I’ve been house-sitting on my own in the French countryside for a few weeks now. It’s one of those wonderfully French homes with dusty blue shutters and thick masonry-style walls.
And in some ways, it feels like a real South African, upper-class neighbourhood with the sound of lawn mowers and sprinklers and the odd car passing by. It’s Constantia-meets-Stellenbosch-meets-Parkview with the same string of golf clubs and trees and bouncing families all over the place.
The difference is that there are no electric fences or four-metre high walls anywhere in this suburb. No Trellidors or obtrusive alarm systems or ADT security patrolling the streets at night; only a few mosquito nets to guard the windows from any unwelcome intruders and wrought-iron security bars for decoration.
On the night I moved in, I came home quite some time after dark. And like a real shit-scared, suburban South African, I held the car a good 10-metres from the gate while it opened. I wrestled with my thoughts in that moment: I wanted to be able to drive off in case someone ran out from behind the wall, put a gun to the car window and demanded that I hand over the keys.
A little panicked that the garage and driveway weren’t lit up, I stayed in the car until the gate had closed behind me, constantly looking through my rear-view mirror to make sure no one had crept in under the shadows.
That night I didn’t sleep very well. Every noise woke me up; every dog that barked had me wondering. Who would I call if there was a break in?
And like a real shit-scared, suburban South African, I held the car a good 10-metres from the gate while it opened.
The next day, I sat having lunch on the stoep, looking out at the view and listening to a few weavers playing in a tree. A van pulled up outside the property, I heard the gate shake and quite suddenly it opened. There stood a strange man in the driveway. He looked at me and I stared at him. He looked back at me and I continued to stare at him.
Who on earth was this guy? And how did he get onto the property? Why was the gate not locked in the first place? “Bonjour! Livraison pour toi?” A delivery from the post man.
It’s a sad fact that South Africa has made me this way. South Africa has turned me into a bag-clutching, driveway-fearing, head-turning nerve ball who acts like a skittish rescue dog whenever she’s on her own in the dark. An even sadder fact is that South Africans have accepted this as normal; as just another part of our daily lives. Rich and poor — we’re afraid.
And don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that France hasn’t her problems because she does. There are some corners of the country you definitely wouldn’t find me in at night or alone but that’s not a societal mindset. Fear is not part of the national psyche over here. In France, there are good areas and bad areas. Be aware but don’t be afraid.
In South Africa, we’re just so wired to be feared-up. We’re conditioned to look twice over our shoulders and think “what if?” The media, the national conversation, the story of our day-to-day lives all speak about our country’s battle with crime. Angry, violent, ugly crime. Not petty, harmless, annoying crime.
We’re supposed to have so many freedoms South Africa: Freedom of expression, freedom of movement, freedom of choice and yet we are not free from our own constant anxiety?