October 19, 1997
LETTER FROM SOUTH AFRICA
BY KATHY CHENAULT
Cuddly stuffed animals lay alongside fuzzy pajamas. A stack of tiny clothes adorned with smiling dinosaurs and frolicking giraffes rose from the ruins of discarded wrapping paper. For most of that evening a year ago, it was a typical baby shower. Conversation meandered from doctors to babysitters, from cradles to feeding schedules.
So it went, until the talk turned–as it inevitably does in South Africa–to horror stories about crime. We instantly shifted to a litany of mayhem and mania in our midst: So and so was robbed at gunpoint. Another hijacking happened just up the street. One woman’s husband had been shot in the head and lived.
ROGUE COPS. At the core of South Africa’s crime plague are several aggravating influences. The country’s brutal past under apartheid left a legacy of violence that lives on three years after the dawn of South African democracy. Add to that economic hardship, with an estimated unemployment rate of nearly 40%, and widespread political frustrations coupled with continued social alienation. Law enforcement and the justice system are underfunded, largely inept, and widely distrusted, a holdover from predemocracy days, when they were tools of oppression. Displaced former police officers are suspected of organizing syndicates linked to crimes from car theft to bank robbery.
Small wonder, then, that fear of crime is so pervasive. A 1996 study by the Nedcor Ltd. banking group concluded that South Africa, with a murder rate eight times higher than the global average, is among the most dangerous societies in the world. Corruption and fraud are pervasive. Rape is increasing. In May, Meyer Kahn, a respected businessman, was named to head the country’s police force. The appointment was widely hailed, but crime is still rampant.
Security has become yet another deepening chasm between rich and poor, black and white in South Africa. “The rich can build higher fences and buy better alarms. They have insurance to replace stolen cars. What do the poor do?” asks Mark Shaw, senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, a crime-research center in Johannesburg. “Crime remains the single biggest concern about the new political order in South Africa.”
Lawlessness is souring some companies and outside investors. Foreigners put more than $2.87 billion into South Africa in the year ended last May 1, up from $800 million the previous year, according to the Washington-based Investor Responsibility Research Center. But a survey by the American Chamber of Commerce in South Africa of 103 members shows that 52% were investing cautiously, while 7%, citing crime, were not investing at all.
HARDSHIP POST. Many skilled and professional South Africans are fleeing to Europe and the U.S., making it difficult for companies to find managers and technicians. A South African business consultant I know moved to Britain this year after his family was robbed at gunpoint in their home. And some outsiders refuse to be transferred to South Africa. They “decide no amount of hardship pay is worth it,” says Cally Heal, director of Corporate Relocations, which helps foreigners resettle here. Others come but leave their families behind. So some companies are delaying or canceling expansion. Others limit inventories, fearing warehouse raids.
Crime-prevention measures abound: guard dogs, surveillance cameras, concertina wire spiralling along fences. Executives ride to work with gun-toting drivers or bodyguards. Some American companies require overseas workers to live in cluster homes in tightly guarded compounds. I know of one marriage that failed after the wife went stir-crazy.
My husband and I, both foreign correspondents, didn’t take the crime obsession too seriously when we arrived in March, 1996. After all, we’d worked in Sarajevo and in Cambodia. But with a year-old son, I find crime is always in the back of my mind. I’ve had no problems, but once, when my husband was stopped at a traffic light, a would-be thief smashed the car window and unsuccessfully tried to grab his cellular phone.
Every evening we sequester ourselves on the second floor of our house, locking an iron gate at the top of the stairs. We turn on the alarm system, activating motion detectors throughout the house. If an intruder makes it over the eight-foot concrete wall and into the house, alarms will go off and our security company will call to see about dispatching armed guards. If we don’t answer, they come immediately. It’s a lot different from the way I was raised in Nebraska, but here, it’s standard.
CHIC BRASS. Humor is one way we endure. At a business lunch, a South African opens with this chipper greeting: “So, who at this table hasn’t been car-jacked lately?” A newspaper reports on a fashion event showing how trendy South Africans will be wearing their holsters and handguns this season. A Johannesburg boutique displays the ultimate in crime-inspired accessories–a necklace made of spent shell casings.
Folks find poignant ways to remember crime victims. In May, portraits of slain relatives and friends were painted on a Wall of Remembrance along a busy Johannesburg street. “One’s just got to hang in there and bite the bullet,” says Luanne Grant, executive director of the American Chamber.
No one knows that better than Max the Gorilla, who became the country’s most famous crime-fighting hero after a man fleeing from police jumped into his cage at the Johannesburg zoo and pumped two bullets into the ape. The perp was captured, Max survived, and the public went wild over the 400-pound gorilla’s escapade, with frequent references to the “urban jungle” and “gorilla warfare.” The last time I saw Max on TV, he looked into the camera and gripped his head in his mammoth hands. It’s difficult to know what a gorilla is thinking, but it sure looked like an expression of futility. If that’s the case, Max, hang in there. You’re not alone.