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Saturday, May 29, 2010

Afro-Pessimism: The World Cup and Stab Vests (By: Stephen Bollaert)

Today I googled “Stab Vests” – 27,600 results – and the first and most obvious relate to South Africa and the Soccer World Cup – quite an eye-opener – but I am getting ahead of myself.

On Tuesday (26 May) I arrived in the UK on the first leg of a cycle tour from London to Switzerland. First stop - my sisters home in the genteel middle class and rather conservative village of Welwyn Garden City north of London (despite the name it is more of a village than a city). Very neat, clean and leafy – reminds me of Pinelands outside Cape Town.

Having a few weeks in hand to organise a bike, set it up for touring and do a couple of trial runs I fancied the idea of finding casual employment to supplement my meagre supply of pounds – the Rand does not go too far here. This idea turned out to be wishful thinking in the current economic climate but, while irrelevant to the issue of Afro-pessimism, it does explain why, within 4 hours of arriving in Welwyn Garden City, I was seated in a local employment agency.

So here I am doing the rather futile round of employment agencies (by the way I am “legal”) and being interviewed by a very helpful lady when we (that is the staff and I) are disturbed by a man entering the office and acting rather strangely. Being fresh out of South Africa my thoughts went straight to armed robbery. A bit of an adrenalin rush then relief – ‘he does not seem dangerous’ – ‘but he is a lot younger and beefier than me’ – ‘maybe on drugs or maybe simply a bit strange’. Nevertheless, my natural response to protect women and children had already kicked in and I left the agency to call in my back-up (my brother-in-law). Though numbers were now on “our side” clearly size and age was not.

Fortunately the “offender” almost immediately followed me onto the street and straight into the arms of a local community policeman. My guess is that the other staff member had called in for help at the outset of the disturbance. Within a minute or two help was at hand. Impressive! I was equally impressed to see how the policeman handled the situation. The thing I noticed was the distance he kept between himself and the “offender” while fully controlling the situation. This got me thinking about knives, stab vests, the World Cup’ Afro-Pessimism and the resultant visit to Google.

What is it that drives this irrational fear of violence in South Africa? Perhaps it is Afro-Pessimism and a subconscious desire to see Africa fail or maybe it is driven by a sense of “white” and, in particular, English superiority. My guess is that while these may be factors the real reason is ignorance and fear of the unknown. A little “street smarts” which is essential anywhere in the world is probably all that is needed for a perfectly safe and memorable visit. Of course, ill advised visits to the shadier sides of South African cities is potentially dangerous – but then this applies across the world and, having “survived” walking through downtown Johannesburg with no other “white” in view; selling chickens in the heart of a “black township” which most of my “white” compatriots have never and never will visit; as well as regular cycle rides through the back roads of our local “black township”, I wonder what all the fuss is about.

Then it struck me. I have never been held up or mugged though two of my children have. I have never been subject to armed violence aimed at my person except when I ill advisedly tried to help a “damsel-in-distress” only to be attacked by the very same “damsel” yet, when faced with this mans strange behaviour in a country I perceive as perfectly safe, I immediately think ‘armed robbery’. The cause – all the hype and bad press – nothing sells like bad news and I, probably like most, have been conditioned to expect the worst. Sad isn’t it?

Incidentally the “offender” is as “white” as I am and if - IF - over the next few weeks of cycling in the UK and across France to Switzerland I am subject to personal violence the chances are that it will be at the hands of someone pretty much the same colour as me. Of course I am not expecting that – my greatest fear is heavy trucks on narrow roads.

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