A moment of South African reality

Last night, we headed down to the V&A Waterfront. We reached the big intersection at the end of Eastern Boulevard, where we had to turn right into Dock Road, which would take us into the Waterfront. The traffic was quite heavy, because it was shortly before 18h00, and there was a crowd of pedestrians, most of them Africans, waiting to cross the intersection.

In the past, a fair number of pedestrians have been knocked down here because there are several lanes of traffic and cars often race through the lights when they’re aready orange or even red. So I’m always a little nervous here. As we waited, impatient pedestrians were already stepping into the road, pushing forward in anticipation of the light turning in their favour.

(Actually, I’m not even sure there is a little green man there… South African pedestrians aren’t usually looked after that well, because, when the little green man is flashing, cars turning into the road are also allowed to go. Theoretically (according to the drivers’ licence manual), they ought to give pedestrians a chance to cross, but this almost never happens in reality. So that’s why they usually end up diving and dodging between and around moving vehicles.)

Anyhow, you can relax, because no pedestrian was knocked down while we were waiting our turn at the traffic lights. But something else happened that I thought was really interesting because it was one of those moments that encapsulates South African reality.

A man and a woman, who appeared to be overseas tourists from the way they were dressed and the way they were looking around, were approaching the group of pedestrians waiting to rush across the intersection. (The nice-looking camera dangling loosely off the man’s hand was also a dead giveaway.)

When I saw the camera, I said to myself, “That man’s a walking target for muggers. He really should put that camera away, or at least hold onto it properly.”

I saw some of the people waiting doing a double-take, looking at the two tourists, glancing at the camera, and the exact same thought flashing across their faces. Was someone going to make a grab and run? Or would they hold back because they were so many witnesses? But there was also a flicker of disbelief, rather like watching a toddler ambling innocently and fearlessly into a lions’ den with a dreamy look in his eyes, heading straight for the biggest lion because they wanted to cuddle them.

It was a bizarre, breath-holding moment, frozen in time. Like being poised on a knife-edge, where reality can split into two possible realities.

A nanosecond later, one of the pedestrians stepped back onto the kerb and approached the two tourists with a big, friendly smile, indicating to the man that he should either put away his camera, or wrap the carry-strap around his wrist to hold it more securely.

The tourist took a few steps backwards, a look of alarm on his face. His instinct was clearly not to trust this friendly stranger’s warning… He and his wife took a few steps away from the crowd still waiting at the intersection, and glanced back at them, fear and anxiety suddenly on their faces.

Fortunately, the light changed just then, and the crowd surged across the intersection, eager to get to the train station and go home. The tourists crossed too, nervously, keeping their distance. We drove on, but what I really wanted to do was to get out of the car, walk over to them and say, “Look, can we give you a lift somewhere? You’re walking targets right now.”

But I didn’t. And now I wonder whether they made it safely back to their hotel.

As I said, what I found so interesting about this little cameo was that it encapsulates so perfectly one little mosaic tile of the bigger South African reality. In the run-up to the 2010 FIFA World Cup, which is taking place here in June – July next year, and given that we have been promised hundreds of thousands of first-time visitors to our fair land, I think it’s really important that we educate foreign visitors to our country about basic safety.

I know from my very limited experience of traveling in Germany and Ireland that being a tourist in those two countries is an absolute pleasure: you’re generally not harassed by locals who demand money to “watch” your car if you park on the side of a public road or anywhere there aren’t parking meters; you can take photographs both in the middle of the city and far out in the countryside without (much) fear of being mugged;  you can (almost always and almost anywhere) go for a walk on your own or with your partner without fear of being killed for a cellphone or a bit of small change; and the public transport system is generally safe and reliable. Unfortunately, none of that can be taken for granted here.

As a South African tourist overseas for the first time, I found myself dressing down deliberately, hiding my camera in my rucksack until I really wanted to use it, looking over my shoulder constantly, and scanning my surroundings with a sense of hypervigilance that I had never realised was abnormal because it is so normal back home.

I remember very clearly a moment when we were hiking outside Dresden in 2006. We had taken the steamer up the Elbe to the tiny little settlement of Rathen in order to hike up to the Bastei-Brücke, where a good friend of the family had agreed to meet us. It was a chilly and rather misty day, with a gentle intermittent drizzle. So there weren’t many hikers along the route. We came to an enchanting little lake (the Amselsee) and paused for a moment to take in the magnificent scenery, when I noticed a man, on his own, standing a little distance away, looking our way.

Because I was still in South African hypervigilance mode, I froze with panic. Here we were, just the two of us, already quite far away from civilisation, face to face with a potential killer. Perhaps he had a gun or a knife and was going to attack us, or call to his mates hiding between the trees beyond! (Isn’t it amazing what scenarios the paranoid mind can conjure up in a flash?)

Richard told me not to be so paranoid, confidently took my hand and we walked on, straight towards our ‘threat’. I smiled in a friendly way at the man, trying to hide the thumping of my heart, and he even gave a brief smile back. He had just been a lone hiker, enjoying the scenery as much as we were.

A huge sigh of relief.

When we shared this little story with our friends in Germany afterwards, they laughed uproariously and said that, yes, hikers were occasionally attacked, but it happened soooo rarely that there was really no need to be so afraid. Women could easily walk or cycle through the countryside on their own without being paranoid about their personal safety. It was a real eye-opening experience that drove home the point that being in a semi-permanent state of hypervigilance, as I had been back home, is not normal.

Now I really don’t want to frighten potential visitors to South Africa. There are enough headlines about crime to make any normal person too terrified to leave the house. Or even to stay in the house! But it really helps to remember that there are hundreds and hundreds of thousands of good, decent, helpful, friendly people too, who will be eager to help you and show you around if you lose your way.

At the same time, being a little more vigilant and observant than you are back in Europe or America might not go amiss either. We may not have lions and leopards, or elephants, rhinos and wildebeest roaming the streets of our cities, but we do have the occasional other predators of the two-legged variety whom you really want to avoid. And walking around in a daze, with a big fancy camera hanging off your hand or around your neck, or standing in the middle of the road consulting a map of the area with a bewildered look on your face, or talking and texting on a cellphone without paying any attention to your surroundings, well – not even the locals can get away with that all the time!

And I, for one, really don’t want any more tourists to get hurt: I really want to keep them safe and to share the wonders of our city with them, so that they’ll have a grand old time here and so that they’ll tell all their friends back home that a visit to our beautiful country is really worthwhile.

2 thoughts on “A moment of South African reality

  1. When one of my sons mentioned on the weekend that he was considering a trip to South Africa, my husband told him the story of his aunt and uncle both being hospitalized after a mugging while visiting in the 1970s. Although they were Canadians, they were residents of Kenya at the time.

    Tourists in Canada have to be less vigilant. I think the colder weather, which requires wearing bulkier clothes, and the slippery, snowy sidewalks in winter make it more difficult for people to do muggings successfully.

    People do need to be more alert and aware of their surroundings whether they’re at risk for getting mugged or slipping on the ice!

  2. What a gripping post. I’ve been fascinated about Africa itself since I critiqued one guys memoir of a trip there (laughing over the 17 or so vaccines he had to handle and his opinion that it is suicide to ride on an omnibus. Apparently there is no such thing as a ‘full’ bus there?)

    I don’t think its necessary to be particularly vigilant here either. Yeah someone might steal your stuff, but its unlikely unless it is really nice and really easy.

    Anyway, I was dropping by to let you know that Uninvoked now has a forum with an advertising section, if you’d like to leave a link to your blog on it. No link back necessary ^^ Forum here:


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