Where violence comes by day and night

Post-apartheid Johannesburg: if you haven't been mugged or burgled or carjacked, you're bound to know someone who has been. Mary Braid reports
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The old man across the road became a recluse overnight. One evening a few months ago, he pulled into his drive and was attacked by three men who emerged from the shadows. In the course of relieving him of his car, they beat him to a pulp.

This story is whispered to me during a conversation with his next-door neighbour. Last year she was herself held up at gunpoint in her home. For the past few weeks I have watched workmen transform her house into a fort. Their task is almost finished: the front windows and door have been removed and a blank, fortified wall now faces the street. The only entrance is a remote-controlled garage door. It does not make for neighbourliness.

This is Melville; the affluent, liberal, and in this segregated city, all-white neighbourhood in which I live. In Johannesburg's warped scheme of things, Melville has a village feel. But in every house, in every street, all of the windows and doors are gridded with iron. Warning signs, with gun motifs, are plastered on their outside walls, promising an armed response to housebreakers. People live as if under siege. All I know of the family next door is the barking of watchdogs and the low nocturnal hum of their electric security fence, which rattled me at first but now lulls me to sleep.

If any country deserves a happy ending it is South Africa but two years after the election of President Mandela all that was fought for so hard is jeopardised by crime. It is the level of violent crime which is truly exceptional. South Africa's annual murder rate is 45 per 100,000 people, compared with an international average of 5.5 in 100,000. The country has an assault rate of 840 per 100,000, compared with an average of 142. So low, it seems, is respect for life that a mobile phone or laptop is worth killing for.

Most live in terror of "carjacking", now an epidemic with more than 8,500 incidents in Johannesburg alone last year. Local newspapers print handy cut-outs - "Car hijackings - what to expect and how to react", with useful statistics: most hijackings take place on Wednesday and Thursday between 4pm and 8pm - around which the paranoid might plan their lives.

Everyone knows a carjack victim. Last weekend, a quarter of a mile from our street, an elderly man was murdered by car thieves. Two weeks ago a colleague was held up at gunpoint when she stopped to fill up at a petrol station. While she fumbled for her bag her teenage assailants shot into the vehicle while her three children cowered in the back.

"When we got home we just cried and cried," she says. "Then I said we must pray for our attackers because they were only children - perhaps 16 or 17."

Among those who sympathised with her ordeal was Jutta Ellmer. A few days later Mrs Ellmer and her two children witnessed her husband Erich, a German business executive, being murdered in the family driveway by two car thieves. In the middle of the attack, their neighbour appeared and started shooting at the robbers. The couple, who had cheered the ANC at the elections but were dismayed by the lawlessness that has since engulfed the country, had been planning to leave South Africa.

In the affluent white suburbs north of Melville, they are building walls around entire neighbourhoods, patrolled 24 hours by armed security guards and Alsatian dogs. Fans of the new enclosures claim that once the barricades are up and the guards in place they will knock down the walls surrounding individual properties so that children can play safely and neighbours can chat in the street. Their critics envisage a far more terrifying scenario: a mosaic of isolated camps that will reinforce South Africa's social fragmentation and prompt sniggers at the notion of a "rainbow nation", in which races and creeds co-exist peaceably.

It is impossible to say if South Africa was always this brutal. Comparisons of crime statistics with those of previous years are pretty pointless. Under apartheid few blacks reported crimes, so remote was the chance of the police recording them, let alone taking action. The popular theory is that violence had long since been a way of life. The state murdered, maimed and tortured to maintain the status quo and brutalised an entire township generation. Now that freedom has been won, it is said that endemic violence has ebbed from politics only to resurface in civil crime statistics. Whites, the theory goes, are only experiencing what township blacks have put up with for years and despite the media attention to their plight, blacks are still far more likely to be victims.

What is certain is that for whites social change has removed the remoteness of murder, rape, assault and robbery. The victims are people they know, attacked in neighbourhoods in which they live, and visit.

It might be tempting to see this post-apartheid crime wave as racial revenge, except that no grouping escapes. What it does though is reinforce ingrained racism because perpetrators are invariably black. And in South Africa racism hardly needs shoring up.

Newcomers are given liberal advice about how to handle "these bleks" and the level of white disdain can be breathtaking. "You can have him," one potential landlady informed me during my hunt for a home, flicking her thumb towards a hovel at the bottom of the garden. "If you don't want him we'll evict him."

