Tag Archives: Cape Town

Gang Violence Devastates Cape Town’s Townships

Despite Johannesburg’s reputation for being the most dangerous city in South Africa, it now appears that the tourist mecca of Cape Town has stolen its crown.

According to a list of the top 50 most violent urban areas on the planet compiled by Mexican NGO Citizens’ Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice and published last week, the Mother City was ranked a startling number 20.

The ratings are assigned by measuring the number of homicides per 100,000 citizens each year and do not include war zones. So on this basis, Cape Town recorded an average of 50.94, making it not only the most violent city in the country, but also the entire continent.

Joburg, on the other hand, did not figure in the rankings at all, which were, in fact, dominated by Latin American cities, with San Pedro Sula in Honduras topping the list (187.14).

But this is not the first time that Cape Town has been singled out for its high levels of violence. Although domestic arguments turned nasty are the most likely reason for murder in the region, accounting for a third of all 2,580 such incidents last year, next on the list is gang-related violence (18%), which has been escalating in recent years.

As for the areas with the highest murder rates last year, these were found not so much in the region’s high-profile tourist areas, but rather in the townships of the Cape Flats.

The Cape Flats are a vast, barren area about 30km to the south east of Cape Town itself, where people designated as “non-white” during the apartheid era were compelled to live as part of the regime’s forced removal policy.

Among the most afflicted townships there are Gugulethu, where Anni Dewani, whose British husband is currently on trial for her murder, was killed, and Mitchell’s Plain, a predominantly “coloured” (a South African term for people of mixed race) settlement that suffers the highest levels of gang-related murders.

Because, while “black” townships may experience the highest murder rates overall, it is “coloured” communities that suffer disproportionately from organised gang activity.

Craven Engel, a minister and chief executive of NGO, First Community Resource Centre, which is based in the troubled area of Hanover Park, explains that, while gangs have existed in one form or another for generations, before forced resettlement in the 1960s, they were largely benevolent.

But the social dislocation, disempowerment and anger resulting from the policy led to a change in focus. A lack of action by law enforcement then entrenched the situation, leaving communities feeling increasingly hopeless, marginalised and abandoned.

Gang dynamics

In fact, as the gangs increasingly moved into drug trafficking, some corrupt police officers also started taking a slice of the pie. This scenario led to whole roads being “contaminated with drug outlets”, specialising mainly in tik (methamphetamine) and, progressively over the last two years, heroin-based nyaope.

But there are also other factors at play. For example, overcrowding is rife and urban design alienating, something that Engel hopes will be tackled by City planners following an external assessment for a much-needed redesign next year.

To make matters worse, he says: “Unemployment is crazy – 70% the last time I checked – and poverty is crippling people. There’s a lack of opportunity and educational levels are also quite low, with school dropout rates terrible. This makes recruitment to gang culture very easy as there’s derailed youth everywhere.”

In fact, the gang’s recruitment policy with regards to age has now dropped to 12 years old as it is perceived that children will get off more lightly and not be sent to prison if caught.

But being a tattooed member of a gang not only generates an income, it also confers respect, a feeling of identity and of safety by belonging to an organisation that promises to protect you.

What this all means, Andre Standing, a senior researcher at the Institute of Security Studies, points out in a 2005 policy discussion paper – the most up-to-date estimate available – is that there are now as many as 130 street and prison gangs operating in the Cape Town area, which between them have around 100,000 members.

In a bid to reduce the levels of violence that ensue though, Engel set up a social crime prevention programme called CeaseFire four years ago after attending a workshop hosted by a group with the same name from Chicago in the US.

The scheme, which is funded by the City of Cape Town, is based on the idea that gang violence is like a contagious disease. Therefore, when it breaks out in the community, individuals need to be quarantined by so-called “violence interrupters” to prevent it from spreading further.

“An interrupter is like an antibiotic,” Engel explains. “He’s a street-level guy who spends most of his time on the beat and mediates to prevent violence or retribution taking place. Once that’s done, he hands the case over to an outreach worker, who is more of a social worker. They then do risk work with individuals and find out what we can offer them.”

Possible services here include residence at a half-way house to help people deal with substance abuse, skills development, legal support and help in finding work.

But trauma counselling is also available both for gang members and their families who often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder due to living in what is essentially a continuous warzone.

Another thing worth noting though is that both interrupters and outreach workers are all former gang members themselves, often with prison stretches behind them. This status not only gives them street cred, but also means that they are intimately familiar with the issues faced by others.

