Layers of the Mother CityBy Daniela Cohen

Layers of the Mother City

By Daniela Cohen

Published on Wed, Aug 05 2009 by Daniela Cohen

South Africa--Last week three students were walking the 60 miles from one of their residences to another.  They were stopped by men who threatened them, demanding for their money. Instead of handing over their valuables, the students resisted. A fight ensued and all the students were bruised.  One ended up with a broken nose. 

My heart nearly stopped when I heard the story, even though it was not the first of its kind. I felt especially bad about one particular student, a young Colombian guy who had been coming to volunteer with me at the local Children’s Home over the last few weeks. With an easy smile and a generosity of spirit to match, it seemed wholly unfair that he had been targeted. And the incident did seem targeted. I imagined the people responsible were aware of where “the rich foreigners” stayed and waited for an opportunity to take advantage.

Upon arrival in Cape Town, our students are given a safety briefing.  They are told not to walk around the streets after dark, and especially not alone. Knowing this, would it be fair to claim it was the students’ own fault that this had happened? Although would it really make sense to take a taxi for 60 miles? Such considerations can put a serious damper on the otherwise amazing experience Cape Town provides for visitors. As in most of South Africa, freedom of movement is not something to be taken lightly.  Most people restrict their movements after dark without even thinking about it, it’s become part of the culture, a protective mechanism.

A few weeks ago, we were in class discussing what we would change about our home cities if we could. Safety was the unanimous choice about Cape Town. A Colombian girl pointed out that nothing would ever change if no one did anything about it. People willing to be confined indoors after dark would, in fact, perpetuate the situation. Yet, the attempt to resist this wouldn’t be worth the possibility of endangering oneself. Mass action would be needed. The student suggested organizing a city wide night march where the people would take to the streets in protest of the current situation. The throng of people would ensure their safety for the duration of the event.

It breaks my heart to look at my young Colombian student nowadays. The unease on his face reveals his recent trauma and his fear of walking around the city at all now, day or night. I understand his feelings all too well. Compared to Johannesburg, Cape Town presents the appearance of a pedestrian-friendly city, relatively safe for both residents and tourists.  But I have heard too many stories of people, specifically my students, being held up. Most of the time, they are not harmed, but is it really accurate to label being threatened with a knife “petty crime?”

Since, like most of my students, the only transport I have here is my feet, the targeting of pedestrians is a concern I share with them. Attempting not to walk around after dark is not always a guarantee of avoiding potential problems. A few months ago, one of my students was robbed crossing the main street near the school in broad daylight. A little while ago when I was sitting in a restaurant on Long Street, the main drag for foreigners out to have a good time, I smelled a strange odor seep in. Everyone started to cough from the fumes. Stepping outside, we saw one of the car guards moaning as he stumbled around the street. Someone had sprayed him with mace, and his eyes were burning, he couldn’t see a thing. Its effectiveness impressed me, and as a preferable alternative to carrying my own knife or gun, I bought myself some shortly afterwards. A small container attached to my key ring, keeping it close at hand provides some relief from the gnawing anxiety that is always present at some level.  Even if I can’t change the reality of the situation, at least I have some power to protect myself.  I’ve advised my Colombian student to do the same.

Aside from the need to be constantly on guard, these incidents also make me ashamed of my country. Even though I don’t have anything to do with the crime, I feel somehow responsible. Or at least a responsibility to help protect my students from these kinds of situations in any way I can. I hope the 2010 World Cup will bring a crackdown on law enforcement in South Africa. Most of all, I hope it will last.

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