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South Africa: Locked In

I’ve spent very little time in South Africa – two weeks in the past two years – and feel totally unequipped to offer my impressions of a vast, complicated nation based on lots of business meetings and the occasional conference. But one impression I feel comfortable sharing: I spend a lot more time locking and unlocking things than I have anywhere else in the world.

There aren’t a lot of locks where I live. Years ago, dating a woman who worked on the local organic farm, I discovered she kept her car keys in the ignition of her car. “Someone might need to borrow it and might not be able to find me.” As you might guess, she didn’t lock her door at night either.

That doesn’t seem to fly in South Africa. Staying in Melville, one of the ritziest corners of Johannesburg, each house is a compound, complete with mechanized gates, coiled razor wire and dogs. Our guest house issues us a key for the outside gate, a wireless transmitter to open an automated gate, as well as the key for our doors. All of which seemed a bit like overkill, since the neighborhood appears basically empty, other than the drive-bys from private security vehicles every five minutes.

I figured security wouldn’t be quite as tight when we got to Grahamstown, a university town miles from a major city. But our innkeeper here issued us the requisite three keys as well – the courtyard gate, the iron gate in front of the door, as well as the door keys. Joking about this over breakfast with a Jo’burger, he said, “That’s South Africa”, and produced a fist-sized mass of keys and transmitters from his briefcase, neccesary to access his house and office.

I had been feeling like the emphasis on security was a cross between reality, paranoia and local pride – the way New Yorkers used to make fun of other Americans for not being tough enough to cope with living in their (formerly much more) dangerous and crime-ridden city. But one of my colleagues has had a bad run of luck here the past two days.

She left her phone on a desk while giving a presentation yesterday and it was lost or stolen when she returned to pick it up. (Since no one has returned it to the conference organizers, I think it’s safe to declare it stolen at this point.) While at the conference today, her room was broken into – the thieves stole two of her jackets, a new dress and, in a final insult, ate her chocolate bars, leaving the wrappers behind. She’s leaving tomorrow morning and is sleeping tonight in our suite, not willing to sleep alone in the burgled room.

There’s lots to like in South Africa. Some of the smartest people I know are working here, in industry and in academia. The beer’s great, the food’s good, the scenery’s nice, and I love the experience of being cold while simultaneously being in Africa. But on this trip, I think I’m going to remember the locks.

5 thoughts on “South Africa: Locked In”

  1. Pingback: 5 days in South Africa at Black Looks

  2. dude, i live in melville. and for more than 2 weeks every out of every 104. classifying melville as ‘one of the ritziest corners of Johannesburg” is not only fairly laughable , but it betrays a startling lack of familiarity with either Johannesburg, or the meaning of the word ‘ritzy’ or both.

    melville is currently a concentration of local eateries, embedded in what has always been a fairly low-rent environment. the entire area borders a couple of universities (which has helped keep accommodation pitched at student level, though this is changing), is too close to the center of town to be upmarket, and lies right on the edge of triomf/district six, which was once a multi-racial urban suburb, bulldozed to make room for poor whites needing to be accommodated close to town. westdene which is next door, retains that poor white character. even then, when triomf was district six, it was pretty low rent, both a cause and a subsequent consequence of its multi-racial character.

    what’s changing a lot of things in these suburbs is the current property boom. the introduction of the codes of good practice for broad-based black economic empowerment (BBBEE) were finalised around 2 years ago and most companies having done nothing meaningful in response to the first round of requirements, panicked at the second and began scrambling to acquire black placeholder staff.

    this led to a glut of appointments, and the first thing that newly appointed fats-track candidates have been doing is (a) buying cars, and (b) trying find suburban housing in and around Johannesburg. both sectors have boomed in response. in the housing market, the necessary consequence has been to drive the prices of pretty low-end housing up. melville, westdene and others such areas have been the beneficiaries of this.

    why these places? well, precisely because they AREN’T the ritziest corners of Johannesburg. ritzy corners can fairly easily located in morningside, and sandton, and rivonia, and blairgowrie and bryanston and sandringham and so on. amongst the many things they have in common is the fact of being priced too high for entry-level aspirants. they exist now, as then, to serve the needs of corpates and government barons.

    why am i making this point?

    because of the stereotypical quality of the phrase you used. because of the laziness and the arrogance with which you trot out the well, well, well well worn homily, the barbed wire fences and ritzy corners and blah-di-blah-di-blah-diblah-di-blah.

    because everyone wants to be able to retail the ‘south african experience’ and it’s always about ritzy suburb and the ghastly contrasts and etc and etc and etc.

    because if you’re going to bother to claim to be interested, you should make your own observations, rather than simply recycle the tired old phrases. next thing you’ll be regaling uis with your encounters with a red-faced afrikaner in shorts and a hat. and you’ll wonder what he was saying and whether his glare meant that he was unreconstructed and you’ll momentarily flash back to ‘Mississippi Burning’ and have a delightful little shivery moment, all your own, a touch of free authenticity to confirm your experience for you. except that in melville and, in fact, in many other places, he’ll be gay and an artist, or living with a black woman (or women or man or men) or be a volunteer at some charity AND a he’ll be a racist, exactly like the zulu guy on the corner. and neither will be capable of being adequately captured within the confines of your soundbite-driven expectations.

    but you won’t notice that. you already have your observations neatly arranged, all ready to accounted for. there’ll be the happy but poor women’s choir, and the ‘childish friendliness’ of the township folk, and the ‘stark contrasts’ of urban squatter settlements, and the ‘ homeless guy who plays soccer’ and the rest of your necessary accoutrements, all ploddingly crafted for you by the humble talents of christiane ammanpour, or whoever the flavour of the day was when you were cramming for your experience.

    these days, you might write about ‘crime’ the defining characteristic of south african society, surely, and maybe tell a story about some ‘flashy kingpin’ or cash heist king you think you met, or describe white suburbanites telling crime stories over an expensive dinner. and you’ll never once have to leave the confines of your expectations.

    when i was younger, i lived in Malawi and hitchhiked my way through Mozambique and Zambia. pity i didn’t have keenly honed first world intellects to help me make sense of my experience in the appropriate and acceptable fashion. ach, i don’t know why i bother. lucky us. we have trained first-worlders to tell us what we are.

    i haven’t locked my door in the seven years i’ve lived in Johannesburg.

  3. Sorry my impressions disagreed so sharply with yours, daelm. My impressions may have to do with having lived in Accra for several years, having worked in many other African capitals, and with contrasting Melville both to those areas and to the other areas of Jo’burg I was able to visit on this trip. Perhaps the next time I visit, I’ll have the chance to travel more broadly and change those impressions.

    As for whether or not I manage to leave my expectations in talking about Johannesburg and about Africa as a whole, I’d invite you to read more broadly on the blog, if you’d like. I’m sorry this post upset you, but I don’t think I’m as guilty of these sorts of broad generalizations as you seem to think.

    Thanks for the comment.

  4. Hi

    re above post: “lies right on the edge of triomf/district six,”

    Not sure where the writer lives but it must be in Bloemfontein. District Six is in Cape Town and Triomf is in Johannesburg.

  5. sorry tm – i had intended to say something about triomf being built on the ruins of ‘johannesburg’s district six’, but i was so fucking incensed i never finished the sentence. there’s a couple of other typo’s too.


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