Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Enough with the bleeding 'darkest Africa'

I remember winter afternoons, the air crisp as the sun dipped towards the horizon, walking home from work along Sandton streets. Near me were other people walking. Some walking their dogs, some who, like me, didn't own the fancy cars racing past us on Katherine street, trudging to the bus or taxi to begin their long rides home. I walked with my handbag and my laptop bag, aware of the world and who was walking around me but peaceful in the fading light of day.

There were mornings Joburg CBD, in the chaos of rush-hour traffic, with the noise of taxis and commuters and street vendors and buses, summer mornings when I stood waiting for the bus to work just as the day was warming up. And then getting on the bus - an ordinary, public bus filled with so many other people going to work and going to school.

I used to walk on Rondebosch common some afternoons. There would always be other runners or walkers around. It was a peaceful spot of greenery in the already leafy Southern Suburbs.

I remember the first time I took the train in Cape Town. I was a little nervous because the train didn't have a particularly good reputation. But it was fine. In fact, it was more than fine. It was early winter and the sun was just rising painting the gorgeous peaks of Table Mountain rose-coloured in the perfectly clear early morning, as I watched from the window of the train. A train I shared with so many other ordinary people.

I've travelled all over South Africa. I've spent time in townships. I've been to shows in New Town. I've wandered around CBDs on my own. Sometimes I've been to 'bad areas'. I don't feel unsafe. Sure, I'm careful and I don't do anything stupid. But I certainly don't wander around with a vest to protect myself from being indiscriminately stabbed on the street.

I hate that that is how people see my country. I was talking to a student yesterday who asked 'Isn't South Africa a very dangerous country?' I don't dismiss or minimize South Africa's crime problems. Crime happens. And it happens more often than in a lot of other countries. But it's not a war zone, there is not complete chaos and people don't randomly kill you on the streets on a regular basis.

But it's more than that. What bothers me the most is that people act as if South Africa is a wilderness that has never been visited before and they need to come prepared for a colonial-exploration-type expedition to a wild and primitive land. Particularly when it's the Brits who are acting like that. As if they didn't visit the country in '95 for the World Cup. As if they haven't made the trip out for the Lions' Tours. As if a whole whack of their country-folk are not as we speak in the process of travelling home (with bitterness in their hearts) from the cricket series that has just finished. It's as if there is the perception that the World Cup will suddenly change everything and it'll become one big 'survivor' episode. Which is particularly irritating when it's from the Brits who it is anticipated will themselves cause more trouble than anyone else at the event.

Safety is, according to research, one of the biggest factors in deciding to travel for a lot of European travellers. Products like this one will only scare away potential visitors. Probably not the football hooligans, because they are pretty much guarenteed anywhere there is beer and soccer, but later travellers who could go anywhere will see this now and choose against South Africa.

South Africa is a beautiful country and a good country. It has risks but for the people who come for the World Cup, most of whom will never deviate from matches, bars, hotel rooms and guided tours, the risk of being randomly stabbed is minimal - unless of course the real reason for the vests, and perhaps this would be more accurate marketing, is to protect themselves in stupid bar-fights from other random soccer fans.

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