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

CityPress - - Voices and Careers - Danette Fred­erique voices@city­press.co.za

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

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