When I first arrived in South Africa in 2004, I refused to heed the safety warnings of friends and strangers. Of course, I had been told repeatedly not to walk around by myself, but walking the five blocks from the University to my guest house through a residential neighborhood in broad daylight seemed perfectly safe to me. A few days in to my time in Pretoria, however, a man in a pick-up truck pulled up beside be and insisted that I get in and let him drive me home. There was no way I was getting into a truck with a strange man – I wasn’t that naïve! The stranger was persistent, however, and followed me even as I picked up my walking pace. Finally, I agreed to ride in the bed of his truck to my guest house.
Not long after, I moved in with my boyfriend’s family so that they could keep an eye on me because my nonchalant behavior made my boyfriend (now husband) fear for my safety. I was jogging in their gated and guarded community one Sunday morning when a family stopped me on their way to church and begged that I please let them take me home. It seemed ludicrous to me, but I relented, and in the car they explained they were concerned I might be killed for my discman (remember those?!?).
A few weeks later, my boyfriend and I went to a BBQ (“braii” in South Africa) at his friend’s house in an affluent suburb. That evening, his friends were neither surprised nor terribly upset to discover that the car we had driven there in (belonging to someone’s mom) had been stolen out of the driveway. When I demanded that we report the theft, the police were similarly blasé and simply told my friend they’d keep an eye out for her mom’s car, but not to hold her breath.
Suffice it to say, while I fell in love with the people, culture, foods, and nature of
South Africa, I never did get comfortable with the general sense of constant insecurity that hangs over the country (and particularly affluent whites). Despite my half-dozen visits over the thirteen years since, and the improving security situation in the country, I continue to find the preoccupation with safety off-putting.
During a prolonged visit in January, my husband’s friends, now all young professionals with mortgages, nice cars, and retirement accounts, spoke of little else. One dreamed of moving to a community where the homes, shopping center, school, and other amenities were all contained within multiple layers of guarded gates. Another mulled whether a much longer commute would be a reasonable price to pay for a home on the outskirts of town rather than potentially expose her family to theft and violence in one of Pretoria’s most affluent neighborhoods. While my friends brag about their solar panels, in-law suites, and smart appliances, my husband’s South African friends were proud of their multi-layer alarms, video surveillance systems, and comprehensive insurance policies. The South Africans gave my husband and me a lot of grief about the current political situation in America, but I came home with a renewed appreciation for the many things we do not need to worry about on a daily basis – like our cars being stolen or our children being kidnapped.
The weather and wildlife were spectacular, but yet again, another adventure abroad has reaffirmed what I discovered long ago: The more I travel, the more patriotic I become.