Sunday, September 25, 2005

(In)security issues

My impressions (misguided) after the initial look at Jo’burg were, “Well, it looks a lot like Palm Springs ... all those walled communities and golf compounds... but with a wee bit more razor wire and high voltage electric fencing.” And also, “Gee, perhaps it’s a wonderful thing that Mr. D's in the electrical industry! All those volts!” (or amps, or joules, or whatever....electricity is not my strong suit (unless it’s my sparkling personality at parties))

I actually have a secret, perverse desire to throw something across the strings of electrical fencing around our apartment complex, just to see what happens. Does it spark? Short out? Plunge the whole neighborhood into darkness?

It’s kind of the same thing as when we lived in rural Pennsylvania. I had a burning curiosity to know just how strong the shock would be if you touched the cattle fencing. In actual fact, I had small children to go ahead and do that testing for me. (God, not that I told them to touch it! Please! It’s just that, well, accidents do happen, and believe me, Peregrine never got near an electric fence again. Perhaps this is why he’s majoring in English instead of Engineering? We may never know.)

Here in South Africa, there are all varieties of metal bars and grates. In fact, our apartment has a swinging door (like what you’d think of as a “screen door” in America) but instead of screening, it is made of big metal bars and has a keyed push-bolt lock. So you unlock this grate, unlock the front door, go inside, pull the grate shut behind you and lock it, and then lock the door. There! The monkey’s in the cage now! Safe! (Maybe.)

That’s after you’ve already gone through the security guard station and they’ve raised the “boom” at the entrance to the apartment complex driveway, and you’ve shown your electronic passkey. Inside the apartment, there are bar grids across every window. Our worry at the beginning was, if there were to be a fire, would you be able to get out, for crying out loud? (“Yes, she never was murdered, but she did get roasted alive (a new interpretation of the BBQ/braai concept?)” Oi, too morbid.)

The artistic expression in ironwork and grilles is a whole new area of study for me. I’ve always loved metal (but not in music, thanks) and I thrilled to see “The Iron Bridge” and all that other fabulous cast-iron up Telford way. (Totally worth a trip, and you can learn all about smelting (so hotly exciting!!), and the first Crystal Palace, and see 800 styles of cast-iron garden benches (be still, my pounding heart!)) Oh, think of the lovely Art Nouveau Metro railings and archways in Paris, or the Eiffel Tower, or the metal work at the V & A in London! Even the structural ironwork of Chicago’s “El” (elevated train) has a spare but sexily rugged industrial beauty. It’s all good in my book.

Anyway, here in Joburg, you get to see all types of “keep-’em-out” metalwork. There are fences topped with trefoil-form sharpened points, or with deadly fleur-de-lis, or with straight up-’n’-down daggers, or with a kind of floral “spray” of cutting curly knives; the walls surrounding each house have a different style. Then there are the seriously security minded ones; behind the 8-line electric high voltage wire, there’s a twisting spiral of stretched out razor wire. (“Call “The Ripper” for ripper wire solutions to your security problems... “ ) Yeeeesh. It’s pretty in a cruel way, and the clear bright South African sunlight on the wire is simply blinding.

I was told that you can’t have the electric voltage cranked up high enough to kill anyone, but the same person said, “I don’t think anyone’s going to come around to check, either.” Yi yi! Armed and dangerous and South African. But are “they” inside the gates, or out? You make the call, babe.

Then there are “trellies”. These are accordion style grilles that pull across doors and windows. (Think, “The Loop, downtown Chicago, USA", or "Camden Town, UK”) Some homes have them on a few doors. Some homes have them on every door or window on the ground floor. Some have them..... everywhere. You can probably tell a lot about a homeowner’s personality by looking at the level of security in his house. Or, sadly, perhaps you can learn a lot about the homeowner’s personal life experiences (“I’ve been robbed, I’ve been beaten, my wife’s been raped.”) by looking at what he’s chosen to install in his home.

Ok, I’m not gonna think about that.

Today, in the papers, new crime statistics were released for South Africa. Rather reassuring, if you are willing to swallow the story of the week. And if nothing bad has happened to you personally, lately. The news?

Here we go. “Whereas Johannesburg has the dubious distinction of being the country’s crime capital, and is the country’s most populous urban area, only 694 murders were committed there in the past year, compared with 1757 in Cape Town and 1931 in Durban. The situation is similar for rapes, with 3943 in Cape Town, 3897 in Durban, and just 1542 in Johannesburg.” Mmmm, I feel better already because .... it’s worse somewhere else! Hoo boy. Let me check my pulse and see if I’m still alive. Yeah, no problem, I guess I’m breathing, barely.

Then, another article in today’s paper. The ANC announced that at least three of its MPs in the Acacia Park parliamentary village in Cape Town were the latest victims ...[of crime]... The complex is guarded fulltime by police, homes have alarm systems and burglar bars, and millions have recently been spent on upgrading security there, including the installation of CCTV cameras, after repeated problems with crime at the complex. ... In a statement yesterday, the ANC said it regretted the spate of burglaries at parliamentary residential villages, occurring mostly when members are on constituency work.....”

Great, so you go off to serve your country’s government, to represent “the people”, and work for the greater good, and you get home to find that some of “the people” have stripped your house of anything of value. Very inspiring! No wonder some find Africa a disheartening experience.

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