Day 276: A Break for the Border

03.10.09:

A little water to help slacken my brains outer membrane and I shook off my hangover. Andy and I compared notes from the previous evening, but both our notebooks draw a resolute blank. I guess it’s like Woodstock – if you can remember, you weren’t really there.

I threw my clothes into the Laundry to pick up on Monday (along with my passport) and headed over to the bus station.

The bus would be getting in to Gabarone really late, and Botswana is terribly expensive, so I opted to get off at the last South African town before the border and spend the night there. This made as much sense as anything I plan to do while travelling, which is usually very little sense at all.

So I found myself in the little town of Zeerust, which looked so much like Australia I did a double take. Made me miss Mandy and Anzac Biscuits and Lamingtons and Arnott’s Shapes and Mandy. Off the map, so to speak, I stepped off the bus in the dark and asked the first person I met if there was a guesthouse in town.

Luckily, there was, but unluckily I had to walk half a kilometre down darkened side streets to get there. South Africa is the crime capital of the world, and here’s bobbins here walking down a deserted side street in a town he doesn’t know looking for a guesthouse he doesn’t exactly know the location of, weighed down with a camcorder, a laptop and all my tapes and sundry. It was a tense walk, but soon I was inside the Good Hope guesthouse breathing a sigh of relief.

My hosts were a wonderful Afrikaan girl called Nenien and her boyfriend. Nenien’s parents ran the guesthouse, but were attending a music festival this weekend. We whiled away the evening sitting in the communal room chatting, drinking and watching telly. They even made me a steak (the BIGGEST I EVER SEEN!) dinner. What was even more wonderfully wonderful was that they let me stay for free.

This is only my third night in South Africa, but I have already decided that I’m in love. Miles better than I thought it would be, with some of the friendliest people on the continent. All I knew from the television was that South Africa was full of Lethal Weapon 2-like racists, violent criminals and pant-wettingly stupid politicians (I trust you all know the story about President Zuma thinking that it would be okay to have sex (rape?) with a HIV-positive woman if he had a shower afterwards. Ygads, he’d give George W. Bush a run for his money in Dr Thicko’s school for the Thick).

So far, nobody I’ve met has been racist at all. Okay, they might be putting on a mask for the tourists, but I haven’t experienced any of it. I haven’t even heard a good old fashioned hackney cab driver ‘I’m not racist but…’. And I’ve got tremendously drunk with these guys, so you might have expected something to slip out, but no. I have to say, this is somewhat of a surprise as many South African I’ve met elsewhere have been as full of contempt for blacks as Jim Davidson driving drunk through Noddytown.

However, the violent crime here though is very real (as I saw for myself on Thursday night in Jo’burg), and the government are doing the usual trick of skirting around the issue and using bluster and misdirection – the problem is drugs/ unregistered mobile phones/ Hollywood movies/ Marilyn Manson (delete where appropriate).

Maybe the problem is that after 15 years of being in power, the ANC party (against which there is no effective opposition – always a mistake) has comprehensively failed to provide decent state-funded housing for the poor and disenfranchised stuck in what they optimistically call ‘informal dwellings’. I don’t work in marketing, so I’ll just call them what they are – slums.

Normally in Africa, everyone in the urban centres live in slums (or on the street) except for the 1% of the country that work for the government or oil company. But in South Africa, there are plenty of people living in normal houses (i.e. not in a tin shack with no water or electricity), this gives there a much higher incentive to commit crime. Put simply, there’s nothing in Sierra Leone worth stealing.

What’s weird about South Africa though is the level of violent crime. People don’t just rob you, they rob you and then kill you anyway. The stories I’ve heard would make your hair stand on end. But then I hear that there’s no effective deterrent. There are many corrupt coppers, the police service is grossly underfunded and FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE WHO PUT THAT DOLT ZUMA IN CHARGE?

Okay I hear you say, South Africa politicians might have all the intelligence of your average three-year-old, but what’s new there? With the improbable exception of Stephen Fry, people are generally frightened by people smarter than they are – it seems to hardly ever translate into votes. Look at George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Silvo Belussconi, Jacques Chirac – fools and jackanapes to a man. Maybe Stephen Fry should stand for parliament… But musing aside (and the sad fact that I’ll have to lose half my brain in a car accident if I ever want to pursue a career in politics) South Africa desperately needs somebody in charge with more than two brain cells to rub together in charge – especially as the world will be descending on the place next summer for the 2010 World Cup.

But with a leadership that won’t even condemn the crimes of Robert Mugabe, how can it even hope to tackle the crimes committed by its own citizens?

How indeed.

Graham Hughes

Graham Hughes is a British adventurer, presenter, filmmaker and author. He is the only person to have travelled to every country in the world without flying. From 2014 to 2017 he lived off-grid on a private island that he won in a game show, before returning to the UK to campaign for a better future for the generations to come.

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