I was waiting for a good moment to tell the readers back home about Johannesburg’s fearsome reputation for crime, and as our car was stolen this week I might as well do it now.
First-time visitors to South Africa always remark on the elaborate defence systems that people (especially in affluent areas) have built around their houses. Nearly every house has high walls, bars on the windows, often topped with spikes, razor wire (a proudly South African invention),or 5-8 wires with high-tension electricity. After a while you’re surprised to see a house with a simple picket fence. Everyone has an alarm system with infrared sensors, beams, door/window sensors that’s often linked up to a security company that promises a rapid ‘armed response’, ie two armed guards with bullet proof vests, for a mere R300 per month.
In our district, you don’t park cars on the street; it’s one of the most common crimes in the area, and an opportunistic criminal only needs a few minutes to make it disappear. Residents keep their cars well locked behind gates and garage doors. People going to the bars and restaurants here make use of the services of parking guards, freelancers in yellow reflective vests who guide you to a free spot and keep an eye on your car for 5 rands. They even have buckets and sponges ready for their washing service.
Our little VW Polo was parked safely behind the automatic gate, which has a gate motor that’s designed to be foolproof, with no way to screw the cogwheel off or disengage it without keys. For the case of power failure, however, the motor has a knob at the back to allow you to disengage the cogwheel for manual opening. It’s proudly trumpeted as an “internal manual release with lockable access door for greater security” on the Centurion motor gate factory website. But, undoubtedly for greater security, these geniuses made the lockable door out of that most sturdy material, plastic. All the thieves needed to do was reach around and wiggle a screwdriver to break the door, bypass the lock and manually open the gate to get to the car.
The police came by, shrugged at the broken gate motor door, glanced at the spot where the car stood – all nothing special – and continued to question us about how it is to live in Holland and what language they speak in Poland. The car had a tracking device and the lease company that owned it found it back within a few hours – though we’re in a rental car as long as they’re busy with it. The gate was fixed, an extra metal strip added and the offending knob removed (a too-late tip from the local locksmith), to prevent embarrassing repeats, and a new regime of locking extra padlocks and checking the alarm instated.
We were lucky. It was ‘only’ a company car, and they didn’t try to get into the house. Read any tabloid paper (or any blog by South Africans who have moved abroad) and you’ll read terrifying stories of botched and succesfull robberies (both usually ending badly), carjackings and rapes. Just a few weeks ago, not far from here: robbers go to a petrol station, only manage to get a few hundred rand cash, stop a lady in a Mercedes outside who refuses to get out of her car, and shoot her. Thieves enter houses (early evening is a popular time, when people are busy cooking, doors are open, alarms are off), tie up residents and kill them if they don’t tell them where the safe is. During house break-ins women have a 20% chance of being raped. Cars are violently hijacked at traffic lights, or have a tyre slashed to get the owner to stop. It’s remarkable that thieves sometimes murder and only get away with a small ‘reward’. They’d get more out of stealing stamps from a mailbox – and nobody would get hurt in the process.
It’s good (or actually extra sad) to keep in mind that the majority of crime victims are poor people living in townships; the ones who can’t afford state of the art security measures. The main message the police brochures say is: be aware, avoid bad situations before they happen and immediately do everything they say if you’re the victim of a robber. The local newspaper, the Northcliff Melville Times, regularly publishes an overview of arrests the district police station made over the past week. Last week’s report for this area of a few thousand people (Note that these are arrests only, not reported crimes):
- common assault 5
- drinking in public 21
- theft 3
- trespassing 4
- fraud 3
- interfering with police duties 1
- drunk driving 10
- assault GBH (hurt, but no skin broken) 6
- drunkenness 25
- robbery 1
- housebreaking and theft 2
- shoplifting 5
- armed robbery 9
- malicious intent to property 1
- dealing in drugs 1
South Africa’s (and especially Johannesburg’s) crime statistics are not pretty sight, and it’s no wonder that the government tried to get away with not publishing the 2008 annual figures recently, stating ‘it would inspire criminals’. They were heartily ridiculed for this of course, and once published the figures showed an increase in scary crimes, though a decrease of others.
And yet, despite all this, Johannesburg is the home of 3,8 million of people, many of them living quite luxurious lifestyles (many of them not). It has great weather, an excellent cultural scene, good restaurants, it’s well positioned for travel to the mountains of Lesotho, the wildlife at the Pilanesberg and Kruger parks and the beaches of KwaZulu Natal and Mozambique. It’s not so bad. Johannesburg residents have perfected the art of keeping crime manageable with extreme fortification measures combined with a defensive attitude that you get used to very quickly, best sustained by reminding yourself that the crime you just read about in the paper or heard about on the radio didn’t happen to you.