Monday, October 06, 2008

South Africa

Has everyone missed me over the three weeks I’ve been away? Did anyone notice I was missing?

I’m back from a wonderful trip to South Africa. As many of you know, I lived there for several years but was last there 24 years ago. It’s changed, and is that an understatement. My daughter and I left South Africa feeling good about the country’s future. Despite a lot of problems, the people almost all seem engaged and optimistic and really excited about the possibilities of ‘the new’ South Africa. The roads are in excellent condition, the national parks top-notch, and expanding, even the poorest areas have schools and clinics. All of which, my daughter pointed out, are signs of a well-functioning government.

I enjoyed catching up on everyone’s blog entries, particularly the discussion on writing about places and times you’ve been, or not. Speaking about places one can’t go for research, we loved this sign we found at a cliff overlooking the Indian Ocean.

So, am I going to send Molly Smith and John Winters to South Africa on a case? Not a chance.

I can’t imagine what policing must be like there. As I said, the mood is cautiously optimistic – but crime is a real problem. There are some areas identified by the guide book as ‘no go’ areas – day or night. In the suburbs, homes have walls nine or ten feet high surrounding them, and on top of that there’s a length of electric fencing (in a good area) or barbed wire (in less-good areas). Everyone has a big gate with an electric opener and you buzz when you arrive at the gate to be allowed access, and dogs are not necessary household pets.

Innocent Canadian abroad – when we arrived at the first place we were staying, I pulled into the driveway, stopped at the gate and said to my daughter. “I guess if I push that button there, the gate will open.” “Uh, no, Mom. I don’t think it works that way,” she replied.

Some whole streets are gated, with a guard allowing cars in or not. (Definitely some racial profiling going on there – when I pulled up at the gate to my sister-in-law’s area, I just rolled down the window, said “I’m here to visit Number XX”, the gate was lifted for me, and I sailed on in.) We saw whole streets with little buildings set up at the top of the driveways where the guard sits at night. Imagine your house in Toronto, or Rochester, or Reading, England, and imagine where you’d put the guard’s box. The listings for houses for sale have an entry for ‘security’ costs, right along electricity and condo fees.

In all South Africa I might have seen four houses that I would want to live in. Not because there aren’t lovely houses (and wow, are there) but because there is nothing we’d call ‘country living’ or even cottages. Every house (that is, every house you’d consider buying) is in a city or community. No one, other than farmers, and the poor, lives in the countryside, and even holiday homes are packed together in communities of holiday homes. At one point we were on a ferry to an eco-resort and we did pass some houses standing all on their own in the woods on the hillside. And that was it.

Traffic policing seems to be good on the highways, and we saw a couple of speed traps, and were stopped once for a licence check. (Because so many drivers don’t bother to get licences). But in the cities, not so much so. People are packed into cars in a way that would have them pulled over in seconds in Canada or the U.S. e.g. children sitting on adult laps, everyone unbuckled, in the front passenger seat, or packed shoulder to shoulder, backwards, and smiling at you out the rear of a hatch-back.

It is legal to run a red light - which you are told to do if you feel you'll be in danger if you stop. Although they do suggest you check the oncoming traffic first.

I took a guided tour into downtown Johannesburg and the area called Hillbrow where I lived when we were first married (no go, for sure) and the police presence was very strong. Which, I thought, is definitely a good thing.

Some police carry guns, and some do not, and I didn’t have a chance to find out what the difference is.

Will Smith and Winters visit South Africa? It would be an absolutely fascinating exercise to be sure, but I fear that the politics of policing would so overwhelm the story it wouldn’t be a Smith and Winters book.

But never say never. There are such things as standalones.

Since I’ve been back home I found a mention of a book I’m going to try to find, called Thin Blue: The unwritten rules of policing South Africa by Jonny Steinberg (Jonathan Ball Publishers). The blurb reads “A country is policed only to the extent that it consents to be. When that consent is withheld, cops either negotiate or withdraw. Once they do this, however, they are no longer police; their role becomes something far murkier. Several months before they exploded into xenophobic violence, Jonny Steinberg travelled the streets of Alexandra, Reiger Park and other Johannesburg townships with police patrols. His mission was to discover the unwritten rules of engagement emerging between South Africa’s citizens and its new police force.”


Rowen Ravera said...

Hi, this is such a insightful, comprehensive look at my old country... and so good to hear such a positive voice speaking about South Africa.


Debby (Deborah Turrell) Atkinson said...

Fascinating, Vicki. I would never have imagined it as you describe. Hope some day I can visit, too.