Crime runs out of control

High walls, private security forces and scary dogs are the norm in South Africa today, and still the criminals are unrelenting.

January 14, 2001|By Rena Singer

JOHANNESBURG - It was a rude but fitting introduction to a city and country that often seem unified by little else than fear of crime.

Less than two months after moving to Johannesburg, South Africa, our home was burglarized.

"Welcome to South Africa," joked one of the red-faced security guards who responded to our alarm.

I would like to be able to tell you how many other residents of Johannesburg were burglarized this year, or to compare Jo-burg's crime rate to Baltimore's. But police here, frustrated by all the negative publicity their crime statistics bring, have simply decided not to release any more. In this factual vacuum these same officials have recently taken to pronouncing that the crime rate is falling - if this is true, only they know.

So instead, I'll say it is a fair guess that this city - whose beleaguered officials occasionally defend it by pointing out that Bogota, Colombia, the drug capital of the world, reports more violent crime - is at the very least a tad more dangerous than Baltimore.

After all, this is a city in which Sunday church services are interrupted by armed robbers who fill their own collection plate, demanding jewelry and cash from worshippers.

This is a country in which Domino's markets its pizza delivery service not with the familiar motto "30 minutes or free," but by printing on their boxes that their reliable home delivery is a safe alternative to eating out.

Here, hearses en route to the cemetery and ambulances with patients are not beyond being hijacked. Beggars on street corners hold crude cardboard signs reading "I don't do crime," as if that alone warrants a reward.

I've been told the joke, "You know you're in South Africa when illegal immigrants leave the country because of the high crime rate," more times than I care to count, for good reason. Black, white and mixed-race people may still live in different worlds six years after the fall of apartheid. But fear of crime is every South African's constant companion. They all talk about crime, the way Americans talk about the weather. It is considered something everyone experiences.

The walls that surround most suburban homes in this city are the best measure of residents' fears. They have grown each year since the end of white rule, so that now 20-foot-high, stuccoed brick walls topped with buzzing electric wire are not out of place. A white picket fence, the sort Tom Sawyer painted, would be seen as not only strange, but also foolish.

This is not to say that we don't like it here.

Living in Johannesburg takes a bit of savvy. Survive this city and still manage to enjoy yourself and you gain membership to an exclusive club. Come from a well-functioning nation like the United States and say that despite it all you like it here and natives are immediately smitten. Instant comrades in a low-grade war, waiters, store clerks, toll collectors, all want to share their survival tips.

Adapting to survive

"Don't carry a pocketbook."

"Keep car windows open a crack. That makes it harder for criminals to smash the windows and hijack you and the car."

"Don't stop at red lights at night."

"Don't stop for police."

People adapt to this threatening landscape in their own ways. Two native New Yorkers I know have a private security company escort them into their home anytime they return after dark. Another couple from the rough side of Philadelphia has adopted a dog that makes any German shepherd look like a hamster.

After a while, these precautions seem normal. We no longer notice the heavily armed security guards at the shopping malls, or the security gates in stores.

Instead, we gape at this country's incredible beauty - the Jacaranda trees that paint much of this nation a soft lavender every spring. We marvel at the music that seems to spontaneously erupt whenever people gather together for any reason. Our hearts skip when we spot wild giraffe, rhino, more types of antelope than I can name, in national parks just a few hours drive from home.

Our burglary occurred before we had adapted to this new scenario.

I was home when an intruder broke through a pair of French doors and burglar bars (such bars guard most first- and second-floor windows and doors in Johannesburg). I thought the banging sound the burglar made as he gained entry to our rambling thatch-roofed rancher with his crowbar was the construction crew next door.

He had collected our stereo, television, VCR, and my husband's hiking boots before I saw him dragging our comforter through our back yard and pressed the panic alarm.

Our neighborhood, like many in the suburbs here, long ago hired a security company to patrol the area (optimistic South Africans point to the private security company boom as a redeeming byproduct of crime: 187,000 new jobs). A few carloads of these guards arrived within minutes.

Following the burglar's path, the guards jumped over our 6-foot-high wooden fence and found our belongings, minus the stereo.

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