Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The View from my Bicycle [COLUMN]

How afraid should tourists be of crime, when visiting South Africa - by Nick van der Leek

South Africa is no more dangerous than any other country, others will say that certain areas can be extremely dangerous.  In reality ordinary public spaces, even driving innocently in your car, can be dangerous.  That's because the number of poor and unemployed people in South Africa is enormous.  And who are the criminals - mostly they come out of the large population of disgruntled have-nots.  And let's make no bones about it, these hordes of disenfranchised people are frustrated, they're angry, often consumed with vicious rage and malicious intent.

Just yesterday when I went surfing I experienced four different people moving suspiciously close to my things in the space of half an hour.  How normal is that for you?  To go to a public pool or park and sort've expect a handful of people to try to steal your things?  A friend of mine went for a walk on the beach just after sunset in Summerstrand last week and says a man started following her.  She had to hurry off the beach to a parking lot for some 'relative safety'.  Down the road is the famous rape and dismembering of someone who had her guts cut open and miraculously survived.  So crime is part of the fabric of life - not just in Port Elizabeth but everywhere.  Of course as the urban density increases, so does the potential for crime and human beings likely to prey on you.
Port Elizabeth is an interesting case in point. One of its most historical and scenic sites is the Donkin Pyramid. 

If you're a visitor to PE however, you'll find the area a mess of stones and gravel and cordoned off areas.  Palm trees have been planted in one quadrant, presumably in the last week or two.  In short, in its present condition, and with two weeks to go to the World Cup, a construction site isn't really where you want to spend time seeing the sites.  I fell over a piece of wire whilst investing the site, shortly after someone came to order me off the premises.  In front of the memorial site/viewing area is a shipping container painted green and perched in the road, with the writing: Temporary World Cup Visitor Information Centre.  Nice touch.  

You're not going to believe this but Port Elizabeth's main tourist attraction is defunct.  You can go to the dolphinarium but you won't find a single dolphin there.  They have been sent away because the city couldn't afford to look after them.  That money went to a few extra crates of Moet for someone's birthday party.

Not only can the city not afford to feed dolphins a few fish, they haven't been able to maintain the structure either.  So they've asked a private company [Coca Cola] to paint its logo and decorate the premises - because the municipality doesn't have money for things like looking after the city or promoting tourism.

All over the city are excavations which seem to imply that precious metals have been discovered in the centre of major intersections, with whole roads ripped up elsewhere, presumably to unearth buried treasure.

There are also sections of roads that have been entirely closed to the public, but allowed to remain open for a trickle of businesses who have been unfortunate to be located in an area where the roads are either being washed away or not maintained or both.

Now having spent a bit of time in Australia, where the standards of upkeep are superb, where the signage for dangerous or slightly dysfunctional areas is crystal clear, here, as is the case everywhere, from Bloemfontein to Pretoria, there are a lot of infrastructural problems.  One of the least functional South African cities as far as I'm concerned is East London.  Some of the beaches are so littered with glass that they are basically no longer used.

The road below is another example where something happens and the energy to maintain is so minimal that the infrastructure basically starts to become abandoned.  You could find a lot of big words and a lot of professional sounding terms but the reason taxpayers money is not spent to maintain public roads and spaces amounts to just one thing: laziness.  Those in charge are lax with our money and they certainly don't care about these areas.  Or they don't know what to do, so nothing is done. The result is a slow breaking down of a city into a smaller and smaller functional area.

You do wonder what visitors will think, especially those who visit several South African cities, and find these troubling obstacles to ordinary public processes, to mere commercial activity, basically everywhere.

The solution appears to me to be that citizens must begin to form forums and groups to take care of their own interests.  That is, private municipalities that govern or control their own interests.  It may well need to happen that in the same way certain unions go on strike, ordinary tax payers no longer pay utilities where these are not really provided.  Increasingly this applies to every level - water and lights, garbage removal, road maintenance, the maintenance of public spaces.
We need to develop new independent systems where taxes raised are deployed.  You might think this is excessive, but a point will come when services are so thin they will barely exist.  Go to Zimbabwe to experience what that level of almost complete degradation is like.

Government essentially function on the incomes of their citizens.  A government that does not serve its constituents should then no longer be fed, be rewarded for non-delivery of services.  If PE wants its dolphins back, if you want roads that you can drive on, we're going to have to privatise them.  Private people, private interests working together.  The alternative is decay, which is already well underway.  And now to answer the question - how afraid should visitors be to this country.  Well I was surfing yesterday and I sometimes think I see sharks in the water, and when that happens I get a little nervous.  Well the people in this country make me more nervous than sharks do.  A lot more.

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