April 19, 2007 / 8:23 AM / 13 years ago

WITNESS: Pizza and machetes: living with crime in Johannesburg

Rebecca Harrison is a Reuters correspondent based in Johannesburg, a city with some of the world’s worst crime. In the following story, she recounts her own experience of theft and break-ins since she took up her assignment.

Beggars arrested by Metro Police officers shout from a police bus in Johannesburg, February 3, 2005. To cope with crime, middle-class South Africans, black and white, turn their homes into fortresses, with iron window bars, electric fences and alarm systems that trigger automatic signals for armed guards. REUTERS/Radu Sigheti

By Rebecca Harrison

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - One break-in, one stolen car, one gate ripped from its hinges, an attack for a slice of pizza and two men ambling through the garden with axes: do you stay until you’re killed for a cell phone?

I have lived in Johannesburg, South Africa’s economic capital, for about 2-1/2 years and have been a victim of six different crimes.

Thankfully, none was violent. But after the latest break-in at my house in broad daylight, I am starting to wonder what will happen next.

Crime in South Africa is haphazard. Some people, even those who have lived here a long time, have never directly experienced any crime at all.

But plenty of others I know have suffered badly, including one who was shot in the arm and another who was tied up and locked in the trunk of her car while burglars looted her apartment.

These incidents pale in comparison to the murders that fill the newspapers: five small children killed and piled up in a bath of soapy water, or three women beaten, stuffed into washing machines filled with chemicals then strangled with ropes.

But they testify to how crime permeates every corner of life in one of the most violent places on earth outside a war zone.


I arrived in Johannesburg from Paris determined to resist the fear, sometimes laced with racism, that grips so many middle-class South Africans.

I was shocked by the high walls and electrified fences that surround houses in smart suburbs. I told myself fear of crime was overblown and opted for a trendy and increasingly mixed-race suburb instead.

Then one night a stranger shattered my car window — and sense of security — at a traffic light. Not for a wallet or a handbag, but to steal a single slice of cheese and salami pizza sitting in a box on the front seat.

A few months later my boyfriend’s car was stolen from outside the house the day after he bought it.

A few months after that, he interrupted two strangers ambling through the garden wielding axes. Two days later, the front gate was ripped from its hinges and the front door lock bore the marks of an attempted break-in.

And a few weeks ago I arrived home to find the burglar bars hanging off the wall, a smashed window and a missing laptop.

To cope with crime, middle-class South Africans, black and white, turn their homes into fortresses, with iron window bars, electric fences and alarm systems that trigger automatic signals for armed guards.

Walking is mostly safe during the day but off limits after dark. I live 500 meters (yards) from my favorite restaurant but have never walked home after dinner. When I start my car, the first instinct is to lock the door.


It’s not all bad. The government has vowed to get tough on crime and murder rates have fallen since the blood-drenched days that came with the transition from apartheid to democracy.

Yet still, 50 people are slaughtered every day. Businesses cite crime as one of the biggest deterrents to investment and violence threatens to mar the 2010 soccer World Cup.

Around 150 women a day report being raped and common robberies have almost doubled compared with 11 years ago, according to a report released in March by the Institute for Security Studies.

Some government officials have accused whites of whining about crime and even suggested they leave the country. The ruling African National Congress said in February a BBC documentary highlighting the crime scourge was racist.

But the real victims are poor and black, and much of the violence happens at home.

A teenage girl at a children’s home I visit told me she was raped at the age of 10. Another young woman I interviewed recently said she was sexually abused three times as a child, at ages 4, 6 and 7. Both knew their attackers.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, one of South Africa’s best-loved citizens, recently asked if South Africans had lost their moral bearings.

“It seems as if we have perverted our freedom,” he said in a lecture. “Perhaps we did not realize just how much apartheid damaged us, so that we seem to have lost our sense of right and wrong.”

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