Nothing makes me as patriotic as traveling. Don’t get me wrong, the people, animals, and landscapes of South Africa are wonderful, and even the weather has been lovely this “winter” (generally in the 60s each day), and yet, wherever you look there are signs of the corruption and distrust that are robbing this beautiful country of its potential for greatness.
When we first arrived, we became members in a local game reserve, where we regularly visit the giraffes, zebra, warthogs, cheetahs, monkeys, buffalo, and other native animals. One highlight was when the mommy and baby rhinoceros came to join us for lunch in the reserve’s picnic spot. Being feet away from the massive creates was humbling. Just a week after our encounter, my family was devastated to learn that the mommy rhino had been killed by poachers (even though the reserve owners had recently humanely removed its horn in an effort to keep it from becoming a target). Video of the sound of that baby rhino (sixteen months old and still nursing, just like my son) crying for his mama was painfully similar to the tears of the immigrant children separated from their parents at the U.S. border, and equally inhumane. The difference is that in the U.S., people take to the streets and petition their elected representatives because (i) it is safe to do so, and (ii) we believe our protest may effect some change. Neither is true in South Africa. Although the South African locals condemned the rhino killing, the law enforcement here is so corrupt and disorganized, that there is no chance of ever bringing the perpetrators to justice.
Corruption at the top has had devastating consequences for South Africa. Blatant disregard for the rule of law by government officials undermines the country in many ways. For example, when elected officials refuse to pay their taxes, and get away with it, many more people decide they will not pay their taxes either. This results in less revenue for the state, and a loss of faith in the system. Because laws are rarely enforced, police and other law enforcement officials are not highly regarded. In turn, these professions cannot recruit people of integrity or afford to pay them a decent wage, so they make a living from soliciting bribes. Without law enforcement to serve as a deterrent or public services to ensure basic needs are met, crime is rampant. A desperately poor person will kill someone for a cell phone.
The resulting crime statistics are staggering. Last year, an average of 52 people were murdered each day (56 per 100,000 people in the Eastern Cape province where we are currently); 109 people were raped each day, nearly 600 people were robbed each day, and an average of 676 homes were burgled each day. It’s no wonder that many South Africans live behind walls with electric fences and in a constant state of fear.
This fear breeds it’s own set of problems, where people don’t trust each other, especially if they are from different racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic backgrounds. Before spending extended time here, I had not realized how much I rely upon the kindness of strangers in my everyday life. I wouldn’t hesitate to ask a stranger on the street for directions, or a fellow passenger on the bus to hold my baby while I collapse his stroller. Similarly, I take for granted that I can go for a night hike with my three kids in our neighborhood and worry only that they might get really dirty. Here, I feel vulnerable any time I venture beyond the house’s walls, especially with my kids. There are beautiful trails through the valley behind where we are staying, but I have been warned to never venture down there. And I won’t, because after fourteen years of visiting South Africa, I have learned that my gut instincts are not properly calibrated for this country.
I will be sad to leave the people and animals of South Africa next month, but I will not miss the fear that clouds their country’s sunny skies. Happy (Belated) 4th of July!