Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Violence in South Africa

After spending three months in Alaska in 2006, I became aware of how emotionally taxing it is when you live in the threat of constant danger.

I lived and worked in Alaska’s Chugach State Park and before my arrival, I had asked my supervisor-to-be: “Will I see a bear?” And she replied, “Oh yes! You will have a bear encounter.”

I thought she was kidding, but I did indeed have a bear encounter. In fact, I had several bear encounters.

I was lucky enough during my time in Alaska to find myself hiking—a lot. While hiking in Alaska, you must be vigilant—always—against startling wildlife generally and bears specifically.

I made lots of noise while hiking and remained safe from bears during my time in Alaska, but I realized that it takes a huge amount of emotional energy to be on such high alert at all times. I remember thinking, on my return to the “lower 48,” that Louisville has its own version of bears: criminals walking the streets and that I was ready to return home and to deal with my more familiar version of “bear” back home.

When I mentioned to friends and family that I was invited to serve Peace Corps in South Africa, the news was, for the most part, welcome and everyone was very excited for me.

There were, however, a couple of things that gave me pause about my decision to serve in South Africa. Looking back now, and in hindsight (always 20/20), I wish I had paused a bit longer, researched more thoroughly, and thought more carefully.

As I gathered information informally, I was told that most South Africans “secure” their property and yards with some type of fencing. I remember wondering why.

I’ve since learned that fencing is indeed the standard “landscaping” in South Africa, and type of fencing seems in-line with the property owner’s income level: on the lower-income end, people with fence with razor wire; on the higher-income end, people will use electrical fencing. But all fence, regardless of income.

When we first arrived in South Africa, the group was accommodated on a college campus and I couldn’t help but notice that the campus was gated and had security guards posted around the clock for every day of the week.

On one of my strolls about campus, I came upon a vegetable garden. I was thrilled, as you can imagine, to find a vegetable garden, but I noticed right away that it was fenced, at least 15-feet high, with razor wire. I was puzzled at such a fence and wondered, “Does it take razor wire to keep the animals out?”

Since the end of Apartheid—1994—South Africans have lived in fear of violence, and with just cause. The discrepancy between the “haves” and “have nots” is huge. We see the well-to-do people in the villages living right next door to a tin shack housing orphans. We see this over and over again.

And the mentality of the criminals has been explained to me in these terms: People from poverty see the “haves” as those who can “lose, but simply get more.” So the crime rate: theft, robbery, breaking/entering, etc. is astronomical.

I hadn’t realized how severe the problem was for South Africans until I read a piece on William Kentridge in the January 18, 2010 edition of the New Yorker. In it, Kentridge speaks to how South Africans have felt living in post-apartheid South Africa:

“In many parts of the country, it hasn’t changed at all. Children in poor rural schools still get a miserable education. It’s also true that the main beneficiaries since the ending of apartheid are white South Africans. No one’s lost their beautiful house. There’s lots of violence around, but you had that before—now you have more of it. That’s the price of extreme inequality. . . In South Africa, there is never an assumption that a calm and gentle death is one’s birthright. September 11th in America had an interesting effect here. It helped lots of us understand that living in a dangerous, unstable world was not only a South African phenomenon, and that made people here less anxious to leave.” (Profiles: Lines of Resistance: William Kentridges Rough Magic 59).

As Peace Corps volunteers, we’re warned to be careful in travel, especially when traveling to our nearest shopping towns. In the taxi ranks, it is often very clear that I’m the only American in a huge crowd.

Just as I was on the alert when hiking in bear country of Alaska, I’m on just as heightened alert when negotiating my way around my shopping town. All of the adrenaline is very taxing on me and I’m exhausted by the time I return home.

There is a good-natured type of banter I encounter when boarding a taxi for my return to my village. It involves the “money collector” bantering with me in Setswana with the whole purpose of whether or not I can pass the “language test” or not. If I’m calm, reserved, and not alarmed, I can hold my own and my Setswana seems to satisfy (and often even please) the money collector and the whole “audience” of everyone on the taxi.

If I’ve been negotiating my way through the taxi rank and feel threatened, my system is flooded with adrenaline and I can’t think straight and can’t seem to locate the Setswana-speaking area in my brain. On these occasions, of course I fail my test and performance altogether.

