Peace Corps Blog

This is a blog of my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer, working in South Africa. My job title is a capacity builder, which means I help increase the effectiveness of a local NGO that does AIDS/HIV related work.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Unfortunate Events

The last two weekends have proved to be unfortunate for my organization. And I figure that is worthy of a quick blog post, and an introduction to crime in South Africa.

South Africa is not the safest country. Crime here is remarkably high, in fact, and has been one of the most difficult things to get used to. Until recently, all I heard was stories about crime that seemed pretty far removed and was generally isolated to the big cities. Walking around Durban, Pretoria or even Polokwane (a relatively small city and the safest provincial capital in South Africa), you see houses and businesses surrounded with high walls, which are topped with electrified razor wire. Many police carry machine guns. Malls and banks have security personnel who like they are ready to go into war (bullet proof vests, multiple guns, even some grenades). Just to get into the bank, you have to go through a special double-doored system that means that one door is always closed and locked. Most impressive is seeing the armored cars, which look more like tanks and are often escorted by a small tactical team with automatic weapons.

Many of the Peace Corps volunteers here have experienced minor crime in the city, such as wallets or cell phones disappearing, especially at hostels. In Polokwane, I have only heard about a few attempts at pick-pocketing. A number of people have also been mugged, often around Pretoria. And there are a few more unfortunate instances.

Hearing these stories has been disappointing and scary. South Africa, as a country trying to grow economically and move forward, is being held back by crime and continual perpetuation of fear within the culture. It raises important questions about what the country's biggest priority should be, in terms of development.

As to causes of the crime, people have written books on the subject, but I will just mention one short theory I have heard repeatedly. As the end of apartheid approached, people began preparing for a revolution and adopting more violent tactics. This involved training and arming people. Once the government shift was complete, people who learned to fight found that they were not getting the money or influence that the government-shift so often promised. And so people applied their skill set to crime to support themselves. This is especially exacerbated with the decreased sense of ownership in the government and public services (a sentiment that was promoted during the apartheid government, as a way of undermining their authority), leading people to feel comfortable destroying or taking.

Until two weeks ago, the crime here was pretty distant from my life. Although villages are generally safer than the cities, mine felt particularly safe. Many houses get left unlocked and there is a strong sense of community. I was warned about walking alone in one neighborhood of the village, but everywhere else, I have felt comfortable and safe, both during the day and at night.

But when I returned to my organization last Monday, I found the door to Knowledge's (my supervisor) office smashed open. The safe in his office had been broken open, with almost $5,000 missing (a huge amount, by local standards). In addition, two computers were missing, one from his office and one from the administration office (with this came the loss of a lot of important information and records). Police came and did a search for fingerprints, but they don't inspire much confidence. The break-in was the talk of the village, with everyone speculating that it was an inside job and talking about how unfortunate it was. But I was also impressed with the attitude of the people at the organization, who seemed undeterred in their everyday efforts.

This week, when I came to my organization, and heard that the home of Agnes had been broken into. She is the 68 year old woman who started our organization, and continues to run it. She was at home Sunday night, and her adult son was out. Four men showed up with guns, threatening to take her eleven-year-old adopted son if they were not allowed into her house. She of course let them in, and they proceeded to take, money, a laptop that belongs to the organization, her bank card and her car. She has not come into the organization since, but I hear she is doing well.

There is something tragic about seeing the people who are trying the hardest to help the community targeted by crime. Although the situation hasn't changed my personal sense of safety, it has changed my view of the village. And overall, along with other recent events, has changed my larger view of South Africa. I think much needs to be done here in terms of addressing underlying safety and crime issues and promoting a sense of ownership and investment before larger development issues can be tackled. And as a result, I think this brings up questions regarding what the role of Peace Corps volunteers within the country... but that is a subject for another day.

Just to close with some (dark) statistics:

  • "According to a survey for the period 1998–2000 compiled by the United Nations, South Africa was ranked second for assault and murder (by all means) per capita, in addition to being ranked second for rape and first for rapes per capita. Total crime per capita is tenth out of the sixty countries in the data set." - from Wikipedia, statistics from NationMaster: South African Crime Statistics.
  • "Interpol figures showed that, in 2002, South Africa experienced 114.8 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, the world's highest murder-rate and around five times higher than that of the second-highest country, Brazil. As of 1998, South Africa led the world, although by a smaller margin, in reported murders and robberies. A 2001 report by the Institute for Security Studies concluded that 'South Africa has high but manageable levels of property crime but an extraordinarily high level of violent crime. It is South Africa's high level of violent crime which sets the country apart from other crime ridden societies.'" - from Wikipedia

The goal of the statistics is not to depress or scare, but rather to backup my experiential descriptions with evidence.


At February 12, 2008 7:23 PM , Blogger Vance Maverick said...

Wow, sorry to hear this. My sympathies. I suppose it's trite to say that you should do what you can to help those you know, and keep safe yourself, but that's what I say....

At February 17, 2008 11:03 PM , Blogger Walker said...

hey man, sorry to hear that happened to your org. Setbacks happen man but half the war is in improving peoples' mindsets, which I'm sure you're being quite successful at. Anyway man it's crazy that you've been gone for so long - and are still going to be gone for that much longer! I miss you man. Will you be in SA still in summer 2010? I was thinking about going to the world cup...

At March 2, 2008 4:02 PM , Blogger greenfamil said...

Dear Nathan,
I was sorry to hear your news about the crime in your community and especially about those directed against the organization for which you work. Pervasive fear and lack of security are obstacles to peace. I feel admiration and gratitude for those who carry on.
On another note, the daffodils in my front yard have begun to bloom. You must be a year older. Happy Birthday Nathan. Love, Connie

At March 2, 2008 4:03 PM , Blogger greenfamil said...

I was surprised and saddened to hear your news. Indeed, the issue of security is one of the pillars of a peaceful community. Please, be safe.
On another note, I want you to know that the daffodils are blooming in our front yard. It must be your birthday. You are a blessing to all who know you. Love, Connie and Bill.


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