David Moseley

South Africa at war with itself

2015-07-16 11:17

David Moseley

Earlier this year I visited Durban for the first time in a long time. I’m only really familiar with Umhlanga, but on this occasion I saw a few more suburbs – nice places, not overly plush and not too downtrodden.

I was shocked at the high walls and extreme use of barbed-wire in what initially appeared to be a prosperous suburb. I’d never seen these in the admittedly fancier area of Umhlanga. I left Durban with no desire to return. It felt grimy, seedy and in need of a pick-me-up.

Every year I also visit the Eastern Cape. Having studied there I have a great deal of affinity for the area. To my mind it’s this country’s forgotten gem. There is so much potential, so much beauty, but also so much decay. My frame of reference is Grahamstown, so I can only draw from that and how it (as it appears to me) has declined considerably since I first time saw the town in 1998. Locals might disagree, but things have changed and not for the good.

After Durban, the annual visits to Grahamstown and numerous regular business and social trips to Johannesburg, I frequently say a quiet thank you that I’m able to live (and survive) in Cape Town, South Africa’s shining light if you listen to those who say such things.

But the reality is; Cape Town is also a dump.

I’m quite fond of my small neighbourhood mainly because there still a few houses with low walls. Some are even so bold as to have no fencing around their property. It makes the area feel friendly and welcoming, a soothing salve to the crackling wires and fortress-like ramparts in other neighbourhoods around the city and country.

Recently, though, one of those houses with a low wall – about a foot high, really – erected a high wall with menacing electric fencing around the top and placed security lights at all angles so that birds migrating for the winter set off the potent search beams.

What once looked like the warm and inviting home of a kindly old dear who might knit you a scarf in a time of need now seems as cold and foreboding as a maximum security prison watchtower.

To me, the entire nature of the street has changed. Naturally I can understand why people do this in South Africa. But doesn’t it make you sad to the core? It certainly darkens my mood.

The change was more pronounced last week, when I returned from a trip overseas. My in-laws very sportingly took my wife and I on an excellent holiday to Europe which included spending time in major cities like Munich, Vienna and Budapest as well as visiting the countryside of those countries. You can’t really compare South Africa to the more prosperous parts of Europe, but we should.

At the time I didn’t think about, but immediately upon returning home I realised the major difference. The lack of electric fencing, barbed wire and huge walls and gates in these (yes, gloriously first world) countries was like a giant stress reliever.

Yes, all countries have issues, and the grass is never greener on the other side, but it’s nice to know that in some places the grass isn’t guarded by an ADT man in tactical assault gear.

The gates and booms and security guards of home are so oppressive (I now realise) that it’s no wonder we constantly walk around on edge, expecting trauma beyond every corner.

And Cape Town, so often used as the glowing “but” when talking about South Africa’s bad side, is no different to the rest of South Africa. The walls are going up everywhere.

Everyone is living under siege, either from a real and imagined enemy. And that’s just in the suburbs. I can’t even begin to imagine the fragile state of people who live in townships or less well-off areas. How do those people make it through a day without breaking down?

This is a great country, with undeniably fabulous people and stunning potential. But it’s at war with itself.

- Follow @david_moseley on Twitter.

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