Friday, June 3, 2011

Things I Won't Miss

Despite the charmed life that I live here, South Africa is a difficult place. Although the media panic (mostly from UK rags) leading up to the World Cup was ridiculously over-exaggerated--the whole stab-proof vest debacle comes to mind--safety and crime are real and pervasive issues here. And mostly, the victims are poor and, given the strong racial-economic divide in this country, black.

This is too complex to lay out fully in a blog post, but xenophobia is also a huge issue. Other Africans, particularly Zimbabweans, pursuing the idea of a better life in South Africa are discriminated against, blamed for crimes, and sometimes attacked or killed (more on the state's terrible and potentially unlawful treatment of Zimbabwean asylum-seekers here). The New York Times put up a video today about an innocent Zimbabwean man who was beaten to death by a mob in an informal settlement outside of Johannesburg. Warning: it shows actual footage of him being beaten.

Barry Bearak's accompanying article (for the NYT Magazine), lays out the issues. Millions of people live in poverty in townships and informal settlements, often without running water, electricity, adequate food, or the glimmer of hope for a job. The huge wealth disparity here is deplorable: there's nothing like driving past the townships from the airport and seeing a Maserati dealership on the way into town. The police are often ineffective or just non-existent, especially in townships where they don't have back up. Two policemen were killed the other week in Cape Town, and it's a somewhat regular occurrence. Violence and crime and anger are widespread, but there are no easy answers for any of this. Mr. Bearak writes:

South Africa, a nation of 50 million, is the richest country on the continent but has one of the world’s lowest levels of employment. Most of the jobless have never worked, and a third of the employed earn less than $150 a month. Whites, who make up 9 percent of the population, have an average income seven times that of blacks. But poverty is not necessarily a predictor of crime, and while apartheid was horrific, other nations have suffered long histories of oppression, writes the South African criminologist Antony Altbeker, whose book “A Country at War With Itself” examines the common explanations for the nation’s violent bent and finds most of them pertinent but none entirely adequate. However you weigh the impact of apartheid, he asserts, violent behavior has somehow become a “cultural phenomenon” for a significant minority of young men, “an expression of their selfhood.” Violence now feeds off its own energy.

To protect themselves, wealthy South Africans compete in an arms race with their neighbors, the elevated walls of one leading to even higher walls next door. One in 14 newly created jobs is for a security guard.

But it is the impoverished who are most vulnerable to crime, poor people living in the midst of poor criminals. Under apartheid, the police were enforcers of state repression, and they are yet to be fully trusted as protectors. Mob justice is most likely to occur in the nation’s informal settlements. In Diepsloot, where a sea of shanties covers much of the expanse, police officers are often derided as bunglers at best and crooks at worst. Courthouses are a journey away, and the due process of law seems an impractical ideal. Many of the poor, living without electricity and using communal taps and toilets, feel the necessity — the burden — to police themselves. I was commonly told: The more horrible the death of a criminal, the better it deters the rest.

I don't know to write about this. I don't feel right doing it, as a foreigner who's been here a measly two years and hasn't integrated well into South African society, as a white person, as someone with a job and some money. I've stopped and started and deleted and re-written a version of this post many times. And never hit the "publish" button. It never feels comprehensive enough, or clear enough, or correct enough. I don't know what to think. It's easy to say it's one thing, or it's another. It's easy to say all of this is overblown, or, you know what, maybe we should all have guns. That violence has become a national identity, or that this is all about Apartheid, or that this is the fault of the state to provide support and housing and good police. That media coverage of this nature perpetuates South Africa's reputation in the world as a crime-filled, scary place, or perpetuates the idea of Africa as a violent, fly-and-disease-ridden continent. It's all true. It's all false. I don't know. There's no answer.

All I can say is, I'm not going to miss this aspect of South Africa. I know that the US is far from perfect, and has wealth disparity and violence and other problems of its own, but I'm not going to miss this. I love so much of South Africa, the warm and wonderful people I have met, South Africans and expats alike; the breathtaking natural beauty of this country; the life I have made for myself here, but I'm still not going to miss this. As my friends and I were leaving Bulungula, a paradise on earth in many ways (and home to many, many people living in abject poverty), the driver turned to me, as we discussed the upcoming local elections, and told me that without the lodge, he would have no job. That there were no jobs. That he would never again support the ANC, the majority party, the party of Nelson Mandela and of the anti-Apartheid struggle for freedom. South Africa, the land of broken promise, he said.

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