CeaseFire

As a result, over the last two years, CeaseFire’s Hanover Park programme has successfully intervened with 158 youths, some 70 of whom have left gang life and are now in gainful employment.

“The primary aim is to stop guys shooting and to mediate conflict so as to stop violence spreading. But the hidden agenda is to get people to exit gangs,” Engel says.

Although many programme participants have yet to do so, “almost 70% aren’t shooters any more”, he adds. While they might still carry weapons to protect their turf, “they’ll now think twice before using them”.

This means that, since the scheme began, violence levels in the area have dropped by about 50%. While 38 people died last year, the figure up until 16 September had more than halved again to 16.

One tool that is proving useful in supplementing limited manpower levels, meanwhile, is the Shotspotter gunfire detection system. Despite its far-reaching work, the CeaseFire programme is only able to employ five interrupters and outreach workers respectively, two office staff and two volunteers.

The system, which was developed by California-based SST to alert police should shots go off in troubled US neighbourhoods, is also being used in Kruger National Park in the fight against rhino poaching.

But since 15 August, Shotspotter has likewise been taking part in a three-month pilot project covering a 1kmsq area of Hanover Park. Once a shot goes off in the area, the sound is triangulated using sensors, and audio and location data is sent to interrupters via an SMS message.

They are then able to respond to the incident within minutes and without having to depend on often-unreliable information from members of the public.

Another key advantage of the system is that it provides analytical information, which enables both CeaseFire and law enforcement bodies to deploy resources when and where they are most needed.

Engel explains: “We now know that most activity takes place between 12pm and 3am on Monday mornings, which we didn’t expect. So the data has navigated us much closer to the trouble spots and, because we can see areas heating up and cooling down, it’s now possible to deploy people more effectively.”

A decision on whether to extend the trial or have the system go live will be taken early next year, most likely around the same time that CeaseFire begins extending its scheme into nearby areas such as Manenberg and Kewtown.

As Engel concludes: “There’s much hope around the programme. It takes time for a community to heal, but peace attracts positive things like investment and job opportunities. They’re now starting to happen and so, while it’s taken a long time, we’re finally beginning to see positive rays of hope.”

Ebola Hammers South African Tourism, while Rampant Bilharzia Goes Unnoticed

Although South Africa has had no confirmed cases of ebola and is thousands of miles from the epicentre of the epidemic in West Africa, it appears that its tourist industry is being hammered anyway.

According to local reports, panic over the disease is reminiscent of that generated by SARS in 2003, causing holiday-makers from Europe, the US and particularly Asia to cancel their travel plans to the country in droves.

Enver Duminy, chief executive of Cape Town Tourism, told national Sunday newspaper City Press over the weekend, for example, that, even though the organisation had issued numerous statements confirming the Mother City’s ebola-free status, its Asian tour promoters and trade contacts were experiencing cancellation rates of up to 90%.

And this despite the fact that the city is actually further from the centre of the epidemic in Freetown, Liberia (3,365 miles) than it is from London (3,172 miles).

But as unwarranted as such fears may be, they could potentially be disastrous for the local economy. Tourism is worth about ZAR18 billion (£1 billion) to the Western Cape, South Africa’s largest sightseeing destination by far, and employs a huge 150,000 people.

In fact, across South Africa as a whole, tourism contributes a significant 9% of GDP and accounts for one in 11 jobs, making it a hugely important, and often underestimated, industry.

As a result, in a bid to help try and prevent the spread of the disease to these shores, Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene has allocated an extra ZAR33 million (£1.9 million) to help support the continent’s worst affected nations – Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Each of South Africa’s nine provinces has also designated certain key hospitals to handle an outbreak should one occur, introduced trained response teams and implemented surveillance at all ports of entry, including thermal scanners at Johannesburg’s OR Tambo and Lanseria airports.

And such preventative measures would appear to be vital. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) last week, the disease has already killed 5,160 out of the 14,098 people who have been infected with it in eight countries across West Africa.

Bilharzia

But another dangerous illness worth considering, even though it has received nothing like the global attention of ebola, is bilharzia – or to use its scientific name, schistosomiasis.

Despite being a rather neglected condition to date, the WHO expressed concern last month that the spread of bilharzia may be about to hit epidemic proportions in South Africa.

It is estimated that as many as five million out of a total population of 53 million could be infected, with the problem being particularly acute in Kwa-Zulu Natal’s (KZN) humid, low altitude coastal areas.

The disease itself, meanwhile, is caused by a schistosoma parasitic flatworm that enters the skin through contact with infected fresh water from rivers and lakes. These parasites, which can live in the blood stream of their host for up to 30 years, develop over time into worms, which mate and release up to 500 eggs a day.

