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  • Writer's picturekristina jacobsen

South Africa: Measuring Security, Fences, Barbed Wire, and the Human Body

Updated: Jun 10

My experience as scholar-in-residence and artist at Womad South Africa was rich beyond measure, and a life experience I’ll be processing for many years to come. One of the most striking things about a post-apartheid South Africa are the extensive security systems that are in place.

In a place where opportunistic crime is high and there is a drastic divide between “haves” and “have-nots,” now divided along economic rather than racial lines, people that can afford to barricade themselves inside their houses, apartments, compounds and gated communities. In the neighborhood where I stayed in an airbnb, where I had my own cottage for a mere $20/night due to the devaluation of the South African Rand, there was a three-foot electric fence mounted around the entire compound, above the ten foot concrete wall that was already there. Massive automatic gates open and close, each time someone enters or leaves. And you wait for your Uber inside the gates, not outside.

By comparison, about half of the houses on my block had more drastic, and more medieval security systems in place. At first glance, at the top of many of the ten foot tall walls, I saw what looked like decorative metal, until I realized they were pointed metal spikes, pointing upward, ready to apprehend anyone who tried to jump over the wall. Set against the beautiful purple Jacaranda trees blooming up and down the street (it is springtime in South Africa), other houses literally had razor wire—coils of barbed wire with sharpened metal blades intertwined into the wire—coiling above the walls. In the upscale, multiracial (Black, White, Coloured, Asian, Indian)[1] neighborhood where I stayed, hardly anyone was on the street or walking around. Those that were on the street, even during the day, were all men. As a woman, public space feels severely curtailed if not completely off limits.

The only comparison I have to this level of militarization is the US-based prisons in which I have taught workshops, and militarized spaces such as my recent visit to the disputed border between the Turkish-controlled North of Cyprus and the Republic of Cyprus in the south, and when I visited my uncle, then-US ambassador to the country of Gabon, living on “ambassador” row in the wealthiest part of Libreville. In other words, I associate this level of fortification and security with spaces of containment, as a form of punishment or due needing to curtail political access.

Through my nine days in South Africa, I was left wondering: what does the height of the razor wire, or the length of the spikes on one’s wall, gauge exactly? Is it gauging the value of the possessions in someone’s house, the sense of fear or vulnerability the resident feels, or the intensity of the desire to protect loved ones? Or were these fortifications simply inherited from the previous owner or the person the house was purchase from?

Being able to walk where we live is, I think, a human right. In Albuquerque’s south valley where I live, there is no sidewalk on our street or streeglights, and walking at night is sometimes a dicey proposition. In Johannesburg, unless you live within a gated and armed compound community, it seems most people are not walking unless they have no other choice. On Navajo Nation, where I also lived for many years, it was a similar phenomenon but more specific to extremely rural areas. Especially if you were a woman, walking by yourself on, say, a dirt road, was considered unsafe, because of people you might encounter but also due to packs of wild dogs roaming the Navajo Nation at that time. In Joberg, I met people who worked all day, went home, have groceries and prepared foods delivered, and then don’t ever leave their home except to go to work. The hotel staff, where I stayed for the first week of my stay in “Joberg” or “Josie,” as it’s affectionately called, told me that, under no circumstances, was it ok to walk from the hotel to the mall that was about 500 feet from the hotel. In fact, they told us that leaving the “villa” on foot under any circumstance was not ok.

Right now in Joberg, cell phone crime is high, so there are signs at every shop telling you not to use your phone while walking on the sidewalk. This translates to people, when they are outside, with vice grips on their wallets or purses, tension everywhere in the body. This is exacerbated even further by “loadshedding,” or periods each day when the electricity is off due to the country’s powergrid being overloaded. One neighborhood at a time, the city goes black, and and the streetlights disappear. This in turn affects the water pressure, so that, two different times during my stay, all running water was off for over a 24 hour period. And blackout periods also mean that certain kinds of crime escalate. “This country,” one capdriver from Zimbabwe named Enocent noted as we drove over a deep pothole in the road, “is falling apart.”

Legacies of colonialism and racial segregation are internalized by oppressed and oppressor alike, albeit differentially. But it is equally heavy, and the weight, and the legacy of apartheid, is shared by everybody. For the oppressor—in a South African context, anyone who was classified as superior to “black” African, but primarily whites (British and Afrikaans)—colonialism leads to increased states of anxiety and the weight of inheriting the colonial legacy, regardless of your personal beliefs for or against the system of oppression in which you are participating. And for the oppressed, legacies of intergenerational trauma stay within bodies and families for generations. As in the ante-bellum south, these systems are intersectional and do not exist in isolation. Colonialism and its legacy also leads to higher levels of violence towards women, and higher rates of alcohol abuse and addictive behaviours (Burrill et. al 2010). Bodies that witness and experience trauma seek to instinctively rid themselves of the toxicity, as a matter of survival (Kaminer 2010 et. al): if a person can’t release that toxicity through healthy outlets and cannot escape the system in which they are enmeshed, they will seek to escape through other means, taking it out on those with whom they share a living space.

How do people create a sense of safety when there isn’t one? And how, in the midst of this, does one address the massive divide between glitzy Joberg neighborhoods and the dramatic lack of infrastructure in townships such as Soweto, where people are living on pennies a day, that has created this situation to begin with? Those that can, are leaving South Africa for brighter lights: Australia, the U.S., the U.K. As a guest in South Africa for nine days, I certainly can’t say anything with certitude. What I can say is I’ll be going back, to do some deep hanging out, to learn more about how this bittersweet world can inform my own, the work that I do, and the songs that I write reflecting these experiences, as my own method for processing the intensity of these experiences.

[1] These are the official racial categories in South Africa, both pre- and post-apartheid.

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