And it’s on these occasions that I think about that missed chance to “pause” and returning to my own “bears” at home.



image of the bear:


  1. Honey, this is beautiful. Such good writing. I love you.

  2. I hope it gets easier for you. I'd hate to see you return...

  3. Karen, I've really enjoyed reading your blog. I was in SA-16 and ETed about six months in and like you, really, really wished I'd known how much crime and the fear of crime takes over your life in SA before I accepted the nomination. If it helps to know, the instant I landed in the US, I felt like I could breathe again - it was like I had been holding my breath for six months. Readjustment takes awhile too - I'd say it was another six months until I could feel comfortable and not scared in public (it might not have helped that I'd moved to a sketchy neighborhood in DC in the meantime). But, you do recover. Best of luck!

  4. I very much appreciate the comment left by “anonymous” and thoroughly understand your decision to ET. If it is one thing I’ve taken for granted for my whole life of living in the United States, it’s how SAFE I FEEL living in the US. To live in constant fear of personal attack is one of the most exhausting experiences I’ve ever encountered. And I’m relieved to hearing how it felt safe (to finally) be able to “breathe once the plane landed in America.”

    But mostly, I’m glad to have another South African PC volunteer acknowledge and validate my fears and acknowledge how frightening it is (or can be) to live here. When I try to discuss this with my fellow volunteers (currently serving), they look at me as though I have horns growing out of my head.

    There is a rumor circulating here that Peace Corps South Africa has the second highest drop-out rate in all of the countries Peace Corps serves. I’m not sure if this rumor is true, but if it is true, the fear of violence would certainly contribute to the drop out rate (I would think). We were recently asked to provide feedback to our “higher ups” about what it would take to decrease the drop rate of Peace Corps volunteers serving South Africa and I didn’t officially reply, but thought to myself, “Don’t send them to South Africa.”

    But I’ll say this much for certain: I wouldn’t want my 20-year old daughter serving here.

  5. Karen, I've been wondering how things have been going, especially after all the coverage on NPR on the World Cup games there recently. I hadn't thought about daily life being scary. By contrast, when my younger daughter traveled to Denmark (summer, 2007)with her school, the teachers commented on how much safer it was for our kids to be in Denmark compared to how dangerous it was for the Danes to visit here (Kentucky).
    Part of the difference in how u and the other PC volunteers view safety may be related to differences in age, too. 20-somethings are still invincible! Glad yr eyes are open; sending you some calming breaths for whenever you need them!!!

  6. Thanks the ANC for the Poverty:


    Johannes Harnischfeger, Witchcraft and the State in South Africa * German version of published in Anthropopos, 95/ 2000, S. 99-112.:

    Especially evening assemblies girls had to attend as well: “They would come into the house and tell us we should go. They didn't ask your mother they just said ‘come let's go.’ You would just have to go with them. They would threaten you with their belts and ultimately you would think that if you refused, they would beat you. Our parents were afraid of them” (quoted by Delius 1996:189).

    All those opposing the wishes of the young men were reminded, that it was every woman’s obligation to give birth to new “soldiers”, in order to replace those warriors killed in the liberation struggle. The idiom of the adolescents referred to these patriotic efforts as “operation production”. Because of exactly this reason it was forbidden for the girls to use contraceptives. (Delius 1996:189; Niehaus 1999:250)

    See also: Women in the ANC and SWAPO: sexual abuse of young women in the ANC camps, by Olefile Samuel Mngqibisa

    I am still waiting for any official from the Anti-Apartheid Movement to answer my question:

    Prior, or subsequent to, the ANC’s M-Plan declaration of War against Apartheid: Did any EU Anti-Apartheid Organisation advise the ANC or any SA Anti-Apartheid Organisation to avoid/suspend the violent ‘liberation struggle ’campaign against the Apartheid Goverment, and to launch a non-violent cultural and political campaign to stop the African ‘swart gevaar’ breeding-war population explosion, to demonstrate the ANC’s honourable Just War Just Cause Intentions?

    You should ask the ANC and Nelson Mandela, why they decided to choose to adopt Frantz Fanon and Black Liberation Theology's ideology of liberation of the colonized mind on the rotting corpse of the settler; instead of adopting a non-violent political and cultural campaign to end their poverty pimping breeding war.

    The ANC's national democratic revolution has no interest in identifying root causes of their poverty problems; and all interest in bullshitting their ignorant slaves on their welfare vote breeding plantation farms, that the ANC are going to give them an economic utiopia, as long as their voter slaves keep on breeding more poverty stricken voters for the next election. They breed poverty stricken voters, on their plantation voter farms for the same reasons, that former slave owners bred slaves! Their poverty stricken voters on their vote farms are their cannon fodder slaves, to eradicate South Africa of all whites.

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