Some of these eggs are passed out in an individual’s urine or faeces, while others remain trapped in body tissue, the most common being the intestine, liver, bladder or reproductive organs, causing inflammation or scarring in the process.

While symptoms vary, for many people, they start with a rash or itchy skin within a few days of infection. The next stage is often a fever, chills, a cough, muscle aches and diarrhoea a couple of months later.

But, while the illness takes a number of forms and can even remain dormant in people’s systems for years, the ultimate outcome is generally immune problems and progressive organ damage.

While children are most vulnerable to the disease, it is actually its effect on women that is causing most concern to experts. Estimates are that about two million South African females are currently infected with bilharzia, which can cause severe gynaecological issues, including infertility.

Taking action

Other problems include severe pain and chronic bleeding, particularly during sexual intercourse, which mean that women are as much as three times more likely to contract HIV/AIDS – a disease already at pandemic levels among disadvantaged women in rural communities – if having sex with an infected partner.

And even more worryingly, the WHO believes that more than 150 million women across the continent suffer from this generally unrecognised form of the disease.

But there are things that can be done. If diagnosed early enough, the worms can be killed off quite easily with a single dose of the drug praziquantel, although the eggs cannot.

Children in particularly affected areas of South Africa are already given such medication once every two years for prevention purposes, although some experts believe that an annual dose would probably be more appropriate.

But there is currently no vaccine for bilharzia and, to make matters worse, the illness tends to go largely un- or mis-diagnosed. Too few medical practitioners are even aware of its existence, and those that are tend to look for blood in the urine as a primary symptom, which is not necessarily the case.

As Dr Eyrun Kjetland, an honorary lecturer at KZN University and the Norwegian Centre for Imported and Tropical Diseases, told a gathering of WHO experts, African doctors and leading researchers at the University last month: “It is a neglected tropical disease and there’s not a lot of attention on it. The pharmaceutical companies don’t care about it, there’s no donations coming forth and the authorities are not doing enough in paving the way to make it less of a public health problem.”

As a result, she is currently working with a number of other health experts in order to compile an information booklet. The document, which is due to be published within a couple of years, is intended to help doctors recognise the condition and treat it more effectively.

A team from KZN University is also undertaking research on the province’s south coast, where infection is rife, in a bid to come up with a wider plan of action for treatment and prevention. To this end, a draft report is already in the pipeline – and so it would appear, not a moment too soon.

Revisiting the Happening Cape

Sometimes you don’t realise how much you miss a place until you go back.

 

And so it was with our five-day jaunt to Cape Town last week, with me in my official capacity as hanger-on, and my Beloved working his socks off at a conference.

 

Because, although it undoubtedly depends on what you’re into and what your tastes are, Joburg, to me, simply isn’t a patch on the Cape.

 

Particularly at this time of year during the dry winter season when everything in Jozi is turning a parched, ugly brown, and bush fires, some laid as fire breaks and others just ignored, appear to be breaking out all over the place.

 

The Western Cape, by way of contrast though, is looking lush and green and gorgeous as ever – and just has so much more going on, even during the tourist low season.

 

Even the shopping’s better. For ages now, I’ve been looking all over Jozi for a nice ornamental bowl to act as a wedding present from my Beloved and drawn a complete blank, disheartened as I’ve been by either the pedestrian or the showy bling that a lot of shops seem to specialise in here.

 

But a couple of days in the Cape and that coveted bowl is mine – a beautifully simple Zulu izinkamba, or drinking pot, traditionally used to share beer around a camp fire – courtesy of the African Trading Port at the V&A Waterfront.

 

A truly intriguing and suitably musty-smelling store, it resides over four uneven rickety floors in the Old Port Captain’s Building. And it specialises in selling genuine African artefacts ranging from sculptures to ceramics sourced from rural villages all over the continent by 500 or so art scouts. It’s fabulous.

 

Keeping on the arty theme, I also took myself off at one point for a trip to the Cape Town suburb of Woodstock, initially to nose around an interior design exhibit at custom furniture producers, Leon at CCXIX.

 

World Design Capital

 

Created to celebrate Cape Town’s World Design Capital (WDC) status this year, the 12Rooms Exhibition showcased the work of a dozen local designers, including a Xhosa tribal-inspired living room and a French loft-style bedroom.

 

The WDC designation is awarded every couple of years by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design to those cities that demonstrate a desire to employ design as a tool for social and cultural change as well as economic development.

