Reclaiming Cape Town

Date: November 25, 2010
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As I get out the taxi I hold my bag very close. By now, I’ve learned that a small bag attracts less attention and a sling bag is not easy to grab.

After the recent story of Swedish honeymooner Anni Dewani, who was hijacked and then murdered, the world has been buzzing about Cape Town and a fear of the city now sits in the mind of every potential visitor. The case of the hijacking is still being investigated, but locals are devastated and wait for news about the outcome.

As we prepare to march in Take Back the Night and to reclaim unsafe spaces, I wanted to explore the issues of safety for a local living in a big city like Cape Town.

Cape Town is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. From Table Mountain to tranquil beaches and the famous debauchery of “Long Street”, the city has always been recognised as world class.

Dean Meiring, a local Capetonian, chatted to me about the city she calls home. “We have such a vast cultural sphere and the people are just the most friendly in the world,” she said.

Meiring said although she knows about the high crime she’s not afraid of walking around in Cape Town. “I come from Belhar, a gang infested place and that has sort of made me resilient to crime, so when I see someone suspect approach I act as if he is a normal guy, I don’t give eye contact, I just ignore him and carry on walking,” she said.

Sandra Jacobs lives in Manenburg, a poor township (she referred to it as a “ghetto”). Jacobs hangs up her washing while we discuss our city.

“Yeah the beauty,” she says. “I’ve become so immune to it I don’t even notice it no more, don’t get me wrong I love this place but as far as my safety goes, I only feel safe just here, in this ugly crime-filled place because this is what I call home.”

Jacobs then reaches in her bra and takes out her money. “This is where I keep my money, the only place I know it’s safe,” she says.

This is the Cape Town normal then? A city populace that has become so used to life in a dangerous space that they wouldn’t want to change it for something else.

I can relate to this but then I wonder why I should feel trapped in my own city? Why should I have to limit myself to the little space I call home because here I’d be able to recognise someone before they robbed or raped me. Is that fair?

For Mark Herbet, a local businessman, Cape Town is safe because “around every corner there’s a security guy.”

Herbet sips his coffee, pulls a drag from his cigarette and motions his hand at Long Street, where we are sitting. “Cape Town is simply the best city in the world and with the new cleaning up of the city we can all feel a lot safer here,” he says. “It’s a pity the clean up doesn’t stretch to real underprivileged places, like Khayelitsha, Langa, Manenberg, you know making those places better for people who really need it.”

Ah, there’s the rub. The city is safe if one stays away from the slums, the poor areas, the townships. Indeed, it was mostly this sentiment which made the pages of much of the international press last week when they reported Dewani’s murder. “Most problems occur in the poorest areas where tourists are likely to stray,” noted the United Kingdom’s Daily Mail.

So basically what I can make from this is one’s social and economic background definitely contributes to fear of crime and most crime is committed by the poor. Thus poverty is the major underlying problem.

I am not scared everywhere I go, I am scared when I take public transport or when I go into certain areas. For instance, when I first heard about the hijacking, I asked myself what they were doing there in Gugulethu. I would not even drive through there and I’ve lived my entire life in Cape Town.

Yet how distorted is our world of Cape Town if we can cherish some spaces such as the top of Table Mountain or the beaches of Camps Bay, yet we live in constant fear of other spaces, like the huge communities which house most of our city’s residents?

Fear seems to be one problem that stands out. Fear of getting robbed, killed, hijacked, or raped.

Cape Town is a beautiful city, but sometimes behind beautiful things there is darkness and violence. It would be unfair to this great city (and others like it in our country, and in our region) if we continue to put up with and allow violence and crime to prevail. It’s time for us to stand up, as citizens of our cities, and reclaim the spaces which have been taken away from us.

Nicola Daniels is a writer for the Afrikaans paper Sondag Son. This article is part of a special series on the 16 Days of Activism for the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that offers fresh views on everyday news. For the research quoted in this article and more information on the 16 Days Campaign go to



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