Safety in South Africa: my year abroad

*Article written by Rosie Humphrey*

You only fully appreciate your relative freedom until it has been taken away from you.

This is something I quickly realised when I left Bristol, a city which now feels like a haven of safety, to study in Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Telling people you are going to study for a year in South Africa as part of your degree elicits various responses from friends and family. Voicing concerns about safety and joking about the extent to which South Africa would be academically enriching tended to be the general theme. My hairdresser seemed shocked that I would choose such a destination as she warned me of South Africa’s ‘huge problem with Female genital mutilation’, which I thought was a rather bizarre thing to warn me about, although I reassured her nevertheless. 

So despite promising my parents that I would be aware of my safety and researching some of the dark history of apartheid that still shapes the country, I naively packed my bags with little thought to the changes that would take place in both my lifestyle and mindset.

I arrived in Stellenbosch, a beautiful little city 35 minutes away from Cape Town, feeling little to no danger, assuring people that my ‘gut’ instinct would guide me away from threatening circumstances. What a rookie.

Induction week lectures were pretty similar to the welcome lectures at Bristol, but with the addition of African singing and dancing. A great idea but a bit tricky after a solid week of boozing which turned my usually pretty average singing voice into an unfortunate crescendo of squeaks more suited to a 15 year old boy.

Once all the jolly stuff was over, the inevitable safety and wellbeing talk begun, accompanied by an array of sad looking biscuits and seemingly unusual varieties of meat which was probably meant to soften the blow. Another thing I would get accustomed to, relentless meat eating at all times of the day.

Said in a matter of fact way, no walking anywhere during or past dusk and ubering to any destination even if only a 10 minute walk away in the evening was not suggested, but instructed. The buddy system, walking in threes but preferably big groups was advised when hanging around bars or clubs, although walking home alone was considered practically a death wish.

It all seemed a bit extreme, Stellenbosch looked so beautiful and, despite well-known areas that should be avoided, I found it hard to believe that a 10 minute walk to a shop in a ‘nice area’ could be so dangerous. What I learnt to realise was the enormity of the problems that South Africa still faces and that although apartheid seemed like a distant past in my own short life time, ‘democracy’ was only gained 23 years ago. Gaining full citizenship and the right to vote, in other words in important ways being treated as an equal human being, should never be underestimated, but for the lives of many South Africans little apparent material change has been made.

You quickly accept that access to uber is one of the only ways to retain independence and that walks around your security guarded residence are the closet you’re going to get to a late night DMC. The price of safety comes in exchange with the guards knowing a little too much about your personal life but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I don’t fear my life everyday but I am aware of the fact that muggings at gun point are a reality and my status as a woman puts me in further danger of rape and murder. You learn to be aware that you can’t exercise your voice with the same freedom as you would at home if you don’t want to experience any repercussions, or expect anything to be done about it. I watched a bouncer literally take my phone out of my front pocket and then pretend nothing happened after he accidently dropped it in the process. After I drunkenly shouted about the audacity of this man to the queue behind me, my friends tried to coax me into the club before I got into any trouble.

A few weeks later one of my African American friends was verbally and physically abused by the same bouncer after she questioned why she was refused entry into a club purely based on the colour of her skin.

When discussing these instances with South Africans, I’m often met with the typical ‘although it’s unfortunate, this is just the way it is’ response. I don’t know if I’m supposed to feel reassured when people often assure me of how safe Stellenbosch is compared to Johannesburg.

It can be frustrating to feel restricted but I am also very aware that these problems are minuscule compared to the plight that many South Africans have the misfortune to experience.

I am privileged as a white western woman that I haven’t had to worry about my safety in my home country and that I even have the opportunity to come to South Africa to experience a ‘different perspective’.

It’s also important not to let these problems overshadow the potential of the country and also the country’s great features. I’ve had the best 6 months of my life in South Africa, surrounded by great people and invaluable experiences and I’m so excited to return in January.

This being said, it’s 8.45pm and I’m just about to walk to the pub. How liberating.