 

But Woodstock seems to have been doing it for itself over the last two or three years regardless – although the city’s WDC status certainly won’t do it any harm either.

 

Woodstock is, you might say, the equivalent of East London’s Hoxton about 20 years ago – an area that you’d now describe as being down-at-heel but was once quite dangerous, with an eccentric mix of car repair shops, tatty hardware stores, ultra-trendy art galleries and foodie hang-outs all sitting cheek-by-jowl.

 

It’s also home to what you can only describe as ‘retail spaces’ such as the upmarket and extremely pricey Bromwell Boutique Mall [http://www.thebromwell.co.za], and the Old Biscuit Mill office and shopping complex, which holds a popular food and craft market every Saturday.

 

So while Woodstock’s regeneration may still be very much a work in progress, you can definitely see that it’s a neighbourhood on the up.

 

Another suburb that’s also starting to see gradual change is the infamous District Six. Unlike Woodstock, which was one of the few multi-racial areas to escape forced resettlement during apartheid, District Six was decimated.

 

Renowned at one time for having some of the best music and nightlife in the city, after it was declared a ‘white-only’ area in 1966, the bulldozers moved in, flattening homes and evicting a vast 60,000 people to the barren wastelands of the Cape Flats.

 

Cultural zone

 

While some have since managed to reclaim their land and rebuild with the help of a Trust set up for the purpose, another 800 or so claims are still on-going. But one of the few buildings to survive the devastation was the 1860 church hall of the now disappeared Congregational Church in Buitenkant Street.

 

This beautiful red brick space reopened its doors in February 2010 as the entrance hall and downstairs bar area of the Fugard Theatre, which is meant to act as the centrepiece for a new cultural zone in a bid to breath life back into the area.

 

The theatre itself, meanwhile, was named in honour of Athol Fugard, arguably South Africa’s most significant and internationally-acclaimed playwright. Perhaps best known for the 2005 Academy Award-winning film of his novel Tsotsi (Sesotho for ‘thug’), he also won a Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in Theatre in 2011.

 

Anyway, I wish I’d known about the place when we lived in Stellenbosch as I’d have been there every five minutes. While last week, I treated myself to the former Broadway romantic comedy classic ‘Same Time Next Year’, the future repertoire seemed to cover everything from Shakespeare to good, old Fugard himself. A lovely, intimate space seating just 335 souls, I’d highly recommend it.

 

And then finally for the trip’s foodie piece de resistance, there was Nobu at the One&Only hotel close to the V&A Waterfront.

 

The first restaurant in Africa to be set up by celebrity chef, Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, the décor was tastefully modern and the cuisine classically Japanese with a bit of a twist – my favourite.

 

Out of a six-course tasting menu though, my pet dishes simply had to be the smoked salmon sashimi and yellowtail California roll – gorgeous. The only bum-note to the proceedings, in fact, was the coffee-flavoured desert, which not only seemed out-of-keeping but also didn’t suit my caffeine intolerance.

 

Nonetheless, seeing as it was all kindly paid for by my parents who’d left us money for a culinary treat ages ago while on holiday in the Cape, I couldn’t complain too much.

 

Which means that, all in all, it truly was a good few days well spent.

 

 

 

 

 

Becoming a true Joburger

People from Johannesburg often complain that other Joburgers moan a lot – and a pet whinge is that nothing ever happens here.

 

Which isn’t entirely true, although for a big city – the economic heart of South Africa, in fact – there’s not half as much going on as you’d expect.

 

Certainly nothing comparable to London or New York or any of the world’s other great metropolitan centres anyway. But, in a huge country like this, that may be down to its distance from anywhere, which mitigates against day-trippers, as well as its low ranking on the list of global tourist destinations.

 

Bearing in mind the huge rivalry between Joburgers and Capetonians about the merits of their respective hometowns though, it could explain the backhanded compliments of the latter about the friendliness of the former on hearing that we were about to move to Jozi last year.

 

While everyone agreed that people in Johannesburg were much more socially-inclined and would invite you to a braai as soon as look at you, the main reason, they explained, was that, unlike the Cape, “they’ve got nothing else to do”.

 

Just to even up the score a little, I feel it’s worth reciting a gag from a local Jozi comedian. In his view, while the Cape may be blessed with beautiful beaches, stunning mountains and fabulous food, Johannesburg has – wait for it – jobs. A bit mean, but I took his point.

 

Anyway, always on the look out for things to keep my Beloved and I amused, and helped in this mission by the endless public holidays lately, I’ve dragged him off to a good few festivals over recent weeks, replete with high expectations.

