Over the next two months, I will be writing you from the other side of the world: the Radical family has decamped to South Africa. It’s what we call travel, as opposed to vacation: a working trip, where time is set aside for study, learning, and writing, as well as relaxation and seeing some sights. For several weeks we will be in the Western Cape, mostly in and around Cape Town. In December, we will head up to the Johannesburg area to work for a few weeks, and then circle back down along the southern coast (what is called “The Garden Route.” ) We will return to Cape Town for several weeks prior to our return to the United States. We will be in South Africa for a total of two months.
In this initial post, and in those to follow, I am trying to guard against sweeping statements and observations. Because I am an academic, and trained to do precisely that, I am sure that I will fail. But I will try all the same. It’s my experience that taking one’s self to an entirely different place creates a drastic shift in perspective that feels like a wave of new knowledge, but that the prospect of really “knowing” much about the place or society one has entered is much farther off. But here are a few snapshots.
Prior to our departure, a great many reasonable people (several of whom were friends from South Africa) went on at length about crime here and instructed us on how to avoid it; most also agreed that the Western Cape is less dangerous than the more industrialized areas around Pretoria and Johannesburg, which is where the bulk of the really serious crime occurs. As a former New Yorker, and now an inhabitant of a Shoreline community that is a site for regular street crimes, I consider myself rather sophisticated on this topic, and yet friends urged me to not assume that this knowledge would benefit me abroad. These conversations, and firm advice given here by the people who have been in charge of our lodgings, suggest that South Africans are aware of the possibility of personal violence at all times. We have been urged, for example, to submit to petty theft, much as one was often advised in New York back in the 1970s to carry a twenty dollar bill to hand to a mugger, as it provokes muggers to feel unsuccessful if you do not. But clearly things are different here. Signs on private residences and businesses warn potential intruders that there will be “armed response.” Here in the village where we are staying, there are regular patrols by private guards in cars, wearing bullet-proof vests, and carrying automatic weapons. There are also unarmed citizen patrols, who are (as our volunteer neighborhood watch explained to me) “extra eyes and ears” who can call the police in by radio if they see something worrisome.
I confess, it all makes me terribly uncomfortable. But as we tell our students, discomfort is often the sign of a shift in perspective that can help a person learn new things. So I am trying to remain open as to what this more naked show of force might teach me about where I am.
On a certain level, while I don’t discount the necessity for precautions. However, it does strike me as strange that whether one is in downtown Cape Town or in this small village on the beach, one is advised to take virtually identical steps to insure one’s personal safety, even when one is also told that some spaces are safer than others. This has caused me to think about something that is also true in the United States, and which is a central theme in my scholarship: in most societies, there is crime and there is a conversation about crime, and while the two reference each other, they are not exactly the same. It is something it would profit me to think about in a comparative context while I am here. A second theme is that, as in many places in the world outside Europe and North America, it is a normal political and social condition that the state does not have a monopoly on the means of violence. The high reliance on private security in South Africa may, in part, reflect white paranoia and the fears of the property-owning classes in a country where unemployment is running over 40%. However, it also may reflect the genuinely poor state of policing here. Repression and surveillance are very different tasks from investigation, not to mention the community partnerships and economic development that really reduce crime.
For example, yesterday in De Doorns, a farming community in the interior Western Cape, 1,000 seasonal workers drove 3,000 Zimbabwean migrant workers out of their homes by stoning, accusing the foreign workers of accepting lower wages than were being paid to South Africans. The article I have linked to in The Cape Times does not cite any arrests; last night on the news, only two arrests were reported. In the United States this would just be a stunning outcome, and clearly the news anchor who was receiving the live report from De Doorns was stunned on a certain level. “You can’t just have mobs running people out of their houses, can you?” (if you imagine a tonal uptick on the word “can” it becomes clear that this was a rhetorical question.)
Possibilities for the lack of arrests, and the inability of the state to control the mob, spring to mind. One is the vexed politics of policing in a country still so shaped by the ideological, political and geographical work of apartheid. Another is the possibility that the state has an interest in the indirect expulsion of migrants fleeing Robert Mugabe’s violence as well but cannot — or does not wish to — take it on as a political or legal task. The stream of desperate African refugees exiting Zimbabwe is far steadier and larger than we in the United States, who have largely been exposed to stories of white farmers being driven out by Africans, had been led to expect. We met two young Zimbabweans on the beach yesterday, a brother and sister who arrived as refugees approximately when we arrived as tourists. Lucy told us, as she watched her brother Leonard swim in the ocean for the first time in his life, that the situation for working Africans is so bad that in her view “Only God can stop Mugabe.” This opened my mind to the thought that the South African government sees itself as having a moral responsibility to these refugees that it cannot reconcile with its own problem of domestic poverty, inadequate housing and surplus labor. But these are only three possibilities, grounded very much in political theories I know well, and I have not yet found the local sources that might make my ability to analyze this event more place-specific.
To conclude, I am becoming very much aware that the blogger’s dilemma is intensified and made more obvious when one is abroad and the temptation to interpret one’s observations through the lens of similarity is strong. The freedom to write anything that comes into my head has to be balanced and restrained by a high consciousness about the uncooked nature of my observations and the terrible incompleteness of what even concentrated reading can accomplish in a short
time. There is much that I am seeing that is new to me, and pinning it together with what I know, what I know I don’t know, and what I have any authority to express an informed opinion about, is going to be a critical challenge for me as a writer and a scholar in the next several months. While I will return to U.S.-based topics from time to time, I will hope to do so as exercises in comparative and global historical thinking, keeping at the forefront of my mind that I have colleagues who have spent their entire careers to date learning the things that are now so new to me.
I hope you will want to stick with me.