Reflections IV – Cages

posted in: Life in South Africa | 0

Johannesburg is a city defined by security.  It affects the landscape, the architecture, the way of life… and more importantly, the way of thinking.  And it affects everyone. “We all live in cages,” as Franc Sobreira, one of the deputy heads here, told us.  Some of those cages are large and luxurious: the gated communities of the wealthy and privileged, with electrified fences and twenty-four seven security.  And as crime migrates to the wealthy suburbs, they too have to fence themselves in. But that response is spreading down too, with the new middle and working-class estates mirroring that approach.  And in older areas, like the one in which we live in Jeppestown, as the neighbourhood has gone down, the walls have gone up, each property defended with a wall topped with broken glass, vicious iron fences, and when they have not proved sufficiently daunting, coils of barbed wire on top.  Older apartment blocks which once sported airy balconies have now caged them, up to the second or third floor. Crime here is not a racial issue, but instead one fuelled by extreme poverty; anyone who has anything others might steal and sell needs to keep that thing safe.

And security has become a major industry here, a welcome source of employment (in a country with massive unemployment) for huge numbers, from the private security companies, some in vans with “Armed response” on the side, all the way down to the guys in grubby hi-viz jackets who will help you park your car and then look after it for a Rand or two (about 10p).

DCS itself is in its own gated compound, patrolled night and day by a private security company, but even that is not enough.  Each building inside, including our own apartment, has bars on the windows and a lockable gate in front of every door.  Cages within cages.

What is remarkable is how quickly one accepts it as normal.  It was only when we travelled to Cape Town that we were reminded that it is not normal at all. Cape Town is a beautiful but regular city.  Tourists in particular have to be wary of pickpockets and bag-snatchers, as they would in any city in the world, but they do not have to fear simply walking the streets, or stopping at traffic lights with the car window open.  Back here, the trick – one achieved by millions of people – is to live your life unconsumed by fear.

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