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10/04/2012 / van berger

Losing my South African ‘street sense’

Lately I’ve been thinking about the issue of crime in both the USA and South Africa. On a recent trip back home to SA, I surprised myself in observing how my attitude to safety and security has changed since I moved to the States. Instead of holding onto my bag every time I walked down the road in Cape Town, I simply felt oblivious to the fact that someone could snatch and grab my possessions. I didn’t think twice about locking my car door when I got into my rental. I didn’t really think about the possibility that someone could break in to my aunt’s house while I stayed there alone. My friends warned me to hide my bag under the seat while I was visiting Durban. I was fascinated that only 8 months ago I would have had the ‘South African common sense’ to do all these things without a reminder.

Now I’m not saying the States is a safe haven where you can do whatever you like- everywhere you go there is likely to always be some sort of danger and self-awareness that you need to maintain. Yet, in our new temporary home: the sleepy tech town of Mountain View in the Silicon Valley, something feels different. I walk the 15 minute journey back from the train station at night by myself and don’t think twice about crossing over the road when I see a man. The busy coffee shop I often visit is full of people working on their very expensive Macs and other gadgets. There have been so many times where I’ve witnessed people leaving their entire table of possessions (phones, wallets, bags and computers) while they pop outside to get something from their car, chat to a friend or visit the bathroom. I’ve even started to do the same (although I usually take my phone). You never feel like there is the slight chance that your stuff won’t be there when you get back and I don’t think that this even crosses most of the patrons minds.

Above: Sometimes I honestly feel like I live on the set of The Truman Show in Mountain View. The streets are always perfectly clean, the houses surrounded by white picket fences with a token basketball hoop out the front. Here’s one of the many cute houses in the safe suburb of Mountain View, CA. 

We live in a complex of apartments which are semi-enclosed by gates and doors, but it surprises me every time I come home to walk past my neighbours door only to find a pile of boxes that have been delivered while the owners have been out. Amazon is one of the biggest online retailers here and they have a knock and drop approach, meaning they don’t even wait for you to come to the door. No signature is required and when you come home your untouched package WILL be there waiting for you. It’s pretty amusing for us South Africans to see and I suppose the fact that we find this amusing is quite depressing. When something like your dishwasher in your apartment is not working you simply let the rental office know and come back in the evening to find someone would have been in your house to fix it. This is a quite a change of mind-set for us South Africans as the idea of letting people work in your house unsupervised is preposterous!

I’ve hardly seen any cars with alarm systems, let alone houses in Mountain View. Front doors are often left open and furniture, bicycles and other goods are left on the front lawn with signs saying ‘For sale’. Again, there isn’t even a thought that these items would be taken without someone knocking on the door and offering to pay for them first. Kids (unsupervised) roam the streets on their bicycles.

Cross over to the city of San Francisco (about 100km away) and things are slightly different. Areas here determine where you can and can’t walk alone. The ‘Tenderloin’ is one of the areas that is notoriously known as pretty darn sketchy. It used to be quite a vibrant area, full of well-known popular hotels. However, things over the years have changed and it is now inhabited by a large proportion of the city’s homeless population. Many of whom have taken over the uninhabited hotels (becoming a form of housing and who knows what else). Drug dealers and addicts walk the streets and I wouldn’t recommend walking there by yourself (day or night). I suppose I would equate this to walking around the streets of Hillbrow in Johannesburg or perhaps the Cape Flats area in Cape Town.

According to this post  people have started offering ‘Tenderloin-Lite’ tours in San Francisco: a chance for tourists to experience  the “Ragged, druggy and determinedly dingy”.  To quote from the article: “SF activist Randy Shaw, god bless him, is pushing a Tenderloin museum, hoping tourists will “walk, dine, [and] enjoy” the area this summer. Don’t forget adrenalize and possibly die.” The blogger seems appalled by this idea, and it made me think about tourists going on the many ‘township tours’ offered in Cape Town or Soweto. How are township tours viewed by South Africans? And would this bring money into the area or simply take advantage of the many poor, and often desperate people living there.

Above: Food stamp line in the Tenderloin area of SF (Source: Dave Glass- 

Above: Hillbrow in Johannesburg, an area quite similar to the Tenderloin of SF. (Source:

If you walk over a few streets from the Tenderloin you’ll find yourself in the centre of the downtown area of San Francisco, a busy shopping area, packed with tourists. The ‘high’ street named ‘Market street’ is safe down one half, but walk a little further down and you’ll see the shops and atmosphere change drastically. For example, once D and I were walking down the other side and encountered an extremely racist man making ‘heil Hitler’ gestures and shouting insults at a group of black people across the street. At this point we used our intuition and turned around.

