I’ve tried to steer clear of this topic on my blog, partly because I don’t want to represent PC this way, and partly because writing about it stresses me out to no end. But based on the events of the past week, I don’t think I could ignore it if I tried.
As a PCV in South Africa, I am rarely safe. I feel safe in my home, and just about anywhere in my village, but as soon as I leave my village, I’ve got a big target painted on my back, saying “Rob me! Grope me! Harass me!”
And I’m sick of it.
Last week was a bad week. I was in Pretoria Monday through Thursday for medical, and went through my shopping town Vryburg on Saturday. Early Tuesday morning, around 4am, I was awoken by some soft rustling and movement outside, which was later followed by loud screams, running, and loud banging on my roof. The next morning at breakfast, I found out some men had broken into my favourite backpackers, a place I had always felt safe at, and escaped by climbing on top of my roof and hoping the wall. The next day, after returning from the Peace Corps office, I found out a PCV had been pickpocketed at the Hatfield mall, a place I often shop at alone when in Pretoria. Then on Saturday, as my friend Tumi and I were walking from the taxi rank in Vryburg, I heard bloody-murder-screams right behind me, turned around, and saw a man mugging Tumi. I started to run towards her, ready to punch the thief upside the head, when the thief broke away from Tumi and ran off with her phone. Broad daylight, tons of people around, and nobody tried to stop it. Later that day, as we headed back to the rank, two men came up to us and went to grab/grope/hug me when I held up my arm and told them I’d hit them if they touched me. The men backed off.
Obviously not every week is dramatic or full of crime, but often my trips to town include shrugging off inappropriate remarks, turning down proposals, avoiding gropings, and trying not to get mugged or pickpocketed. I’ve been warned by strangers on the street about the boys who will steal my purse. I am so highly vigilant that I end up exhausted. I was shaken and disoriented all day after watching Tumi’s mugging, and am literally scared to go to my shopping town again. We had done everything right, everything PC had taught us, but crime still happens. Being white and using the taxi ranks makes us a huge target, and thieves are now actively targeting us for thefts around the rank.
With an unemployment rate of 29.8%, and an expanded unemployment rate of 40%, it’s no wonder SA has a high crime rate. Add to that the racial and economic equalities that still exist and the problem only escalates. Some even question if PC should be in such a crime-ridden country. I’ve lost count of the number of PCVs I know who have been mugged or assaulted. Heck, according to the stats we were given at MST, half of the PCVs in my cohort will be a victim of crime in this quarter, our “mid-service quarter”.
I’m at a loss as to how to prevent being a crime victim in my shopping town. I’ve had 2 attempted muggings and a guy grope me, all in daylight, in crowded areas, when I was traveling with other PCVs. I wasn’t showing off my “wealth,” but being white automatically broadcasts a “rob me” signal.
I’m sick of the crime, and I’m exhausted with trying to prevent it. I’m pretty sure I’ll have PTSD by the end of my service. When I was back in Texas, I realized how jittery and on-guard I was in public, and how relaxed my sister was. I was unreasonably vigilant, and didn’t really know how to calm down.
That all being said, the PC Safety and Security Coordinator (SSC) called me and my friend on Sunday morning and made sure we were alright and advised us. The Country Director and Medical Officer (CD and PCMO) also contacted Tumi over the weekend and offered all the support they could. PC’s response was amazing, and training helped us know how to respond to the incident. But at the end of the day, crime still happened, Tumi was without a phone, and we were both traumatized..