We were reminded of what a “scary” place Cape Town can be the very first weekend we were there. We had decided to walk up to the Rhodes Memorial on the slopes of Devil’s Peak, not far from where we were staying.
“Would you like to borrow a pepper spray?” asked our host with a look of concern. He then proceeded to tell us how groups of lowlifes were likely to pounce on unsuspecting tourists like us, especially those carrying decent looking cameras like mine.
We declined his kindly meant offer on the grounds that I’d be more likely to squirt myself in the eye with the things, but it did put the wind up us, even if we did decide to go ahead with the walk, albeit forewarned and forearmed.
Mrs P took charge of my camera monopod to use as a walking stick and bludgeon, depending on how things went, and we set off up the hill acting like a watchful army patrol entering enemy territory.
As it happened we met only one other person and that was on the return journey. A young student from New Zealand who we had seen at breakfast that morning and who was making use of his free time from UCT to hike up Devil’s Peak.
There were the usual sightseers at the memorial itself and groups of Capetonian families and friends enjoying Sunday lunch at the excellent open air restaurant. But of villains there was no sign.
This summed up the attitude towards crime by Cape Town residents — to expect the worst and be prepared — perhaps in the same way that we Mancunians make sure we carry an umbrella even though we won’t need it most of the time.
And what precautions. Most of the houses we saw had solid electric gates and an intercom entry system and high bespiked walls. Razor wire is very much house bling with some owners having painted it white to match the exterior decor of their property.
The jokey sign on the right is the one attempt at humour I saw. Most advertise that they are protected by an armed response team, or a bicycle patrol for those on a budget.
Despite such security measures, I couldn’t see any evidence that they had ever been necessary. The house we stayed at had wonderful leaded stained glass none of which appeared to have been broken or forced since they were installed in 1901.
There were lots of private security guards in evidence, in the city centre, at the waterfront and around the university. We also passed a bank having a delivery watched over by a man in uniform armed with what looked like an automatic rifle to my untrained eye.
Which makes you wonder about the role of the police. The one sign you’re sure to see in even the smallest of towns is the brown one with a gold shield pointing the way to the local cop shop, but it was the private companies that seemed to be doing the law enforcing.
A friend of my daughter’s was mugged some time ago and went to the station to report it. They were quite surprised why he was bothering as he wasn’t insured and that is normally the only reason to report crime so you can put in a claim.
Of course, South Africa does have its fair share of violent crime. There are around 2,000 murders a year in Cape Town, but these are primarily in the townships, a world away from the city that most tourists see.
However, that doesn’t stop the media from inflaming the situation. Soon after we landed, the Cape Times headlined the number of attacks on people walking on and around Table Mountain, but 400 recorded incidents over eleven years didn’t sound like too much of a crime wave to me.
The authorities didn’t help themselves much by claiming that they didn’t keep official figures on the grounds that not everyone reported being attacked and so the figures would be unreliable.
I’ve been around spin long enough to know that the authorities are more than happy to lay claim to an artificially creditable figure if they can. I suspect the real answer is that they couldn’t be bothered to keep track.
Crime may or may not be exaggerated, but we certainly felt safe throughout our stay. It would be interesting to see if our opinion were to change if we were resident there.