Rule number one: don’t walk around alone. Even in the daytime.
Which is a problem for me, since I am pretty much always walking around everywhere alone, given that I AM alone. More to the point, I LIKE to walk around alone, and so that is how I started out in my adventures in Cape Town, and that is why I was held up at knife-point on my first day in the city.
I should clarify for the sake of any of my siblings who just had a heart attack (“I warned you it wasn’t safe there, dammit!”) that 1) I am fine, wholly untouched; 2) I didn’t lose anything, and 3) it didn’t even occur to me at the time that I’d been the victim of “violent” crime, because the kid that held me up was strictly amateur. He accosted me right across from the entrance to school, and in broad daylight. He was no more than 17 and easily weighed 50 lbs less than me; the knife had about a meager 2-inch blade, and was visibly dull as dirt. Don’t get me wrong - I know desperation lends strength, and dull blade cuts are worse than sharp ones. But I seemed to baffle him with my utter lack of response, and ultimately, he just didn’t seem very enthusiastic about the whole thing. It happens like this: he comes up to you, hat in hand, like dozens of other mendicants in the city who appeal to you daily; then he shows you his blade, secreted in the hat, and begs you not to make him use it on you, all along walking beside you to screen his activities from anyone who might be curious enough to bother looking. In all likelihood, I could have given him a few rand to make him go away. My repeated and indignant protestations that I had no money were met with tired disbelief – I am white, I am western, I am dumb enough to walk alone; ergo, I have money. What is remarkable to me now is the total lack of affect it had on me, at the time, as conditioned as I am to the relative docility of panhandlers in the Chicago. I didn’t experience any fight or flight response. I didn’t even think to look around for other pedestrians for whom I might appeal for help. My initial reaction was annoyance, and then anger. How dare he threaten me? ME? Begone, street urchin! I could hear the derision in my own voice.
Eventually, after trailing alongside me for a couple blocks, I mentioned that I was only coming from school and that I HAD NO MONEY. Perhaps tiring of this unexpectedly stupid quarry, who did not know when to give in, he seized this offhand comment as an opportunity to “let” me go. “School!” he exclaimed pathetically, with a Dickensian longing. “I loved school! If you are in school, it is the only reason I am letting you go.” Strangely, my urge then was to agree solemnly that school was important, and then to thank him.
The entire transaction took about 30 seconds, and I was left amused, in a furious way, that it had happened at all, and that “school” should be my salvation. It was not until I was told of a more disturbing incident, wherein Luis, a Mexican fellow on my program, had wallet and Blackberry lifted off him from two men wearing traffic construction crew bibs, who stopped him on his bike, that I retroactively felt the chill of illumination: we’re not in Ravenswood anymore, Toto. Though Luis never saw the knife these men claimed they had, they were older, rougher, and obviously had a strategy for stopping him; he was also on a median when it happened, further from the dubious protection of other pedestrians. His muggers took his phone first, then wanted his wallet – he tried to negotiate the exchange of his phone for his money, but they were having none of it. They did leave him his wallet, with some ID and credit cards they would have little chance of passing off as their own. Telling us this later, he lamented, "Maybe they didn't even have a knife, but if they did, I didn't want to see it."
Statistics on Cape Town crime are unclear: the South African district report shows 40% reduction in "common robbery" in Cape Town Central district(4), while blogs generally agree that numbers are skewed by rampant crime in the townships, but that security just requires common sense precautions in the richer/tourist districts...like not walking alone at night. But during the day? I didn't look for estimates of how much crime, like my own mugging that resulted in no losses, are not reported at all (or how many might be downplayed by police). Of the few South Africans to whom I mentioned the incident, mainly personnel at my hotels, 100% clearly felt badly that it had happened and that it tarnished my view of the city, and 100% were completely resigned to that being “the way it is,” with nothing to be done about it. Even locals, they assured me, don’t usually walk alone, and never after dark.
Maybe that's not the way it has to be? Cape Town is expecting 450,000 people during 2010’s World Cup Games(1), many for whom this will be a first introduction to Africa in general. Plans are to increase the South African police force by more than 19% (2) during that time, though it seems clear that the number of fat tourist wallets flowing into the city will only increase the number of hopeful criminals flocking there simultaneously. Another sign that South Africans are hoping to crack down on crime is a move to put more power in the hands of the police. This past week, South African President Jacob Zuma supported a law authorizing police throughout the country to shoot first upon sighting guns in the hands of suspects, an effort to increase the efficacy of existing police.(3) Of course, that won't probably stop my mugger from carrying his tiny knife around to menace stupid white walkers, or Luis' from using the threat of a knife with even greater efficacy; and it makes me wonder how trustworthy newly empowered but hastily trained police officers are going to be during, and after, the Cup.