“Who killed her?” asked the five-year-old daughter of an acquaintance upon being told that her granny had died. That she could have died of old age and natural causes never occurred to the little girl. It is a chilling reminder of the type of society that South Africa has become.
The last few days, the world’s murder capital has cemented its place as the country where you are most likely to die in a violent attack. 22 foreign African economic migrants have been murdered by rampaging mobs around Johannesburg.
The response from government has been their usual anaemic, “We intend to investigate this thoroughly and have set up a tribunal to look in to it.” Double-speak for, “We’re burying it under a mound of bureaucracy.”
In the mean time, Zimbabwean friends â€“ refugees from a vicious tyrant at home â€“ are hiding in their apartments for fear of being assaulted in exile.
It makes a fascinating contrast for me, having just immigrated to the UK. There is a lot of grumbling about foreigners here too, and plenty of new government initiatives to keep us out. But the restaurant industry reports tens of thousands of unfilled positions that low-paid immigrants usually take, and so some compromise will have to be reached if the molly-coddled locals are to be served in public places.
Violence is in the news here as well after a gang-related stabbing in London. The new mayor, Boris Johnson, has promised to place metal detectors at public transport nodes to enable police to catch potential killers. “Why the panic?” I ask myself, “Only one person died, after all?” But I’m wrong. This is how a country that is serious about stamping out violence and intolerance should behave.
I phone friends at home in South Africa to tell them about the hilarity of one stabbing being taken so seriously. My business partner tells me about a friend who watched another mother get a gun pressed into her belly and robbed of her handbag outside their children’s school when she went there to pick them up.
Many are thinking of leaving. When violence becomes so pervasive that it is invisible it is time to reconsider your life and where you live.
It’s only a few weeks since I moved to the UK. Already I am surrounded by professionals who take their work seriously, and are passionate about delivering at the top of their game. It is refreshing, after being surrounded by nothing but excuses and contradictions for the past decade. Here I am expected only to deliver. In South Africa, tiered ranks of bureaucrats stand in the way of progress, coming up with excuses as to why progress cannot happen.
It is only a few weeks. And the first months are the hardest, as one has to make new decisions about every aspect of your life. There are no familiar faces, no familiar places. The person closest to me in the whole world is 10,000 kilometres away. Even the brand names of washing powder and breakfast cereal are unfamiliar. Every day is exhausting as I have to consciously think about so many different things that in familiar places are invisible: coffee shops, favourite restaurants, familiar settings, standard routes home, comfortable relationships and old friends. None of them are around and all the unfamiliarity is daunting.
It is only a few weeks. But I don’t regret being here at all.