Crime scares

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.


About Lisa

I live in South Africa with my husband and two small children, doing things, thinking about things and sometimes writing about them.
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6 Responses to Crime scares

  1. Alison says:

    The crime in South Africa concerns me and saddens me. There is so much to love living in South Africa but does anything make up for a compromise in safety?

    …I have to add that I moved from Johannesburg to Cape Town a year ago and I feel much safer here 🙂

  2. Lisa says:

    Well, if you stick around this blog you’ll soon get a taste for my fierce love of South African life and disdain for life overseas!

    I moved to London briefly, and at the time persuaded myself that there were great rewards there – safer streets and homes, transparent and accountable leadership, freely available schooling and medical care, decent social services, a far more central location for international travel. But the truth was that British life, from day to day, week to week, month to month, was a ton harder.

    It took an hour and a half each way to visit my friends. So that didn’t happen more than, maybe, once a month. Family, too, was miles away, so daily I was desperately isolated. Three-quarters of the time the weather was awful; and even when it was pleasant, there wasn’t much you could do without travelling pretty far to go somewhere decent. Culturally, it was a shocker; people generally interact along the lines of xenophobic coldness interspersed with rare moments of (drunken) frankness. I eventually bought a car so we could get around, but you can’t actually drive anywhere because the traffic is so heavy, fuel is prohibitively expensive, and even if you do go anywhere, the roads all have speed limits that strangle you down to a not-quite-racy 30mph. (Oh – did I mention that Imperial measures were another thing that I found quite impossible to get used to?) Cold, unfriendly, uninhabitable, officious, with pretensions of superiority but no real appeal. That’s how I found it.

    All in all, I was delighted to come back here. So whilst the dangers of crime certainly cast a scary and hideous shadow over South African life, I still would never give it up again.

  3. Pino says:

    interesting, but I must say here that life overseas happens to exist also outside London, and there are areas even in UK were life can be easier than that, besides the units used, the driving on the ‘right’ side, the ridiculous amount of attention payed to rules and social patterns and the even more ridiculous freedom from it on the Friday night… and so on.
    Not to mention that, although all those negative aspects, you were having a living there, in that big city of the north hemisphere. They did not prevent you to have big actions in yr life.
    Pino Muin
    BTW: to buy a car in a big city is a no brain only a SA expat can have LOL

  4. Lisa says:

    Hey Pino – true words. The only reason I compare CT to London specifically is that that was my experience, and also that a lot of South Africans go specifically to London. I don’t understand why. (Though to be fair, after they have children, many of them then emigrate to Australia!)

  5. Pino says:

    I do have an idea for that, simply put it is about cultural colonization(s): we in Europe are colonized by Yankees, maybe in SA BBC is stronger and more present than North American channels (both news and entertainment). Typically everyone in SA ends up going to UK? well not in Italy, only a minimal portion: either gay people that pretend to have a social life (still impossible in Italy at the moment, but hopefully in the next millennium or even in this one but after the long awaited church crash: a couple of generations?), or newly graduated doctors that want to have a fast CV in liver surgery.

    more on the personal side: are you going for all the 3 steps or will you stop at the second one? 😉

  6. Lisa says:

    Australia? No thanks 🙂

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