WHAT I DIDN’T TELL MY MOTHER
Joburg is not as scary as the world makes out, and when your bag is snatched, it’s a challenge to continue to think of the big picture
People back in the US warned me about moving to Johannesburg. The armed robberies and carjackings ... the sky-high rates of rape paired with the prevalence of HIV – a lethal couple. Was I sure I would be safe without pepper spray? Why not go to Cape Town instead? Perhaps I should hire a personal bodyguard? Ignorance is how I classified these well-intentioned but horribly misguided suggestions. I cast them on to my pile of discarded “American Assumptions”.
I counted down the days until my move to Joburg, armed with the confidence that if I didn’t brandish my wallet and phone while walking, and if I took the same basic safety measures as I did at school in Chicago or at home in Washington, DC, all would be okay.
I’ve now seen jazz performances in Braamfontein and eaten Ethiopian food at the Sunday market in Maboneng, met some interesting people and settled into life here pretty smoothly. I call my folks back in the States and let them know that, yes, I am eating well, and, yes, I am visiting every Madiba-related tourist trap in the city.
Rihanna’s work dominates the airwaves here just as it does Chicago’s top hip-hop station. Student activists sport bucket hats and septum piercings while decolonising their university campuses more fervently than students at US institutions. Life in Africa isn’t just dust, gazelles and black babies with protruding ribs and flies swarming around their faces, like they show on TV. Joburg isn’t just crime. What I haven’t phoned home to tell my parents is that a man trailed close behind me for several blocks as I walked home with my roommates the other night after a birthday dinner. He ripped my bag from my shoulders and darted up the road just a few doors down from where I am staying. I didn’t phone home to tell them that. With the help of some of Joburg’s athletic Good Samaritans, I got my stuff back and discovered that the man had a weapon buried in his pocket.
This incident is not an “I-told-you-so” moment for the people back home clutching their preconceived judgements tighter than I gripped my bag after reclaiming it, and I won’t let them manipulate this minor bump in my time here into a confirmation of their biases.
Some of my peers in the US may hear this story and cross Johannesburg off their list of travel destinations.
Locals in the upscale neighbourhood where the scene unfolded may take it as a sign to upgrade their home security systems. I take it as evidence that desperation can cloud one’s moral compass and that sometimes a stomach can growl so loudly and for so long that it drowns out the conscience.
The most rattling part of the whole scene was not being attacked. The most unsettling moment was hearing the young white civilian who witnessed the scene shove the culprit, a middle-aged black man, and whisper “this is my neighbourhood, and it is supposed to be safe from people like you” – evidence that 22 years is not nearly enough time to pick up the remains of a brutal system that broke an entire population, chewed them up and spat them into a world where, on their ancestral land, “freedom” is only printed on official documents and neatly typed on to pretty signs at the Apartheid Museum.
The episode in which I involuntarily starred was much more than a Monday-night petty crime. It was proof that whether I find myself in the inner city of Chicago or the urban hubs of South Africa, I will see the heartbreaking results of violently oppressive structures unfolding around me. It laid bare the reality that the socioeconomic plight that plagues black spirits in the diaspora haunts us even when you manage to make it back to the “motherland”.
Frederique is a journalism student from the US interning at City Press
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It was proof that whether I find myself in the inner city of Chicago or the urban hubs of South Africa, I will see the heartbreaking results of violently oppressive structures unfolding around me