“They are desperate immigrants from East and West Africa who will mug you regardless of what you have. You just don’t have to walk through this neighborhood!”
This was the final caution after a long conversation with an airport cab guy regarding our security in Johannesburg. With a sigh of relief, I walk into the Stay City hotel where I meet the other coalition members and suddenly, the now seemingly trending discussion around insecurity in the city takes shape again over diner. Apparently, given that most of the people coming to the coalition conference were white, all the cab drivers had taken it upon themselves to brief them about the do’s and don’ts of living in this city. They had been told to desist from withdrawing money from open air ATM machines for it would enable fraudsters access one’s bank information, avoid walking in the neighborhood for they would be mugged just a step out of the hotel, public transport was just but a ‘robber-fested’ means and the most hilarious being a ‘Nike-less’ return for anyone who attempts to go jogging in the morning.
Listening to these stories, I reflected upon what I had seen while driving through the neighborhood and honestly, the setting was typical of many of our cities in Africa where particular parts are buzzing with activity all night and have continuously been labelled as so insecure yet we have lived to know otherwise. Armed with all this information, I searched for the crime rate in cities world over and found that Johannesburg doesn’t feature in the 50 most violent cities in the world and neither does South Africa top the list of the countries with the highest unemployment rate (read International Labor Organization’s unemployment statistics)
This is not in any way a rebuttal to the information provided but a check to that image painted of a city that reeks of blood on streets from the muggings, open stores for drug dealing cartels, commercial sex workers plying their trade during the day and a no show for any law enforcement apparatus.
I find it gracious to offer information so that one can be more cautious but rather deplorable to use it to demonize people. We can either choose to whine about the nasty immigrants or put much thought to what their diversity has to offer. I definitely stand for the latter and believe that a conscious effort should be made to highlight the potential and opportunities that come with this diversity for it can be harnessed to contribute to building especially the sectors that require semi-skilled labor. Part of this effort lies with sieving information that is shared about them because it has a role to play in shaping perspectives especially of foreigners who possess the means to invest and lift the status of these ‘rowdy’ neighborhoods. On the flipside, energy spent in ranting about immigrants could instead be used to highlight the city’s best spots, monuments, historical sites and all such places that are worth visiting during one’s stay.
Deeply engrossed in thought on how better this could be done, I was swung back into the discussion upon mention of a North African leader who, in a fit of rage, called the African immigrants ‘negros’ to express disgust over their presence in his country. Suddenly, my colleagues’ faces turned red with shock that such would be said about black Africans in an African country. To me, it was nothing more than a clumsy and inconsequential effort by a leader to denigrate a grouping that he had an obligation to make better. At this point, I was getting agitated because the conversation served to ground that single story of a desperate and wobbling Africa that many around me seemed to subscribe to. I excused myself.