I recently made the mistake of walking back after my class to the train station via a different route. It was only one street down from the one I usually take, but once again a totally different atmosphere where I definitely didn’t feel as safe.

Oakland in the East Bay (where many of the medical marijuana dispensaries are based in my previous post) is definitely a cheaper place to stay than SF, but equally not as safe. We hear of shootings at least once a week there and the police pretty much roam the streets.

I’ve definitely come to grips with the fact that crime is definitely not non-existent in the States and in some areas comparable to South Africa rates (apart from bubble-like-suburbs like Mountain View). However, the types of crime seem to be in some cases radically different to what we recognise and understand. As demonstrated in the past, crime in the US is often completely unexpected and unpredictable. Incidents like the Columbine massacre and the latest shooting at the Dark Knight premiere in a Colorado cinema continue to shock me every time. How can I prepare myself and use the street-sense I was brought up with in South Africa, when I can’t even go to a movie and not know if I’m going to get shot. I believe that this kind of crime is often linked to high levels of mental illnesses in the States- you never really know how people will react and sometimes they can be quite unstable. Taking public transport in the city can sometimes be a daunting task- often the bus will pick up passengers who are clearly unstable/homeless/dodgy and I heard of an incident recently where a woman was groped extremely inappropriately by a crazy looking man while leaving the bus.

The presence of guns in American culture certainly doesn’t help the situation. When people who are clearly mentally unstable are able to buy guns and ammunition online there is a problem! Once again, I never know who is going to get on my bus/train/walk past me and whether that person may or may not have a gun. This makes me nervous and I definitely am becoming more conscious of my surroundings in the city.

Crime in South Africa seems to be on another level. There, I’m not really worried about going to watch a movie where I might be the victim of a freak shooting incident. On the other hand I may be equally afraid of walking back to my car after the movie ends and will usually get a male friend/boyfriend to walk me to my car/house. Rape is an ever-present threat to a female (and male) in South Africa and over here it feels like that is not as much of a concern (although it may be!). Petty crime in the US exists, but mainly in the form of getting your phone/bike stolen. In South Africa this would be the same as getting your house broken into on a regular basis or being hijacked. Both often relate to poverty – but ours is substantially more prevalent.

While researching crime in SF – I came across a website called San Francisco Crime Spotting. It provides visitors with maps displaying data of the latest crime ‘hotspots’ and there is even a more specific section which pinpoints specific criminal incidents (such as possession of illegal drugs) and shows the location of where the police arrested the suspect. You can also sign up to receive email updates about crime in your neighbourhood. There are other websites where you can check out neighbourhoods before deciding on an area to move to. One example is Neighborhood Scout which maps out the safest areas in your city and provides the latest stats for crime, comparing it to the rest of the country.

Above: The San Francisco Crime Spotting website which is run independently of the police.  

Above: Some stats that are displayed on the Neighborhood Scouts website about crime stats in San Francisco. 

South Africa has many neighbourhood watch groups-you see the yellow signs up on street poles in many areas in Cape Town. I recently discovered a site called  ‘Turn it Around’  which gives advice about how to start your own neighbourhood watch group through them. You can join a network, look at crime stats, report a crime, engage in discussions and check out the crime map which I think is a pretty cool initiative. A handy resource to have if you’re thinking of moving areas or country.

Above: South Africa’s version of a crime watch website. Look up crimes in your area, join a network of neighbourhood watch or discuss issues in their forum.

A few random stats about crime in America. In no way are these substantial detailed statistics, there will be many more detailed accounts online.

  • In 2009 America’s crime rate was similar to what it was in 1968 with a slightly lower level of homicide incidents.
  • Crime is most common in areas in US cities which are economically disadvantaged.
  • Crime rates vary across states: the state with the lowest crime rate is New England (for violent and property crimes). Southern states generally have higher crime rates- particularly common in Louisiana which has high rates of unemployment and a much lower income level compared to richer states like Washington or New York.
  • According to this article on the most dangerous cities in the US, two of the worst-off cities in terms of crime are Flint and Detroit, Mich. Oakland, CA (mentioned earlier) is number 4 on the list.

Anyone else moved countries (or cities) and had similar experiences and changes in their attitude to crime (here and back home)?



Leave a Comment
  1. Andrea / Oct 4 2012 11:28

    Great read. I know what you mean after having lived in the UK for so long! Once I ordered a sewing machine online and a day before it was meant to arrive I got home from work and it was on the doorstep, untouched and just waiting for me! Amazing!

  2. van berger / Oct 4 2012 12:27

    Thanks Andrea. I’m sure it will be an adjustment to go back that way of life in SA. But you know what- South Africa still rocks! 🙂


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