Backstory: In South Africa, home sweet fortress

As I begin a new assignment in one of the world's most dangerous countries, I rent a house with electric fencing, burglar bars, and more laser beams than a Star Wars set.

Marius, a pot-bellied security-alarm technician, yells to his assistant up in our attic, who is staring at a box with flashing red lights. "OK, Boet, I'm going to arm the system," he says. As he presses the four-button security code, I hold my breath.

"Right, now step out into the room," he says to me, "and see if that sets off the alarm."

In theory, the infrared beams scattered throughout our rental house should trip a silent alarm that will bring an armed guard from the Stalag-17-style, electric-fenced community – with, I should add, a lovely duck pond, clubhouse, tennis courts, playgrounds, and walking trails – where my family and I have chosen to live. (I say in theory because I haven't the faintest idea how to turn the system on.)

I step into the room, and the eyebeam in our living room spots me. Just 2-1/2 minutes later, there's a sharp knock at the door, and a shout: "Security here! Is everything OK?"

In South Africa, nothing says "Home Sweet Home" like 10-foot walls, electric fencing, burglar bars, and at least one panic button wired directly to an armed-response team, licensed to shoot, if not kill. It's not the sort of thing you put in a tourist brochure. But South Africa, statistically speaking, is one of the most dangerous places in the world to live.

As recently as 1998, according to a report by Interpol, the country had the highest recorded per capita murder rate in the world – with 59 homicides per 100,000 people, followed by Colombia with 56. The US, by comparison, had 6. Also in 1998, South Africa had a high recorded rate of robbery and violent theft.

South African government officials like to point out that the number of crimes is declining – particularly murder, which they say has dropped every year since 1994. In a country of 40 million people, the number of homicides dipped from 21,553 in 2003 to 19,824 in 2004, for instance. Still, the US had 293 million people in 2004 and fewer murders (16,150).

***

It doesn't help that many of the homicides occur at home, which only fuels the paranoia of those who worry about that noise in the yard late at night (and no, dear, I'm not talking about you). Nearly 35 percent of males and 55 percent of female victims of homicide were killed in a private home or yard. The majority of murders continue to be black on black, with the townships being most at risk. The biggest fear of whites in the suburbs remains property crime.

The local press does its best to highlight the problem, telling residents about the latest military-style daylight robbery of an armored vehicle at a posh suburban mall. Dinner parties bring the sense of danger one step closer to home, with the inevitable game of "guess who got robbed this week."

Elite private schools get into the act, too. Our daughters recently took part in a "duck and cover" drill. The enemy wasn't Russian ICBMs like in the good old 1950s, but roving gangs of thieves. While the principal banged on the doors of every classroom, my daughters took cover under desks and inside cubbyholes meant for their backpacks and rubber boots. Teachers locked the doors and asked for silence.

Coming to Johannesburg, from New Delhi, has been a bit of a smelling salt. In New Delhi, the most I ever had to think about crime was to lock the door at night. That's more than our "night guard" ever did. He would fall asleep precisely at 10 p.m. on my landlord's garden furniture. Sometimes we had to wake him in the morning (but, ah, he did salute us smartly when he got up).

The first people we met in Johannesburg made a big impression on us. One, an ethnic Indian businessman, shocked us with a story of his home being robbed by armed men, who terrorized his 3-year-old child and the nanny.

Another, a Western journalist whose home was robbed twice, showed us the accordion-style gate she used to lock herself in the bedroom at night, in case she got robbed again. "This," she said, sliding the gate across to demonstrate, "is my rape gate."

Charming name, no? The rape gate became a feature in many South African homes in the early 1990s, in anticipation of lawlessness in a post-apartheid regime. The theory is that thieves can take whatever they want in the living room, but won't be able to go into the bedrooms. The rape gate fad has diminished over the years: It turned out thieves were more interested in electronics.

Today, specialized relocation firms, who help newcomers settle into South Africa, tell clients to focus on the essentials, and peddle easy-to-remember acronyms on protecting themselves.

My favorite is B-SAFE, courtesy of Xpatria Relocation Services.

Bars – iron bars on all windows that open.

Staff – preferably live-in housekeepers who are always present, even when you are at work.

Alarms – best bet is a motion-sensor system that alerts an armed-response team which arrives in three minutes or less.

Fido – dogs provide a deterrent, both through noise and through their incisors.

Electric fencing – preferably 220 volts, which can cause severe injury or death.

***

With all this talk of crime, it's a wonder anyone comes to South Africa at all. But as the continent opens up politically and economically, many businesses find the market too lucrative to pass up. And compared with other African cities, Johannesburg is seen as a dream post. In Lagos or Nairobi or Dar-es Salaam, the crime may not be as bad, but the roads and electricity and Internet access are decidedly worse.

Government officials, tasked with reducing crime by 2010 when South Africa will host the World Cup soccer tournament, have been appealing for a lot more patience and a little less griping. One South African official famously told those who constantly carp on the crime problem that they were welcome to leave. (He later recanted.)

Many black South Africans see the current white South African fascination with crime as veiled criticism of black majority rule. Crime always existed in the townships, where police visited only to break up demonstrations, not to protect citizens. Now, whites are just getting a taste of what blacks have been victims of for decades. Black taxi drivers blame crime on African immigrants from other countries, such as Zimbabwe and Nigeria.

Outside the house, I meet with the security guard who came to my rescue. He's wearing a black bulletproof vest, with a 9-mm pistol tucked in front. I thank him for coming, offer him some water, and ask if South Africa is really as dangerous as people say. "It's happening every day," he says. "These robbers are very well armed. You have to be careful."

Later in the week, during a pink and orange sunset, I take a dog named Lampo out for his evening constitutional. He belongs to some friends, who found him as a puppy at a local pound. I've agreed to housesit, in part because I want to find out if I'm still a dog person, and in part because of one of the letters in my security checklist: F for Fido. My friends tell me the dog is fine around children, but is skittish around men, especially black men. The people at the dog pound told them it had probably been abused.

As we walk past house after house, with barking dog after barking dog, I notice Lampo pays no attention. Instead, he's watching the stream of housekeepers and gardeners heading home from work. They eye the dog nervously back.

Great, I think, I'm walking a racist dog.

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