Crime and South Africa’s Bad Reputation

Most people around here tell us we’ve been lucky not to have been the victims of any assaults or robberies here in South Africa in a little over a year that we’ve lived here. Especially Johannesburg, as our latest visitors were quick to inform us, is known as the world’s crime capital.

Sure – luck, as always, has most certainly been a factor. As has, I would say, being cautious and sticking to the right places (although I’ve been accused of being crazy by going into Alexandra). The only crime that’s been directed at us has been the stealing of mail before it arrived in our PO box, depriving our kids of some Christmas presents and raising the suspicions of our bank in Germany when a letter in very bad German demanded the transfer of 10,000 Euros into some South African account.

However, the only “Smash and Grab” we’ve ever been involved in occurred in France over 20 years ago. We were driving along a country road in Noisette’s Golf convertible on a beautiful summer day, when a motorcycle literally smashed into us when we drove around a bend. It actually smashed into us very gently, as we should have taken note, but we were concerned about the rider who was getting up from the ground (and Noisette was concerned about his bumper), so we left the car standing at the side of the road and got involved in an animated discussion of the “accident” with some bystanders who had witnessed the whole thing. When we finally returned to the car, the glove compartment had been emptied out, including our driver’s licenses and money. We stopped in the ┬ánext town to report the incident at the local police station, but of course no one was very interested. We wasted about two hours sitting in a stuffy office telling our story to a very skeptical policeman typing away on an ancient typewriter using two fingers and then decided to best be on our way.

Not long afterwards, the same car was the victim of a “Slit and Grab,” so to speak. It was parked in front of my parents’ house in Germany overnight, and the next morning the cover had been slit open and Noisette’s blazer (his ONLY blazer at the time) had been stolen. These kinds of crimes are very common in Germany and Europe in general. You will hardly find a person there whose car radio or navigation system hasn’t been stolen at least several times or whose house was broken into at some point in their lives. Yes, you won’t find much violent crime there, but even that has been on the rise.

The other day, Noisette got a call from our credit card company to check some unusual purchases. He immediately assumed they must have occurred here in South Africa, where our bank had just issued another warning to never let your card out of your eyes, like when you pay in a restaurant (advice you should indeed follow – insist they bring the little machine to your table). But it turns out those suspicious transactions occurred in D├╝sseldorf, Germany, where he had been on a business trip three months ago.

My point is, crime is pretty much everywhere in the world, and sometimes where you least expect it. But some places get a terrible reputation, South Africa being one of them. Not all of it is deserved. As we’ve found out, you can live a good life here without being scared, just like in all the other places we’ve lived. Honestly, I’d be much more concerned about places like Mexico and Venezuela with all those hijackings. Sure there is a lot of crime, and in the spirit of full disclosure I should tell you that our neighborhood was broken into the other day – more on that later. But I don’t feel any less safe than I did in Kansas, where a man was actually shot in his garage shortly before we moved into that same neighborhood.

As for South Africa’s bad reputation: I think the World Cup has done a terrific job of showing the world that you can safely travel here. South Africans themselves seem to have been surprised that all the dire predictions didn’t come true. But there is still a lot of negative press, some of it fueled from abroad (my personal but statistically unverified belief is that it mainly comes from South Africans who have emigrated to England and now can’t stand the bad weather there, making them grouchy and wanting to justify their having left) but also some of it originating from the press coverage within South Africa.

This is why I’d like to focus the next three stories, a series of sorts, on South Africa’s press – you could call it “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” Keep posted!

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