 

Only they haven’t always quite been met – which is perhaps what people mean when they moan about the place.

 

The Rand Show

 

Possibly the best of a bad bunch was the Rand Show, which was billed as the largest consumer exhibition outside of the US and took place in the suburb of Nasrec’s Expo Centre over the Easter weekend and beyond.

 

But, despite being a hallowed institution locally, it’s an accolade bestowed by me mainly because of the marvellous sheepdog demonstration by a local farmer and member of the South African Sheepdog Association (SASA).

 

The aim of SASA, which was set up at Graaf Reinert in the rural Eastern Cape in 1960, was to record and track the bloodlines of working dogs for breeding purposes, which included both border collies and Australian kelpies imported from the UK, Oz and New Zealand.

 

Having enjoyed watching collies do their thing at many a county show back home in Blighty, I was keen to see them in action over here too as their mastery of wayward sheep truly is a sight to behold.

 

And a real plus was that, because it’s apparently a less well-known sport over here, the farmer in question took the time to explain what his dogs were doing so that you could really get to appreciate their – and their handler’s – skill. Great stuff.

 

As for the proper trials, it seems that, due to the heat of the South African sun, these are traditionally held during the autumn and winter months (April to September), followed by a national competition at the end of the season.

 

And this year’s spectacle, it seems, will take place in Swellendam in the Western Cape, only weeks after five delegates are scheduled to attend the 2014 World Sheepdog Trials at Fearn Farm near Tain in the Highlands of Scotland for the very first time.

 

All very exciting – unlike the rest of the Rand Show, which, sadly, wasn’t. To be fair, the event, which has been held more or less annually since 1894 give or take an Anglo-Boer war or two, was probably more aimed at kids than the likes of us.

 

But having been spoiled by the professionalism and polish of similar shows on both sides of the Atlantic, it all just seemed a bit limp and disappointing. There wasn’t even a decent funfair. It was just about retailers in halls trying to sell you things, with the odd magic show or snake handler display thrown in for good measure.

 

A true Joburger

 

To give a flavour, the first hall we went into was the ‘Showcase South Africa’ exhibit in Hall Seven. This, for reasons only known to themselves, had hoards of massive stands from every government department going, but barely a staff member – or member of the public for that matter – in sight.

 

Then there was the Food Zone in Hall Six, which was chock-a-block with people trying to flog you kitchen equipment and energy drinks, but had very few tasty morsels on show.

 

Another example of wasted potential, meanwhile, was the Chef’s Theatre, which was hidden away in such a far corner that we apparently were the only non-chefs able to find it – and we didn’t stay long as learning how to make samp (maize kernel) paella wasn’t really our thing.

 

Even the “longest real ice toboggan slide in South Africa” wasn’t actually very long and the car stunts in the Adrenalin Zone were all a bit low-key, although we were suitably impressed by the aerial acrobatics of the South African Air Force’s Silver Falcons – the equivalent of the UK’s Red Arrows.

 

Nonetheless, even the Rand Show was a dream compared with last Thursday’s Fiesta Mexicana, put on to celebrate Workers’ Day (1 May).

 

Held at the nearby Camdeboo fruit and veg farm, we’d naively gone along expecting a field full of stalls laden with spicy food and colourful arts and crafts, topped off with lively Latin American singing and dancing for good measure.

 

But we really should have learned by now. What there was instead was a ‘pop-up restaurant’ on the veranda of the farm’s streamer-bedecked Peach Café, selling a rather mushy selection of quesadillas, nachos and tacos.

 

A bar table set up beside the cubby-hole where you ordered food offered Corona beers, margaritas and the inevitable tequila, while a couple of guys standing in a corner wore ponchos and sang bad Spanish pop songs.

 

Call me demanding, but it didn’t quite live up to the billing, although the clutches of merry, young drinkers would disagree, I’m sure. But perhaps what all of this really means is that, after living in the city for a grand total of five months, I’ve finally become a true Joburger.

The ‘real’ South Africa: Beauty or poverty?

There’s nothing like having a guest to make you see your familiar surroundings through new eyes.

It’s like anything – once you’ve been somewhere for a while, you stop noticing the backdrop so much and just get on with the details of life. And after a year in South Africa, I reckon that I’ve practically gone native.

So it was interesting to hear my friend give her impressions of the country during her two-week holiday here. Johannesburg – or our bit of it in the Parkhurst area anyway – had a similar look-and-feel to Melbourne in Australia, she felt, with its green, open, leafy suburbs and spotlessly clean, freshly-built shopping malls.

