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Back in the RSA

July 24, 2006

Homecoming Revolution my arse. I’ll come back when you get crime, infrastructure, corruption, good governance and jobs sorted.

For reasons that I’ll moan about in a forthcoming post, I will be returning to South Africa in August, for three weeks. Readers of this blog who live in Cape Town and want to meet up are welcome to get in touch.

It’ll be my first trip to South Africa since I came to Scotland a year and a half ago, and I have interesting mixed feelings about coming back. Although I never intended to be away from South Africa for a long time, distance has given me the perspective to realise what a disaster the country is – and that I don’t want to live there in the forseeable future.

Firstly, there’s crime. Everyone knows how bad it is. There was an outcry recently when some one called Neil Watson put up a website highlighting the crime problem, and calling for visitors to stay away from South Africa for their own safely.

Unfortunately, the website is rubbish. It makes sensationalist claims along the lines of “if you come to South Africa, you will get shot and your daughters will get gang raped by HIV positive maniacs”. While this does happen, it is still statistically highly unlikely that the average visitor will experience this, or any crime. Watson comes across like the typical white racist hankering back to the good old days when the blacks were in their place and everything was well with the world.

My problem is the response from the Left, the progressives and the Afro-optimists. Their attitude is “don’t talk about crime, it’ll hurt the economy and make matters worse”. Or, “crime is understandable, it’s a legacy of apartheid and a consquence of poverty”.

Well of course it is, but that doesn’t make it acceptable. I used to think the same way. South Africa went through a massive change just over a decade ago. People were expecting a revolution, and when they got negotiated settlement instead, and no fair share of the economic pie, the class war fragmented into an individualist struggle of all against all.

Everything we experience is a consequence of history, the legacy of what has gone before. The nightmare of centuries weighs on us. But how long are we going to use this as an excuse to avoid doing something now?

Right now, I don’t care about the legacy of apartheid – I want to know what can be done to make the country better.

Progressives have allowed the whole crime debate – and it is a powerful and emotive one – to be hijacked by the Right, who use it to whip up support for more cops, the reintroduction of the death penalty, and vigilantism.

Crimes against property I fully understand in a country with such a spilt between rich and poor. But people get raped and murdered daily in South Africa, and that is not acceptable. It is a violation of our human rights that we are not safe in the streets of our country, and I refuse to live like that.

This is not out of fear. I probably have a fairly average exposure to crime for a South African: I have been mugged or confronted at knife point about ten times, had house and car break-ins three or four times, and I have had a gun to my head in two armed robberies. Nothing of tremendous value was stolen, and I was never hurt.

Some people have better experiences, many much worse. Like most people, I didn’t live I fear, I adapted: I moved to the safest neighbourhood that was practical to live in, made sure I knew and got on with all my neighbours, took precautions, and got involved in undermining the causes of crime by being politically active and working towards the eradication of poverty.

Crime is not why I left South Africa – I left because my girlfriend was in London, and I wanted to see the world. But looking back, I realise that the acceptance I describe above is mad – no one should have to live with the levels of crime we do. It doesn’t give life an interesting edge, it just makes you hard.

I live in Glasgow, which has the highest murder rate in Western Europe and the lowest male life expectancy. It has a reputation as a rough, violent city, and I live in a fairly rough part of it, on the boundary of the East End. Yet I feel safe walking around at all hours.

Then there is the lack of infrastructure in South Africa. This was inadequate in 1994, when the ANC took over. Instead of improving it, they have allowed it to be run into the ground, presumably so that it can be asset-stripped in some way by their corrupt buddies. Public transport is ridiculously bad, and I haven’t bothered using the postal system in years because I am not a gambler. And let’s not even get onto the high cost of going online.

(When I first arrived in Scotland, I phoned up an organisation one afternoon asking for information. They said “I’ll put something in the post for you”. I thought “yeah, right”. In SA, “put something in the post” is a polite way of saying “get lost”. But the next morning, at 9:30, it was delivered to my door, with an ordinary First Class stamp. I was so unused to functioning infrastructure that it really took me several minutes to figure out how it got there)

My next point is our useless, kleptocratic government, who exist only to enrich themselves and their friends. Not only do they do nothing to improve the country, they actively get in the way of those who try. The biggest disaster facing South Africa is HIV-Aids. Millions will die. But we have a 40% unemployment rate, so I think the government secretly thinks that a few million less citizens will be useful (except, of course, that it is overwhelmingly the economically active who are dying).

So the ANC government, through its inaction, is causing the deaths of far more black people than the apartheid regime did. What are we to make of that?

But I have written ad nauseum about the government, so enough of that for now.

My next gripe is the lack of opportunity. I voted ANC in 1994. I was 19 at the time, and just entering the job market. Unlike many people fleeing the country, I was incredibly positive about our new democracy and threw myself into making it work in what ever way I could – politically, personally and through work.

In South Africa, I have never been able to find full time employment in my field. Despite being skilled and committed, the rent was always late. South Africa does not value its home grown talent until that talent leaves, and then it tries to claim credit for it.

Within months of arriving in Scotland, I was working full time in my field for a decent salary. Yes, I know – it’s a richer country. But I feel like South Africa doesn’t even try.

So that rant aside, it will be very interesting to see how I feel about South Africa when I see it again. I still intend to settle there one day, and maybe when I arrive I’ll realise I love it so much I’ll never want to leave.

We’ll see.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Dylan permalink
    September 9, 2006 12:32 am

    I haven’t been back yet, but I have experienced the same shift of perspective afforded by distance. South Africa came to me a few months ago (see Schmooze Cruise on Fractalmindscape) with the Deputy President shamelessly flaunting mineral riches to potential investors while pretending the problems of housing, infrastructure, crime and HIV were minor obstacles that didnt really deserve that much attention. No one listened to her anyway: they were more interested in the cuisine and the band that had been flown out especially for the occasion.

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