Don’t mention the crime in South Africa
It happened quickly. Two men darted to my car doors when I was stopped at a red light. Finding them locked, the one on the left stepped back and aimed a sparkplug at my window.
In Johannesburg, we are prepared for these scenarios, the prelude to “smash-and-grab” robberies or vehicle hijackings. The thing to do, I knew, was a rakish, James Bond-like swerve of my car or quick shift into reverse, to catch my assailants off-guard.
Instead, I hooted my horn and shouted hysterically. Thanks to either the man’s poor aim or my car’s safety glass, the sparkplug only broke my rearview mirror. The light changed, the men absconded and I emerged with my person and possessions – if not my dignity – intact.
By South African standards, my brush with crime was so banal as to barely merit mention. But I like to bring out the story at dinner parties and tell it with the panache of a local.
After all, I was extremely lucky. Luckier than a friend in Cape Town who broke his collarbone in a late-night car crash. As he sat writhing in pain, several people emerged from a nearby minibus and robbed his wallet and mobile phone.
Luckier, certainly, than a former neighbour who was at home when burglars broke in. She pressed her panic button – we all carry them in suburban Jo’burg – to summon private security. For some reason it malfunctioned and she was gang-raped.
If you can bear it, I have two more stories – one funny, one sad – which I will recount later.
During three years in South Africa, I have avoided writing about crime except tangentially. For one thing, I dislike journalistic clichés and old news and everyone knows this country is one of the most violent in the world.
More importantly, crime of all kinds had been declining since 2003, when I arrived. One still heard occasional frightening anecdotes but they were becoming rarer.
Third, to focus on crime would have been to align myself with those South African whites – a minority of a minority, I believe – who present black rule here as a narrative of inexorable decline. I happen to think many things are going well here and that life is getting better by the year.
It’s sad to report, then, that South Africa has taken two steps back on crime. By all accounts criminality is again spiking.
Business Against Crime, an action group funded by the private sector, tells me that crimes of all kinds rose in the first half of the year. According to vehicle-tracking and insurance companies, hijackings are at their highest level in five years.
Even government, which reports crime statistics with a half-year lag, allows that some categories have been rising. Explanations for the spike vary.
One is a protracted (and itself violent) strike of security guards in the first half. A second is that criminal syndicates here are becoming more sophisticated. A third is the ongoing influx of poor foreigners. South Africa is home to at least 1m migrants from Zimbabwe alone.
Whatever the reason, government is not rising to the challenge. At their most inspiring, South Africans engineer world-beating, pragmatic solutions to big problems. At their least inspiring, they resort to tired Marxist analysis, race-baiting or – worst of all – denial.
On two occasions, government officials have told me, with straight faces, that Johannesburg’s crime problems were no worse than New York’s or London’s. I was momentarily too astounded to say I knew both cities well and that in neither did one live in daily fear of violent, arbitrary death.
Recently Charles Nqakula, minister of safety and security, said that those “whingeing” about crime should leave. As it is mostly whites who emigrate, his infuriating – and inaccurate – suggestion was that crime was a minority concern.
Now for those stories I promised. K, a friend in public relations, found an armed man standing in her bath late one night. She screamed and slammed his hand in the door and he fled. K tells this story stylishly in a way that makes you laugh and cheer her.
The son of T, a woman who sits near me at work, recently spent several days in hospital. He suffered broken bones after teenage thugs threw him off a train when he refused to give them his pocket money.
K and T are both black South Africans.
South Africa’s government needs to confront crime squarely as the national emergency it is. Apart from the tens of thousands of murders, rapes and robberies here, Business Against Crime estimates that white-collar crime alone costs the economy between $7bn and $21bn yearly.
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