In South Africa's national crime statistics released at the end of 2015, it was revealed that there were 129,045 robberies and 17,805 murders from 2014-2015, with 49 murders, 48 attempted murders, 354 aggravated robberies, 56 home robberies, and 35 vehicle hijackings per day.
The depressing truth is that, for many South Africans, this is our day-to-day reality. Crime is just another character in our lives, like when someone who only refers to movies as "films" would say that the house in such-and-such a "film" was a "central character." It affects my daily life more than I am even aware of. When I drive around, I know not to open my windows and to use my AC instead. I methodically lock my house every time I leave, andmy car every time I get out of it. I double lock my passage door at night.
When I was younger, I was so afraid that I would be kidnapped while I was sleeping that I made sure to wear socks to bed (no matter the weather) and tie my hair up in a ponytail. It doesn't make much sense now, but I imagined myself in my kidnappers' lair — I wouldn't want to be left barefoot or uncomfortable in an industrial warehouse, obviously.
This is the stuff of my childhood. Thoughts and conversations like, "Was that a gunshot or fireworks?" "I think it was a car backfiring." "OK." My mom telling me to close the car window or my sister telling me to hide my money from sight. Wishing there was a man in the house to feel more secure when I slept. Not being able to sleep because I not only feared aliens after watching an expose, I also feared real home intruders.
In suburban areas, a lot of us have alarm systems, electric fences, high walls, and sometimes even cameras. This is the norm.
Without these precautions, we know that criminals can affect our lives in a very real and scary way. If you live below the poverty line, it's even more real — there are no electric fences, walls and camera to protect you. In a country where poverty is a serious issue, crime rises even further, and the protection therefrom more difficult on an individual and nationwide basis.
We all know of a friend or family member that has been touched by crime, and not even an old, urban legend-y type story. In 2010, my half-siblings' dad and grandfather were brutally murdered in their own home. And true to many crimes here, their murder is still not solved, nor is it cared about much outside our immediate circle. Murders happen every day — 17,805 reported ones in one year alone, 49 per day — so why should two people matter much?
The grief counsellor assured us that the police would do everything they could to solve it, that these cases are usually solved fairly quickly. She was a liar. My mom received an (accidental) call from one of theirs phone months after the incident. So much for simple leads, like tracking a cellphone. I can't relate to TV crime shows because murders are methodically solved. People die and it matters. Fingerprints are taken, blood samples get processed and, at the very, very least, their missing cellphones are tracked.
Every day that I live in this country, I know that I am at risk. I could be harmed in any numbers of ways for any number of reasons — most of them senseless. Being a young woman, I am at more risk. I barely ever drive at night (we don't walk anywhere), I feel uncomfortable sleeping in a house alone and am often woken up petrified of small sounds. Is someone in the house? If they come into my bedroom, should I pretend to be asleep? Should I get up and investigate? What if they're out there? Fucking cat!
Sure, our gates and alarm systems and security companies and walls and fences and cameras and security beams give us a certain amount of comfort. The problem is, as much as they keep people out (which is actually not that much — my previous house was broken into even though the electric fence was on) they also do a great job of keeping us in. We are imprisoned in the walls we build for ourselves, imprisoned by our fears and logical paranoia, by the stories we all know, the ones that keep us up at night, the ones we spread like day-old celebrity gossip. Living in fear inside a fortress.
But what is the alternative? Vulnerability? Do we let our children and mothers live in an environment where anything could happen, at any point?
Many South Africans relocate, most often to Australia; there's a common joke here that says the last South African should turn the lights off in the airport when they leave. But why should I leave? We have many amazing things in this country. I want to one day raise my child in this melting pot. I want them to grow up seeing and respecting wild animals. To know that different isn't worse, and that a hideous past can, in fact, unite a nation. I want them to know about leaders they should be looking up to, from Steve Biko to Nelson Mandela to Thabo Mbeki. I need them to be able to laugh when I tell them a truly South African joke, because I love my home so much that I want to share it with everybody, most of all those I love.
But even with all of these qualities and hopes, it is becoming increasingly difficult to stay content. The Gotham-esque levels of crime make it so. It's difficult to explain why locking a door is an automatic gesture, a reflex; it isn't a compulsion, it's a necessity. Watching movies where characters don't lock their front door make me wonder how believable the film is. Aliens attacking a small town? Sure, I'll suspend my disbelief for an hour and a half. Anger-fueled telekinesis? I'll allow for it. I draw the line, however, at going to bed at night without locking the door. (Why are the Gilmore Girls so reckless?)
I hate that this is how I think. I hate that the circumstances that create crime exist. I hate whatever it is that makes criminals do these things. I hate the fear that we live in, the walls that keep us in. But, most of all, I hate that one day, I may have to leave the home that I love and know in order to create a safer space for a future family.