Last week I heard this on the radio:
“Oh…those Americans are so paranoid!”
(Actually with the charming accent it sounded more like this: “Eish, those Ameerikuns ahh sor peeranoid!”)
The broadcasters were discussing the story about the Texas student whose homemade clock was mistaken for a bomb. I don’t know all details of that event but I’m sure the South Africans weren’t the only ones wondering whether it might offer some insight into America’s current psyche.
In any case, the comment did get under my skin a bit and has emboldened me to write this post about security. It is a huge aspect of daily life in South Africa. My personal interactions with people wouldn’t lead me to claim that South Africans are a paranoid lot, but I do think it’s reasonable that a newcomer might find the security measures bewildering and excessive.
There is obviously no one way that people do things here (or back home), but security systems in one form or another are ubiquitous. Here’s a glimpse of what I’m talking about.
To enter or exit our complex of 12 homes, you open or get buzzed in through this gate lined with razor wire.
Look at all these keys and buttons to remember for our alarm, doors, gates, and padlocks (not including the one for the safe in our closet!)
When we leave home we activate a security system with the dark blue button. Hopefully we do not mistakenly hit the red panic button or forget to deactivate the system when we return home! This would result in alarms going off and alerts to the security company. We would then receive a call to our cell phone in which we must offer an oral passcode (indicating that it was our error) or an “under duress” code (ensuring the arrival of armed guards). At night the system can be activated so only a portion of the house is monitored for movement.
There are two of these doorbell-like panic buttons in our house. (So glad I don’t have curious toddlers with me!)
Windows and doors have iron bars and gates on them, or a sensor tied to the alarms which detects if a window shatters.
Taken together with fierce dogs, visibly armed guards at malls and institutions, and the way the media exploits every incident for the shock effect – well, it does fuel a sense of foreboding.
Depending on where you live in both America and South Africa, these measures may seem extreme, totally normal, or somewhere in the middle. I can say that in the initial days after arriving from Fargo, North Dakota, all of this had me totally on edge. Having acclimated now, we hardly think about it. “That’s just how it is here,” is an easy way to move on! But does it need to be like this? Does it really make things safer? How much of it is a deterrent versus offering real protection – does it matter? Are the perceived dangers the real dangers? There’s an obvious financial cost, but what is the emotional cost of managing all those layers of security?
I recognize that because I’m not from here, I just simply cannot know. There are too many things I don’t understand well including the economics, history, and politics that fuel a staggering crime rate. Read the US State Department’s travel guidelines and you might well stay clear of South Africa altogether.
One thing is for sure here – fear is a powerful and renewable resource. It supports an important economic sector filling a need for employment. But even though people may explain things, “It’s best to be careful,” there are tradeoffs when we accept this as normal. I am guilty more than once since arriving of jumping to panicked conclusions when I find that the laptop is not where I expected it. Rather than supposing my own forgetfulness is the culprit I am quick to assume someone was out to get me and my belongings. Who wants to live like that all the time?
I wish I had a brighter thought to end this… but each thing I try feels rather contrived. What I can say is that I do not feel afraid all the time, just more cautious. Our children asked a lot of tough questions about these things in the beginning but seem to take it in stride now. And despite all this, a sense of safety does consistently shine through in the many people who have been helpful, generous, and friendly. For now, we have to accept that because this is not our home we cannot understand all that is at play nor can we fully trust our own judgements. I expect our perspectives to evolve over the course of the year and beyond. What a great privilege it is getting to have this whole experience which can be so challenging to our thinking, logic, assumptions, and beliefs!
What do you think, dear readers? What do you see in these images? What do you hear in our questions and thoughts? How do you handle security in your own life? How did you decide to do what you do? And is it a given or are you frequently rethinking what is appropriate?