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Living in constant fear

ON Thursday 19 September, South Africans heard why this remains a country where its people are still living in constant fear.

Two decades of African National Congress self-interest and bungling have failed to curb crime, despite the asinine claptrap with which SA’s minister of police Nathi Mthethwa insulted the country. Millions of ordinary South Africans actually believe the unrestrained corruption, which has become synonymous with the government itself, is a form of tacit complicity – if not implicit condonation.

I have been active in crime prevention since the last century when I was communications director for the ill-starred Business Against Crime. And for decades before that I was a crime and court reporter, and have written hundreds of articles for local and international media including The Washington Post, TIME and Forbes on crime in South Africa – so I figure I know a little about the subject.

But journalistic “impartiality” does put a numbing distance between reporter and the life-changing reality of the lived experience of crime. The same scientific separation characterises the platitudinous refrains from think-tanks such as the Institute of Security Studies, the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation and the numerous well-meaning but narrow-minded and myopic Mother Grundies.

All the while, crime entrenches itself as South Africa’s biggest single industry and far-and-away the country’s biggest money spinner, employer and enterprise.

In South Africa, crime pays – and it pays handsomely; except, of course, for the victims.
The only differences between where I live and the horror of our sprawling ghettos, our squatter camps, our iconic African favelas are geographic location and rental. Please don’t insult the people who have to live there with euphemistic gibberish like “informal settlements”.

Our rented home in Paulshof, north of Johannesburg, has become a crime hot-spot. The four people who live here are all elderly – 58 to 65 – and we are watched constantly. Our comings and goings are monitored down to the hour, and we are hit when most vulnerable.

We are repeatedly targeted and have been hit seven times in a year. Our losses recently topped R100 000. The robbers are armed professionals who know exactly what they’re looking for and where it is kept. They are far more professional, skilled and dedicated than the SA Police and, if not directly in cahoots with the three local security companies, outperform them at every turn.
Living as we do from hand to mouth – two of us having been unemployed for more than two years – we cannot afford insurance, let alone sophisticated electric fencing, 24-hour armed security or CCTV. In fact, we have to repair burglar guards, windows and palisade fences ourselves. Regularly. With the handful of tools we have left.

The hits started shortly after we moved in. First a few select tools swiped from the garage; then more selective burglaries targeting vehicles; then more brazen house robberies using crowbars to shatter Spanish burglar bars from their mountings in the wall and cherry-picking computer equipment.

Most recently three armed men walked up to J’s room – who worries about motion-activated floodlights at 3:12 in the morning – shattered his bedroom window as he lay sleeping, reached through the burglar bars and snatched his laptop. He had only begun working at that desk a few days before.

The SA Police at Sandton are notionally empathetic, but invariably the knee-jerk reaction is to attack our fears with derision, suspicion, denials and a grand overture of just how poorly resourced they are … and, of course, how little they earn. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.

Whenever we are hit, two disinterested junior yobs (in bullet-proof vests nogal) come out to eye the place over and interrogate us on why we employ a legal Zimbabwean refugee (short answer: She WORKS! Dammit!). Their eyes roll heavenward when we insist on making statements. They grudgingly agree – “for the insurance”. When we tell them we are not insured, the racial stereotyping kicks in – “What? No insurance? But you are white!” Ergo, all whites are filthy rich, privileged, insured to the hilt and we only report crime to (a) claim back, (b) embarrass the beloved ANC (c) etc. etc.
And all the sanctimonious propaganda sprouted by LeadSA, ProudlySA, SA – The Good News and the legions of yaysayers, rainbow-nationalists and perennially pink-eyed guardians of condescension serves only to aggravate racism, sexism, ageism and other forms of prejudice and bigotry.

And so we pass our twilight years living in constant fear.

Are we bitter? You bet we are!
We are bitter at being victimised;
• bitter at being impoverished;
• bitter at being made to feel perpetually unsafe;
• bitter that our rights +have been stolen along with our property;
• bitter at being disempowered and made to feel useless and unwanted;
• bitter at being made to feel there is no hope;
• bitter at being abandoned by an apathetic state;
• bitter at being profiled according to our race and age;
• bitter at being derided as alarmist old whites who have no right to feel bitter because we benefitted from apartheid anyway;
• bitter at having to constantly look over our shoulders;
• bitter at having to treat every person we see with deep suspicion;
• bitter that our lives are being shortened by fear;
• bitter that our dreams have been replaced by nightmares;
• bitter that sleep has become a luxury, like insurance;
• bitter that ministers can belittle our lived experience as an “improvement towards building a crime-free society”.

Are we paranoid? Probably – it comes with age, fragility and vulnerability. Are we unrealistic? No. In SA someone is murdered every 30 minutes. In SA someone is seriously assaulted every 90 seconds. We would rather not be among them.