Blood ’n gore in times of peace

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Published: Tue, 11/03/2009 - 10:20 Updated: Mon, 07/27/2015 - 11:16

During the apartheid regime, Indians were clubbed with blacks. After the end of the hateful regime, the blacks continue to view them suspiciously

Sanjay Kapoor Durban

Wearing a black shirt with custom-stitched pockets that served as holsters for his revolver and baton, he seemed to have stepped out of a futuristic sci-fi. He sauntered over to me, took off his dark glasses and said, "You seem like a foreigner. Do you know about the crime in Durban? People get shot for less than your phone by MIB (men in black)."

Did I sense a threat in his advice? Soon enough, the intimidating security officer, with a huge barn door-sized chest, bared his hand. "I could ensure that you do not come in harm's way. Please take down my mobile number." Quickly jotting down the number, I slinked away to the secure confines of a nearby departmental store. Little did I realise then that not far away a gang of criminals had ransacked a shopping mall and were escaping in their new glistening BMW and Mercedes, obviously hijacked to facilitate a speedy getaway.

South Africa, host of 2010 Football World Cup is struggling to fight violent crime. South African President Jacob Zuma recently gave his police shoot-to-kill orders if they sensed a criminal was turning violent. Zuma's latest order is meant to serve as a deterrent to criminal gangs. These gangs are causing incalculable damage to the South African economy and its profile as a first-world destination in the dark continent. All these years, the African National Congress (ANC) has been reluctant to fight crime or even call police "police" as it brought back disturbing images of oppression in the racist regime.

South Africa is considered by BBC the most dangerous place in the world that is not at war. Crime here is not something that one reads in the newspapers. Nearly everyone I spoke with had been impacted by it. "In my class of 70 people, nearly everyone has experienced crime from close quarters. Either they have been mugged or seen car hijacking," said a teacher in Durban.
The fear over the city is palpable. As cars whiz around at great speed on South Africa's stunning roads and flyovers, one seldom meets people walking around on pedestrian paths or youngsters hanging out in markets. Most of the malls close around 6 pm. It is possible to see people racing to the safety of their homes. The affluent have gated and secured communities with CCTV and high walls with concertina wires. They are also promised an armed response in three minutes of the alarm going up in the event of an intrusion by an outsider. The poor and middle class do not have such comfort.

Many of the houses are vulnerable to attack by a large mass of unemployed youth who subsist on crime. What is terrible about the South African crime is the violence that follows after petty crimes like chain snatching or car-jacking. In many cases, the victims were shot dead. "Apartheid has warped the mindset of the blacks here. They do not trust the criminal justice system. They just do not want to go to jail where they could be brutalised," explained a South African journalist. What also compounds the problem is rapid urbanisation, dysfunctional families, poor quality of education, unemployment and migration of poor people from neighbouring countries.

South Africa has one of the highest incidence of rape in the world. Figures put out by the United Nations show that a girl child has greater chance of getting raped than learning to read and write. Between 1998 and 2000, the UN report states that one out of every three girls had been raped. Around 4,000 women were interviewed for this purpose. Similarly, one out of four men had been involved in rape. Many young girls are raped due to the myth that it cures HIV infection in this AIDS-ravaged country.

Bloodcurdling stories are reported in newspapers about the mindless physical violence that follows rape. A South African professor decided to leave the country after his house was attacked by a "razor gang" that raped his daughter. The perpetrator was caught after enormous pressure was mounted on the government. Ironically, when the professor announced his plan to return home, the gang leader escaped from jail.

Although crime impacts evenly in this rainbow society, Indians feel that they are easier targets than the blacks and whites, who are physically better endowed. Durban has the highest settlement of Indians - mostly descendants of indentured labour brought in by the English colonialists to work in sugar plantations - outside the country. But, their existence here is scarred by fear. "We are targeted for our affluence and the peaceful life we lead," one of the Indians in Durban said. They also pointed out that the radical section within the ANC has been dropping dark hints about removing Indians from position of power.

Incidentally, one of the most powerful ministers in the government, Pravin Gordhan, is an Indian. During the apartheid regime, Indians were clubbed with blacks. After the end of the hateful regime, the blacks continue to view them suspiciously. In fact, ANC radicals accuse them of backing the party of Afrikaners.

The dark imprimatur of apartheid, which destroyed the fabric of this complex society, is still visible 15 years after the regime collapsed in 1994. Johannesburg presents the palimpsest of the repugnant racist rule and the subsequent changes brought in by the government to restore justice and humaneness to the country.

The Constitution Hill was the site of a fort that was later turned into a prison for those who opposed the white regime. Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and many others stayed in its hated "Prison 4". These prisons are a testimony to the humiliation that was heaped on those who protested against a society that was based on racism. The prisoners were robbed off their dignity when they were made to take off their clothes and examined by warders. Even female prisoners were not spared of this ignominy. The Constitution Hill displays disturbing testimonies of prisoners and how they were treated by their oppressors. The dark interiors of the prisons that provided a backdrop to the methodical brutalisation of the hapless inmates are enduringly eloquent. Tales of warders, using fear and loathing to force young blacks to have sex with them, constituted one of the ways to destroy families and dignity of malehood.

Apartheid Museum near Gold Reef city in Johannesburg is a chilling reminder of how a vicious section of Afrikaners methodically used deep-seated hatred and fear about blacks among simple-minded white settlers to craft a society based on segregation. Using violence to break tribal loyalties and culture, the racists destroyed the moral compass that sustains simple rural lives. Although it is 15 years since the baton was quietly passed on to the ANC, the integration is still a work in progress. The blacks still lower their gaze when they enter what were earlier "all white bars or restaurants." Most of the big businesses are still under the control of whites.

The government's attempt  at affirmative action has been creative but minimalistic. Their black economic empowerment programme mandates all companies with a certain turnover and dealing with the government to pass on equity or shareholding to blacks. This equity can take different forms and many blacks are slowly coming to riches. In the violent township of Soweto, that saw pitched battles with the racist regime, a smart shopping mall has come up to absorb the spending power of the new money. Soweto is still not considered safe by outsiders in the evening. One wonders what the mood will be when thousands of football fans stream out of the nearby Soweto stadium. At least, the German football team has announced that it is not taking any chances. They plan to wear bulletproof vests and helmets to the stadium.

South Africa is godly in the way nature has showered it with her bounties. Cape Town is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It has so much to offer to everyone that despite all the violence, injustice and crime, residents do not want to leave their country.

During the apartheid regime, Indians were clubbed with blacks. After the end of the hateful regime, the blacks continue to view them suspiciously Sanjay Kapoor Durban

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This story is from print issue of HardNews