Press "Enter" to skip to content

The noise in the night

The other night, a loud noise jolted me out of my slumbers. Immediately, I went into panic mode: adrenaline surging, heart thumping, muscles rigid, hearing attuned to the slightest clue as to what the cause might be.

I waited. Another thump. The pipes? Then the faint sound of water running. It was the woman who lives below me, showering at 3.45am. Perhaps she had a plane to catch.

I’ve been back in Sydney for nearly a month now, so you’d think that the habits re-formed in Joburg would have been lost, again, now. But it takes time, and when you’re roused to fumbling consciousness from a deep sleep, instinct kicks in before reason. Once I’d satisfied myself with an explanation for the noise, I allowed myself to drift back to sleep, safe in the knowledge that, where I live, break-ins are exceedingly rare.

It’s when you wake up in the middle of the night that you realise the difference between life in South Africa and life elsewhere. It’s a simple freedom, really, not to have to wake up in terror every time you hear a noise in the night. A freedom that many South Africans do not enjoy and, let’s be realistic, may never experience — given the government’s apparent inability to achieve a meaningful reduction in violent crime, particularly the home invasions that are more terrifying than any other manifestation of the national pathology.

It is a freedom that I have come to value more than any other.

I want to sleep at night,” DA councillor Piet van der Watt said last week. He lives in Kameeldrift, an area of smallholdings and natural bush east of Pretoria, near the Roodeplaat Dam. In the past, I’ve driven around the area a couple of times and, if you’re fond of thornveld, it’s quite picturesque. It’s also incredibly dangerous, because if any community has been systematically targeted by criminals, it’s this one.

Nobody in Kameeldrift sleeps peacefully.

Certainly not Renier Boshoff, who wanted to sleep undisturbed by the alarm going off. He paid for it with his life. Boshoff’s murder was just the latest in a long and depressing litany of attacks.

Last November, Kameeldrift Community Policing Forum spokesperson Warren Williams said, “As a community, we have marched and shouted about crime. But this has amounted to nothing. We are still being maimed, raped, and shot at on a daily basis. We demand that the NIA investigate if a third force is to blame for the crime in our area. We will also take the matter to the United Nations as we believe that the situation qualifies as genocide.”

In December, Janet Smith documented the community’s search for answers. “Feral gangs are making their way through fences and around outbuildings, their shadows slithering over lawns in the moonlight,” she wrote.

“They open fire on houses with shotguns and pistols, spraying walls and windows and whatever lies inside, leaving empty magazines. Teenage girls have been assaulted and raped in their bedrooms. Men have been gunned down in front of their families.”

Those she quotes refuse a racial explanation — “This is raw, raw crime; this has nothing to do with politics or race,” says Fanie Visser. “The black people in the area also have to deal with the effects, so this brings our community closer.” A memorandum from Visser was given to Safety and Security Minister Nathi Mthethwa when he visited Kameeldrift to hear crime victims’ stories for himself.

How do the residents of Kameeldrift do it? How do they face the darkness, night after interminable night, not knowing whether it will be their turn to be raped, assaulted, murdered, this time?

I know I couldn’t.


  • Sarah Britten

    During the day Sarah Britten is a communication strategist; by night she writes books and blog entries. And sometimes paints. With lipstick. It helps to have insomnia.