Cape Town, on the other hand, reminded her very much of San Francisco, California, particularly at the heavily-touristed V&A Waterfront, which is distinctly reminiscent of the equally popular Fisherman’s Wharf with its street performers and wealth of retail opportunities.

But, while the Mother City’s rather pedestrian downtown area may not have the gentle, low-rise pastel-coloured-building charm of San Francisco, with its 50-plus hills and historic cable cars, what it does have is a truly stupendous setting that, arguably, puts even the lovely Bay Area to shame.

Surrounded by mountains sweeping imperiously down to the sea, with the world-renowned Table Mountain as its breath-taking jewel in the crown, Cape Town is in some ways at its best in the suburbs where many of its most interesting sites lie.

And top of the sightseeing list for my friend, after Pilanesberg National Park in the North West province, some two hours drive from Johannesburg, was the Mother City’s beautiful Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens in those very suburbs.

Nestled on the steep eastern slopes of Table Mountain, the 36-hectare Gardens actually form part of a larger and mostly wooded and fynbos-bedecked 528-hectare estate at the heart of the Cape Floristic Region.

Unesco World Heritage Site

This Region, otherwise known as the Cape Floral Kingdom, was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2004, making the Botanic Gardens the first in the world to be included in such a designation.

But they deserve it. Not only are the setting and sweeping views from the upper slopes magnificent, if somewhat exhausting to reach. But the Gardens can also claim another world first in having, from their creation in 1913 onwards, devoted themselves entirely to growing indigenous flora in order to protect and conserve it.

Included in the mix is South Africa’s national flower, the King Protea, which itself is a form of fynbos. This shrubland vegetation is interesting in that it grows in only a limited area of the Western Cape’s coastal belt, but makes up an astounding 50% of the African subcontinent’s 18,000 or so entire plant species.

To put that statement into even more perspective, Table Mountain plays host to 1,460 or so different types of fynbos alone, which is more than all of the plant species put together in the UK.

Anyway, none of these facts, despite their worthiness, really do justice to the beauty of the Gardens themselves, which are divided up into different rooms, intermingled with streams and ponds and all linked together by sweeping herringbone-paved pathways.

My favourites had to be the ‘Medicinal’ and related ‘Useful Plants’ areas though as I have always been fascinated by the folklore surrounding these things, despite the unfamiliarity of most of the local plants.

I would also have quite liked the ‘Fragrance’ garden too if it hadn’t set off my hay fever, which meant, unfortunately, that I couldn’t smell anything for the rest of the day.

Third on my friend’s list of not-to-be-forgotten experiences, meanwhile, was scaling Table Mountain itself. In the past, my experience of this particular, little treasure hadn’t always been as positive as it might be, it must be said.

The ‘real’ Africa

I’ve generally had to wait for hours in baking hot queues, just to scare myself silly (being terrified of heights) in the nail-biting cable car ride to the top, before freezing my bits off in the usual gales up there after having forgotten to bring a much-needed jumper.

But this time, it was a different experience altogether. This time, after braving the endless queues, I plonked myself down on a tiny seat near the operator in the middle of the cable car so that I couldn’t see a thing. And to add to my joys, we disembarked to boiling hot sunshine with not so much as a gust of wind to be felt.

It was fabulous. I even felt brave enough to leave the café after a cup of restorative rooibos tea and partake of a short, and free, guided tour, which was definitely worth it, not least for the spectacular views of mountains and bays combined with azure seas and skies.

The only slight downside was not spotting any rock dassies, which are small, guinea pig-like creatures that like sunbathing on large rocks and can do clever things like collapse their ribcages if they want to squeeze into small crevices to escape predators.

Bizarrely though, despite their diminutive proportions, a dassie’s closest relative is apparently the African elephant, which just goes to show that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

But in fact, the same could be said of South Africa itself really. As a tourist going to all of the ‘nice’ bits, it’s all too easy to avoid seeing the poverty and depravation experienced by the majority of people in this country.

Certainly here in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs, you could be in any developed country anywhere in the world – a fact that my friend pointed out to me with surprise, adding that it wasn’t what she’d imagined Africa to be, not the “real” Africa anyway which she’d still like to visit.

A statement that, whichever way you look at it, really is a bit of a sad indictment of what’s happened, and is still happening, on this beautiful continent.

Johannesburg: A City Feared and Fearful

Johannesburg has a shocking reputation internationally. So when you mention to the average Brit that you’re living there, they look at you like you’ve just said you’re residing in a war zone and ask what it’s like in hushed tones.

 

But the response is completely different if you say you dwell in the Cape. It’s amazing just how many people from the UK have either visited on holiday and loved it, or aim to go at some point in the future.

