After Ethiopia, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe traveling through Botswana was easy, Namibia even easier, but South Africa is a piece of cake. The border experience was again lovely. They were all proud and thankful we took the time and effort to visit their country. We entered South Africa through its northern border with Namibia after an amazing trip through Sossusvlei and its surroundings. I have rarely seen such dramatic scenery in my life. A couple of days in the Fish Canyon National Park in the lovely hot springs marked the beginning of our highly anticipated journey through South Africa.
Driving down the N7 through incredible mountains and passes we finally had our first sight of the Table Mountain. Its stunning plateau was visible, only just, covered in thick dark clouds. Getting closer we had glimpses of townships, neatly ordered small boxes and painted in different colours. The big port on our right hand sight was busy and indeed huge. Suddenly we were in the middle of a huge metropolitan. Have we finally arrived in one of the most dangerous cities in the world? A city where on average tens of people are murdered daily? Where armed robbery and carjacking is part of life? Where dozens of women are being sexualy molested on a daily basis?
After being warned by so many people and reading so many horrible stories, we were definitely tensed when driving through town and when stopping at trafficlights. We were pretty aware of our new dangerous surroundings and I was continiously looking for a suspicious looking person approaching our car when standing still.
Another red light. Hilje told me to check whether the doors are closed. I was not used to be this paranoia, but after so many stories, it was hard not to start to think; beter safe than sorry. Although I knew I didn’t have to check the doors, because of the automatic locks, I still had the urge to have a fast glance. A man approached our car, I tried to make eye contact with him to read his intentions. Under all circumstances I always try to be as personal as possible. Somehow, I tend to be confrontational, even if it would be a person with bad intensions. He looked away and started to poor water on the windscreen and took out a cloth to clean it. I made an automatic gesture to make him stop, but the windscreen was actually pretty dirty. So we let him, opened the window slighty and slid a two Rand coin in his hand. He smiled and said: “Thank you for your support, sir. You too madam and have a very nice day.” He walked off just in time to navigate through the excelerating cars.
Statistics don’t lie and bad things happen all the time and it could happen to you, but I did feel guilty and a little bit embarrased. I have been to many places in my life and have always trusted my instincts and common sense to be safe, but during the first couple of hours in South Africa it was the first time I was trying to seperate myself from the environment I was in. To create a gap between me and them. To have a safety buffer. To create a false sense of security. It didn’t feel good. I didn’t feel in control. I felt vulnerable because I was isolating myself from the real world around me. I was not part of it and therefore different. It did feel like I was disrespecting their welcome.
Is this attitude, the fear of the unknown and insecurity, part of the reason why segregation takes place in societies all over the world? Whether in form of class or even more dramatic as race and one’s skin colour. This human fear will guarantee that discrimination in whatever form will always exist, but being in South Africa you are just so aware it. For me however, the awareness is mostly influenced by the knowledge of the recent history of the horrofying Apartheid regime and not specifically by real life experiences in SA. As a visitor you can feel and see it but it is not extremely different than the experiences I had during the time I spent in the southern states of the USA or the shocking realisation that the fear of the unknown still has such a big impact on people in Europe and its political parties.
It was very interesting for us to follow some of the challenging political and economical issues SA is facing. In some cases even scary when you hear that for example many people started to criticize the appointment of a supreme judge, because he was not black enough. This kind of affirmative action exists everywhere, but the openess of the discussion is new to me.
During our trip we were lucky enough to meet a lot of local people who were extremely friendly and hospitable. They gave us a good insight of their country and the challenges they are facing. It is a complicated country and although people are definitely aware of the difficulties there is hope. There will be no quick fix and it will take generations to get rid of the fragmented past but as one of the local politician in Oudshoorn told us during a night with lots of beautiful local red wine: “You, and the world for that matter, are underestimating South Africa. You underestimate the people living here. There might be many different races, tribes and classes, but we have an extremely strong community life. You have been predicting a full blown civil war for years and it still hasn’t happened. I have been in involved in politics for 40 years and I can tell you, it will never happen. Not on a big scale.”
South Africa is one of the most beautiful countries I have ever visited. The variety of landscapes, the food, the wines, the people, the oceans, the flora and fauna, it is sometimes much more than what I can describe in words. The Cape is unique, the Wild Coast stunningly beautiful, the Karoo desert my dream rock garden, and the Drakensberg mountains just breathtaking. And we will need much more than five weeks to discover the rest of it. Watching the humpback whales in Fischoek and Hermanus and admiring the gorgeous Southern Right whales while eating a sandwich on the stunning white dunes of the De Hoop national reserve is maybe the most humbling experience of the trip, so I will definitely come back one day when I need to be in that state of mind again.
And did we feel safe? Yes! Are there places you cannot go? Yes! In the cities you have to use your common sense and be careful when needed, like any other big city in the world. The rest is fine. We even visited Soweto, the so called most dangerous township in SA where Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu once lived. Although clearly very poor with shocking unemployment rates you can feel it is alive. Like it has been in the past, it plays an important role in creating the South African urban identity and a clear breeding ground for artists, writers, musicians, fashionistas and athletes. Many white South Africans will never even visit that area. Talking about the unknown!
Coming back to some statistics. South Africa is the seventh most dangerous country in the world if you would go by the relative crime rate* which is based on data from police departments and insurance companies. It has six times less reported criminal incidents than the USA which is the leader of the list. The UK and Germany are the proud number two and three respectively with approximately three times more reported criminal incidents compared to South Africa. While I surely don’t want to downplay the level of violence in South Africa, it is good to have a complete view. And for my own experiences, the most unsafe moments for me were indeed in the USA.
*source: Maps of the World