June 11, 2009 / 12:06 AM / 10 years ago

WITNESS: Third time lucky in crime-ridden Johannesburg

Serena Chaudhry, Johannesburg correspondent for Reuters, moved to South Africa from Britain in 1995 and joined Reuters full-time in 2008 to report on companies in Africa’s biggest economy. In the following story, Serena writes about her experiences in one of the world’s most dangerous cities.

Charl Fourie, cooperating with the South African police, demonstrates an anti-hijacking "Blaster" flame-thrower in Johannesburg in this December 11, 1998 file photo. REUTERS/Peter Andrews/Files

By Serena Chaudhry

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - When the white sports utility vehicle pulled up as we backed out of our driveway, I thought it was the delivery man my mother was waiting for.

Until one of the passengers jumped out, pulled a bright orange mask over his head and ran toward our car: in seconds he stood in front of us with his finger on the trigger of an AK-47 rifle, pointing it directly at me.

It was just days before the election and African National Congress leader Jacob Zuma was telling millions of South Africans the party had accomplished many things, including its fight against crime and how it would make the streets safe before hosting the 2010 World Cup.

“Oh no,” I said to my father, who first thought it was some kind of practical joke. I froze. It was only when the man trained his weapon at my father that I ducked. The thought of watching my father getting shot through the windshield was too much.

Zuma has promised stepped-up efforts against crime, particularly organized crime and offences against women and children. So far little has changed since 2000, when two men appeared outside our house with pistols as we waited for the electronic gate to open.

My mother, her friend and her daughter and I managed to run into the house just after the barrier slid open, but they stole the car, our handbags and a goldfish in a plastic bag filled with water which was supposed to be a pet for my younger brother.

There are very few people I know in South Africa who have not fallen victim to crime. Over the years, I have heard many stories about murders, rapes, robberies and car jackings. The country has one of the world’s highest rates of violent crime, with 18,487 murders, 36,190 rapes, and 14,201 reported carjackings in 2007-8, according to police.

About 50 people are murdered a day — slightly more than the rate in the United States, which has six times South Africa’s 50 million population.

I wonder if my relatives from London, or millions of other tourists for that matter, will be safe when they attend the World Cup. It’s not just the crime: it’s how brazen the criminals are.


In the most recent incident, my father reversed out of the driveway and sped off, beeping the horn, as the gunman and three others, including a woman driver, pursued us in broad daylight.

Another time, we woke up to gunshots from policemen firing on armed men who had broken into our kitchen.

I try to stay calm when I am on assignment, although covering company news is not nearly as stressful as the slightest bark from my dog at night, which makes me jolt up, wondering if this time my luck might run out.

I may be overreacting — after all, crimes are far more frequent in poor black areas. There is something called township justice — when criminals are attacked by residents who don’t want the added burden of crime in their poverty-stricken life.

Serena Chaudhry is a correspondent for Reuters based in Johannesburg. She moved to South Africa from the U.K. in 1995 and joined Reuters full-time in 2008, reporting on companies in Africa's biggest economy. In the following story, Serena writes about her experiences of crime in one of the world's most dangerous cities. REUTERS/File

I am still trying to cope. My father drives me to and from work often. Locking all the doors has become a reflex action.

Two weeks after we were nearly shot, I found myself sitting in a chair opposite a clinical psychologist. She recommended I talk about the incident as much as possible, but I find that exhausting. I just feel like another statistic, a victim, when I step outside her office.

In time, I know the flashbacks will become less frequent and the nightmares will fade. But for now, I constantly look into the rear view mirror.

Editing by Sara Ledwith

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