She was referring to the elderly live-in black gardener whom the previous tenants had "generously" kept on. "But you have to be careful," she warned. "Charge him rent and then pay it back when he works. That's what the neighbour does. If you let him stay free, on condition that he works, he won't do anything. They're lazy you know. Just ask our neighbour."

The digs were appalling, but the old man would be destitute without them and the job. If he had been white he would have merited her sympathy but he was black and somehow subhuman.

Despite the political and legal revolution, in Johannesburg hard economics and racial distrust keep apartheid firmly in place. In liberal Melville most blacks still leave each day at 5pm, gathering in the main street to catch minibuses to Soweto. The black, white and coloured tribes still live and socialise separately.

And the twin evils of racism and crime have robbed the city of a common heart and a neutral territory in which barriers might be broken down. For the city centre has been deserted by whites, who fled north as apartheid began to break down and blacks flooded in to the centre to assume ownership.

Holed up in their pristine office blocks and country clubs, whites complain that increasing crime prompted the trek northwards. But in unguarded moments they admit the centre is just too black. In a society whose very foundations were built on racial difference and European superiority the Africanisation of the city centre has alienated whites.

Taking a trip out of South Africa makes one appreciate the seriousness of the country's social schisms. I have spent the past two weeks in Mozambique, which is one of the world's poorest countries, and is struggling to recover from a barbaric 16-year civil war. Maputo, the capital, has its share of crime. So dire are the economic circumstances in the port of Beira that desperate men and women scrape a living by selling single sweets on street corners.

Yet after Johannesburg it was a breath of fresh air. The clothes were brighter and the smiles genuine and unsuspicious. Soon, the shoulders relaxed, the guard dropped and the need for constant vigilance seemed to disappear. No need for the Jo'burg driver's drill: windows up, car doors locked and watching out at traffic lights. In Beira, blacks and whites mix with ease and a white face in the local market or urban neighbourhood does not attract attention or raise the local temperature.

In contrast, it is easy to believe the findings of a report by the Psychological Society of South Africa that the country is one of the most stressed in the world. Palesa Makhale-Mahlangu, a clinical psychologist, says most people - black and white - are living in a state of "hyper vigilance". The country's suicide rate is up; one in five South Africans suffers from a mental disorder severe enough to affect his daily life and it is estimated that one in five students has considered suicide in the last year.

The strain seems to be surfacing in vigilantism. Those who cannot afford the high fences and armed response are losing confidence in government. This month, a Cape Town anti-drugs group publicly executed a local gangster and set him ablaze, while the police stood by and did nothing. The government condemned the action but many "respectable" citizens openly applauded.

"The ANC is just too soft on criminals," said one "law-abiding" Capetonian. "But then it is hard to enforce the law when you spent so many years encouraging people to break it. They need to understand less and come down hard or they will lose control and outside investment."

If the rule of law and order goes, the public version of justice could prove horrific. The residents of Tembisa township, outside Johannesburg, recently demonstrated against escalating crime, demanding not just the restoration of the death penalty but public necklacing.

Following the Cape Town vigilante murder, local tourist organisations reported a spate of holiday cancellations. And the potential economic damage is compounded by threats from foreign businesses to pull out of the country. After the death of Erich Ellmer the South African-German Chamber of Commerce revealed that of the 30 chief executives of German companies operating in South Africa, 16 had been victims of violent crime. "The level of personal danger endured by managers and the community at large is totally unacceptable," said a spokesman.

The government meanwhile continues to launch initiatives. But however sincere its efforts and the allowance made for the size of the task, it is widely regarded as fiddling while the country burns. Not only is there the legacy of institutionally encouraged racial hatred to deal with, there is the fact that the country is flooded with guns from the ANC's own struggle and the superpower-backed civil wars in neighbouring Mozambique and Angola.

Ironically, Joe Matthews, Minister of Safety and Security, has said that he is responsible for many of the illegal weapons. During the struggle he negotiated a multi-million dollar arms deal with the USSR. The guns have almost certainly found their way to well-armed criminals who now swank around South Africa like Chicago gangsters and who run a drug trade said to be worth pounds 10bn a year.

The honeymoon for the Mandela government is surely over. It is time to deliver or sink. George Fivaz, Police Commissioner, made that clear earlier this year. South Africa, he warned, was in danger of becoming a "gangster state whose hijackers, drug lords, muggers and other criminals would trample hard-won democratic rights into the dust".