we live with.
The next day, the security people were called in. We’d worked out where the intruder got in – what tiny weak spot in the security barricades he had breached. It was duly reinforced with more fencing, more beams, more defence of one sort or another. And so the bubble is restored, and we go on.