 

And, unsurprisingly, if they have been, they’ll wax lyrical about the region’s beauty, how friendly and laid back the locals are and what a fabulous time they had chasing up and down the Garden Route.

 

But the funny thing is just how deceptive appearances can be. Because in reality, the murder rate – the usual yardstick used to measure how dangerous or violent a city is – is almost twice as high in Cape Town than it is in Johannesburg these days, according to a recent report by South African national newspaper, the Mail & Guardian.

 

But to be fair to my much-loved former home, even this fact is rather misleading as, between April 2011 and March 2012, nearly two thirds of all homicides took place in only 10 of the city’s 60 police station precincts.

 

Not entirely surprisingly, most of the victims came from deprived, low-income areas, with residents – and in particular, young black men – living in local townships such as Mitchell’s Plain and Khayelitsha suffering disproportionately.

 

While recent surges in gang violence certainly haven’t helped matters much, the majority of people nonetheless tend to be killed by friends, family members or acquaintances following booze- or drug-fuelled rows.

 

What this all means in practice is that, despite a national murder rate that is four and a half times higher than the global average of 6.9 per 100,000 people – equating to 43 homicides each day – the bloodshed tends to be pretty localised.

 

Feared and fearful

 

Three out of four murders take place in just a quarter of the country’s police station precincts, with homicides in affluent suburbs such as Camps Bay in Cape Town or Parkhurst where we live in Johannesburg, being rare.

 

The reason that Jozi gets such a bad rap, however, is that, according to the South African Institute of Race Relations’ South Africa survey, it outstrips all other cities in the country for aggravated robbery.

 

Aggravated robbery involves the use of a deadly weapon and includes activities such as carjacking and domestic theft. And it is these crimes that generate the most fear, not least because of their sheer randomness.

 

Unlike murder, which tends to be committed by known people following a specific chain of events, they are mainly indiscriminate acts perpetrated by unknown, faceless individuals that make people feel very unsafe as a result.

 

Therefore, you could say that Jozi is actually the most feared, and fearful, city in South Africa – although that’s certainly not to trivialise its high crime rate, particularly in the city’s rundown, downtown Central Business District.

 

But such matters are all too easy to forget when you’re sitting with a glass of wine in your hand in a bar in Parkhurst on a Friday night or browsing around doing a bit of shopping in nearby Rosebank mall during the day.

 

You truly could be in any large city anywhere in the world, and you’re certainly not standing there quivering, waiting for something awful to happen at any moment.

 

Nonetheless, security is a high profile business round here and undoubtedly contributes to any complacent feeling of wellbeing, whether justified or not.

 

In our neck of the woods, for instance, you’ll routinely see so-called NYPD private security officers hanging around on street corners as well as Cortac guards patrolling about in their trucks, all with the aim of ensuring that no one’s lurking around and getting up to no good.

 

Private security

 

And their credentials are impressive. Cortac, which just happens to be our security services provider, is staffed by former military and special forces personnel – and they wear chunky, black body armour and semi-automatics to prove it.

 

Their response times are also amazingly quick. When a pre-Christmas storm caused the branch of a tree to take out the electric fence nestling atop our high perimeter walls, in the process setting off the alarm and terrifying the wits out of us at some God forsaken hour of the morning, they arrived to search for undesirables within minutes. Literally.

 

So what with that, an internal alarm system and panic buttons should we need them, no one can say that we’re not prepared.

 

In other middle class areas such as the upmarket residential suburb of Hurlingham though, you’ll also come across manned road barriers that restrict access to anyone that they don’t like the look of. Many of the gated communities and larger properties likewise sport their own little sheds with private guards sitting in them.

 

But even in more open residential streets like ours, you still won’t be able to peek through anyone’s curtains as they’re all hidden behind three meter high security walls, complete with sign boards advertising that they’re protected by this firm or that firm 24 hours a day.

 

But, dramatic as this all may seem to your unsuspecting Brit, it’s all just another day in the life of the average Joburger – and the country’s private security industry for that matter, which has more than doubled in size over the past dozen years and is now the largest in the world.

 

Comprising 9,000 organisations that employ over 400,000 guards to service the requirements of middle- to high-income families nationwide – a figure that is incidentally, more than twice as many as the under-resourced and struggling South African Police Service – it is currently the single biggest provider of entry-level jobs in the country.

 

Which means that the sector will likely have an important role to play in the wellbeing of the country for some time to come. And in mine too, presumably.

 

 

 

Moving on…..

