April 19, 2007

South Africa 2003-04: Crime and Technology in Everyday Life

Fifth in a series of posts about South Africa, originally written during the 13 months I lived there in 2003-04.

With some of the world's highest violent crime rates, South Africa is a very dangerous place. In our first three weeks here, we met five different people who had recently been victims of crimes. (How long does it take you to meet this many crime victims?) Smash-and-grab operations, common at stoplights, will sntach cellphones, handbags, or almost anything else in view — even, recently, a backgammon board. Only an idiot carries a camera or a purse on a city street here. Last year, during an AIDS conference here in Durban, thieves relieved an American researcher of his laptop computer, containing the only copy of data from a major experiment. (Miraculously, the machine was later returned.) Heavily armed assaults on armored cars are commonplace. Hundreds of policemen are killed annually in the line of duty. Not long ago one of our friends' best friends was murdered.

Crime and violence aren't restricted to urban settings. Farm attacks, including murder, are an extremely serious problem in some rural areas. Thousands of farmers have been killed since 1994. This, too, reflects the persistence of apartheid pattern: whites still own most of the country's arable land, though government land reform programs are beginning to build momentum.

Soon after we moved here, a government minister pulled into a large, well-lighted service station on the freeway near Durban. In full view of other motorists and station attendants, three hijackers beat his bodyguard to a bloody pulp and made off with his Mercedes, firing several shots as they made their getaway. This is a daily occurrence in South Africa, where some 100,000 cars (out of about 5 million total) are stolen each year. Hijackers seize about 15,000 of these at gunpoint. Some hijackers belong to professional gangs, which take vehicles across the northern borders for resale or break them down for parts, but according to the Durban police most hijackers try to sell the vehicle immediately for a quick profit. As a result, streets in our neighborhood empty completely at night. After about 10 PM, you will not see a single car parked at the curb.

Technological defenses against crime reach heights of sophistication here. New cars invariably come equipped with immobilizers (anti-hotwire devices which prevent the car from being started without a key). We subscribed to one of the very popular satellite tracking services, which mounted a hidden GPS sensor on our car so it can be pinpointed if stolen or hijacked. The resulting insurance discount nearly paid for the service. The low-rent version of satellite tracking simply reports the car's location to the South African police, but the one we got includes private response via helicopter from the tracking company itself, which claims to have recovered over 15,000 stolen cars in an average time of 45 minutes. The deputy minister's car was recovered this way, in six hours, but no sign of the hijackers.

To protect their homes, large numbers of middle-class people subscribe to private "armed response" services which provide intrusion sensors and immediate dispatch of armed security guards in the event of a break-in. These services will also construct an electrified fence around your property to fry would-be intruders. We opted for a simple "panic button" which brings guards on the run. The puzzle for us has been how to keep the button ready to hand without Luka's getting hold of it too, since from his point of view buttons exist to be pushed, repeatedly, until something interesting happens. 911 and equivalent phone numbers will connect you to public police, ambulance, and fire departments, but you might wait many hours for them to show up. So if you're in real trouble, you call a private emergency number such as that provided by cellphone company Vodacom, which has its own teams of paramedics, etc. Cell-C, another cellular provider, actually offers free private emergency services to subscribers.

Still, low-tech defenses dominate. Guards at the exits of parking garages peer at your steering wheel to see whether there's a key in the ignition. (If there isn't, you've hot-wired the car.) Many homeowners believe that dogs deter burglars. They're probably right, though the incessant barking of our neighbors' numerous beasts has made us think we'd prefer to be robbed. We rented a movie called "How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog," but turned it off when no methods had been described after 45 minutes. The cult of handguns in South Africa makes the American NRA look like a croquet club. I invite anybody who believes the Texas slogan that "an armed society is a polite society" to move here. Under apartheid, black people could not own guns; an unfortunate effect of democratic government has been to democratize the means of violence. Vast numbers of illegal weapons circulate, though recent laws require gun licenses and safety training.

Strangely, most locks remain simple affairs, little evolved since their Victorian origins. You could pick them with a Swiss Army knife. Our front door's tough steel security gate can be removed from its hinges in less than a minute by any idiot with a wrench. (I know this because I tried it.) These apparent vulnerabilities probably reflect the low technological sophistication of the criminal elements here.

Another ubiquitous low-tech security system is the car guard. Hundreds of thousands of people must earn their living this way. Some of them are paid employees, wearing official-looking vests advertising their employers, but probably the large majority work strictly for tips. The going rate is roughly R2 during the day and R5 at night, so a guard who can bring in a couple of dozen tips a day would earn more than the minimum wage. Duties are unspecified, beyond keeping an eye on your car in some vague way and "helping" drivers back out. of parking spaces. Never having driven a car themselves, many car guards stand uselessly in one of your blind spots, whistling or making incomprehensible hand gestures. Some of our white friends complain that the guards aren't likely to try to stop a determined thief. (For a forty-cent tip, would you?) True enough, we thought, but the mere presence of a witness discourages some would-be thieves.

So we pay out these tips with near-religious enthusiasm. This largesse makes us quite popular with guards at places we go on a daily basis, like the Virgin Active gym, where our favorite guards wave and make goo-goo eyes at Luka. Armed hijackings and break-ins have happened in Virgin Active parking lots, so this feels like money well spent. In smaller towns and cities we've frequently encountered street people and drunks who — pegging us instantly as tourists, in our overloaded Subaru with its car-top carrier — either volunteer to watch our car or appear, out of nowhere, as we're leaving to demand a tip. We usually give these people money unless they're obviously lying. Virtually all car guards we've met are black men, though we do come across the occasional white man, and even a couple of white women. I don't recall ever seeing a black female guard, nor any Indian or colored guards, though they may exist.

The most common property defenses are the seven-foot walls surrounding most houses in middle-class houses — not just in cities, but even in rural towns. These walls dramatically alter the experience of walking around on the street. You're effectively in a corridor with an open ceiling. The cement-and-brick corridors trap the roar of passing vehicles, massively amplifying the sound. You see little of the lovely architecture and gardens, only roofs and maybe part of an upper story. Often the upper windows are obscured by burglar bars. Vicious barking comes out of nowhere, from dogs hidden behind the walls. It's a bad situation for the poor dogs as well, one dog owner pointed out to us, since most of them can't see passersby but only hear them. Then there are the constant reminders of danger — razor wire, electrified security fences, spike-topped walls, "armed response" signs. Some neighborhoods have unilaterally introduced road blockades and boom gates, manned by guards, which force drivers to stop on entry and exit. This strategy cuts crime dramatically by making getaways more complicated, though the legality of private decisions to block public roadways remains in dispute.

It's tax season here, so the small minority with serious income to report have been hunting for deductions to claim. A recent op-ed piece ruminated on how much all these security services cost the South Africans who can afford to pay for them. Isn't this effectively a tax, the writer wondered, for services government ought to be providing its citizens? Can't we at least deduct it on our tax returns? Small consolation for our nanny Nolizwi, who had every stitch of her clothing, including shoes and underwear, stolen from her apartment by one of her neighbors. She won't be hiring armed security services anytime soon.

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