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.