Thursday, July 7, 2011

Violence, Safety and South Africa

Last week there was a murder in the town I'm living in, Greenpoint. I'm linking to the only online report I can find, but a more recent update is that the suspected murderer was found dead the next day, after completing a suicide.

I'm disappointed that I can't find an online version of the most recent article that ran in my community's edition of The People's Post. (I think we're the Seapoint edition?) The fact that a woman invited a homeless person to live with her in exchange for doing handiwork, and was then robbed and murdered by this man, makes this story complex and uncomfortable, not to mention heart-breaking.

The People's Post article interviewed bereaved family and friends, police, and social development workers. I was impressed with the different perspectives offered: some community members described a "problem with vagrants"; the police reported that they almost always deal with petty theft, not violent crimes, when it comes to homeless people; development practitioners reported findings on their successes with rehabilitation and skills training programs in making communities healthier and safer.

I feel torn up about this story. Safety, especially in one's own neighborhood, is such an important value. Incidents of crime traumatize their victims and other community members and can be devastating to the social fabric of a neighborhood. I understand the desire for more protection, and maybe even for policing--for treating the homeless and vulnerable as criminals, or at least potential criminals.

This is the quarry:


I walk past it every day. It's lush and green, and at the very foot of Table Mountain. It is also a squatter camp. Every morning I see folks sleeping out in turned-over garbage cans, or makeshift tree houses, or under piles of newspapers. It makes me nervous. I never, ever walk past the quarry alone at night. I also comfort myself by not carrying any valuables, nothing worth stealing, and carrying my phone, wallet and sometimes keys (ouch) in my bra, never in pockets or school bags.

And yet, I know that the people living on the street are still people. It is cold at night, especially in winter with the mountain air, and hunger and fear will make any human desperate, maybe even violent. Where do displaced people go? Where can they belong?

These feelings would apply to homelessness anywhere, and I have to be particularly mindful of what the quarry means in South Africa.

Upper Greenpoint is the poshest area I have ever (may ever?) lived--I don't even buy groceries in my own neighborhood, because it's three times as expensive as in the heart of Cape Town. (One day I will write a post about the wonder that is Bag It. One day.) The residents have prime oceanfront real estate, and two or three decades ago, that real estate was protected by the legal segregation and state-sponsored terror that was Apartheid. I absolutely cannot endorse the criminalization of folks for just being in a space like the quarry. Even if it makes me uncomfortable, even if I feel less safe.

And that's the quandary for today.

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