This last week or so has been all about goodbyes. Goodbye to friends and acquaintances, goodbye to favourite haunts, goodbye to lovely, leafy Stellenbosch and the Cape.

 

Because this weekend, we’ll be jumping in the car with our suitcases and making the 1,200km Great Trek through the heart of South Africa to Johannesburg, as so many have done before us.

 

Although I have as yet to see our new place as there simply wasn’t time for me to haul my carcass up there if we wanted to secure the property, my one consolation, given my reluctance to leave our current home, is that at least it’s in our desired location, Parkhurst.

 

I’m looking forward to being able to walk five minutes down the street from there to Fourth Avenue to have a cup of fruit tea, or a refreshing alcoholic beverage of an evening should the fancy take me, instead of having to drive everywhere – or plan in advance to guarantee a tuk-tuk courtesy of the hard-working and enthusiastic guys at Tuk-Tuk Stellies, which finally opened its doors for business a couple of months ago.

 

And I’m also looking forward to seeing more of my Beloved who’ll now be coming home to me every night rather than just on a Friday.

 

Although he may not be quite so enthusiastic after he’s got a day’s work behind him, I’m keen to use our new-found time together productively – we’ve talked about learning to horse-ride, for instance, which could be fun, and should help our latest proposed new healthy eating/fitness regimen as well.

 

But I’ll miss my life in Stellenbosch too. I’ll miss sitting out on our shady patio, gaining inspiration from my lovely white and purple garden and the canopy of trees beyond it, as I write my blog or edit content from the Vision AfriKa team, the educational charity for which I do voluntary work.

 

I’ll miss my thrice-weekly routine of going to the gym in town, followed by a bit of food and life’s-little-necessities shopping in the Eikestad Mall.

 

Moving on

 

And then there’s my always-entertaining weekly Afrikaans lesson in the Food Lover’s Market café and/or a wander around the genteel, oak-lined boulevards with their whitewashed buildings as I work down my to-do list.

 

But I’ll also miss our little weekend trips to beautiful and interesting places – to the coast for a spot of whale-watching, into Cape Town for a touch of urban fun or to a wine farm for a fabulous Sunday lunch with stunning views over the surrounding countryside.

 

While that’s not to say that Jozi won’t have its own delights, it inevitably won’t be the same – and nor should it be. Change happens for a reason, as they say, and it’s pointless getting bogged down in nostalgia. Life moves on.

 

Nonetheless, I’ll look back at my time in Stellenbosch with pleasure – and with gratitude. It’s been a time where I’ve learned a lot.

 

I’ve learned much more about South Africa’s troubled history, which, always lurking in the shadows, still seems so extant in many ways. I’ve learned some of the quirks and foibles of the country’s many and varied cultures – and what “Africa time” really means.

 

But at a more personal level, I’ve also learned to be less afraid. Less afraid of new encounters, less afraid of taking risks, less afraid, even, of my old bugbear, driving.

 

Because as life has opened up leaving my former stress-filled, work-filled, computer-filled days behind, I too have opened up, becoming happier and less anxious in the process.

 

The great secret, of course, will be remembering how to maintain this state of honeyed calm once I re-enter the workforce. Nevertheless, it’s taken some effort to get here.

 

Still, quiet voice

 

It’s not surprising really, but once your life slows down drastically and the potential-filled days stretch ahead to do with as you will, all that you’re really left with is yourself and the still, quiet voice within.

 

And so it is that you hear it, perhaps even for the first time. But it doesn’t always make for easy listening. In my case, it was all about self-criticism and duty, all the ‘I should/I ought/I really must do this and that’ – an internal dialogue that had presumably been going on for years.

 

But I found it was making me miserable and so I stopped it. As simple as that. I just refused to listen and focused instead on doing something that I had a yen to do at that moment.

 

So rather than beat myself up because I wasn’t working on the novel that I started years ago but never had time to complete, I wrote a children’s book instead.

 

Rather than worry in case I wasn’t doing enough regular journalism to keep my hand in, I developed an editorial strategy and became content editor for Vision AfriKa.

 

Which leads me to another salient point. If ever you find yourself moving to a foreign country minus a work visa, it’s definitely worth at least having some idea of how you might like spend your time.

 

The danger is that life can start feeling pretty pointless pretty quickly if you have no routine and drift around without any positive idea of how to fill your days.

 

In my case though, I’m happy to say that, some 10 months on and bar finishing that novel, I’ve pretty much managed to do everything that I wanted to do. And, excitingly, given the amusements that our new locale should have to offer, we still have just over a year to go.