Is SA as bad as foreign media make it out to be?

During and before 2010 Fifa World Cup in July 2010 we were bombarded with many scary newspaper headlines both inSouth Africaand abroad that hell would break lose but that actually did not happen. Instead, it were some of these foreign nationals – and just a few South Africans -who were arrested because of the pressure Fifa had put on the country’s security and law enforcement services under at the time. Why?

Honestly and frankly so, sometimes one gets the impression that it is actually writers and correspondents of foreign media and many of those who moved abroad for reasons only they know of that seem to perceive, if not portray, South Africa as a dangerous country.

For example, in May this year [2010] just two months before the world cup tournament started, BBC ran a story asking if South Africa – probably for the British at the time – was dangerous.

BBC Correspondent Finlo Rohrer saidSouth Africawas a “place where a lot of violent crime happens” as if this kind of this never happens in Britain. How cheek.

Rohrer said the country’s “violent crime” was much to dispute as an average of “nearly 50 people are murdered” each day. Of course this may well be true. So what?

Those who wanted to come at the time had the option of coming or not and whoever did knew the risks thereof. In order words visiting South Africa at the time of the world cup was a personal choice like that of many South Africans who have opted to go and live abroad in UK and US at the time when the two countries experienced the economic meltdown.

The journalist continued to make reference to the murder of Eugene Terre’blance, something he said was a “staple of news”.

The murder of Lolly Jackson, to satisfy himself that he had done his research well and that he had gathered as much material about the state ofSouth Africa’s murder statistics, was also mentioned by the journalist.

Below are verbatim from Jonathan Clayton who wrote a brilliant opinion piece in the UK Sunday Times newspaper in June 2010 that South Africa was not a dangerous place and visitors to the country should not fear even if crime levels may be “grim”. Clayton said:

“Crime is a constant reality of life inSouth Africa. It dominates dinner-party conversations, particularly among middle-class whites, in the same way that property and schools occupy pride of place inBritain. Security companies offer ‘meet and greets’, meaning an armed guard will be waiting at your door when you arrive home from a night out, just to make sure a robber or mugger does not slip in to the house from behind a nearby tree while the garage door is automatically closing.

Private health clinics offer immediate anti-HIV/Aids flush-outs for rape victims. Youngsters are warned to take taxis only with known drivers. A foreign friend, a black woman from another African country, was so spooked by all the crime stories that she hired a bodyguard/driver for the first six months she was in the country.

Yet in many ways the precautions seem ludicrous. Visitors are more likely to be attacked in rival destinations, such asKenyaorTanzania, which overall have far better reputations. Last year 871 Britons sought consular assistance inSouth Africabecause they had had their passports lost or stolen. Of the 139 other British nationals who contacted the High Commission for help, just 23 did so because of crime. And in all 23 cases, it was because the Britons themselves had been accused of committing a crime. On those statistics, it would seem that Britons are more of a danger to South Africans than the other way around.

South Africans are friendly, warm people. The country has magnificent scenery and wonderful places to visit. Sipping wine in the Cape winelands or hiking or horse trekking in the Drakensberg mountains, it is almost impossible to grasp that you are in a country where there are more than 50 murders a day – the highest in the world outside countries with war zones or drug conflicts such as in Mexico and Colombia.

A country of 50 million people,South Africaevery year reports more than 18,000 murders and 50,000 rapes. InEnglandandWales, which has a similar population, there are around 600 murders and 12,000 rapes a year. If the rape figure forSouth Africaseems comparatively low, it’s because it’s probably only a fraction of the real level? – a survey last year found that one in four South African men admitted to committing rape at some point.

But, as ever in South Africa, things are not quite as they seem. The statistics tell only half the story. Thousands of tourists visit every year and few ever have a bad experience. Travel advice on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s website warns that there is “a very high level of crime” in South Africa, but goes on to say that – ‘the most violent crimes occur in townships and isolated areas away from the normal tourist destinations’.

Experts are often at a loss to explain the violence inSouth Africa. From the time of gold and diamond explorers through to the Anglo-Boer and Zulu wars,South Africa has always been a violent country. Apartheid institution- alised the violence, but also generally confined it to certain areas, the black townships. Today, the country remains deeply divided between rich and poor. Some 46 per cent of the population live on less than $1.50 a day and the country recently overtookBrazilas the country with the world’s highest levels of inequality.

So when listening to stories about crime, it’s important to remember where people are coming from. Whites who don’t like black rule talk crime up. Liberals, white and black, play it down, nervously accusing detractors of paranoia. Black politicians, generally shielded from the reality of daily crime, are quick to play the race card ‘with some justification’ when they are criticised.

Meanwhile, the security companies that dominate the landscape in affluent suburbs have a vested interest in playing up the threat of crime. Crime specialists agree and stress thatSouth Africais a victim of its own success in that other African countries, such asNigeria, do not bother to draw up statistics”.

A police source told Clayton that just like HIV-Aids statistics – the police did not know how bad the situation was in other African countries as they did not have any remotely credible statistics, that Police stations in Kenya and Nigeria rarely had a functioning compute and therefore the problem was that violence attached to crime in South Africa made the issue much worse, and more feared, than in other countries.

Of course the murder of Anni Dewani – a Swedish tourist who together with her husband Shrien had visited the country for their honeymoon – who was murder about a week or so ago had created the impression that South Africa is indeed not a safe place for anyone, even for its citizens as they lived in fear.

Show me a country that is not dangerous and I will then show you a TRUE liar.

I have noted that some Travel writers, too, have contributed to portraying the country – and any other African country for that matter – as it is now seen by those who intend visiting or investing in it: that it is not safe.

This is an edited article I wrote first published in a blog I owned then but no longer own in November last year.

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