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Thursday, 11 April, 2002, 11:35 GMT 12:35 UK
Living in SA's crime capital
A police reservist stops a suspected thief in a Johannesburg alley
Johannesburg has a reputation for crime and violence
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By Barnaby Phillips
BBC Johannesburg correspondent

Johannesburg's fearful reputation precedes itself, and visitors arriving for the first time are bound to brace themselves for the worst.

Take a look at any guide-book, and, frankly, you'd think twice about coming here.

"Violent crime is rampant," says one, "lots of guns" another.

Hillbrow, Johannesburg
Africa has moved in where whites have left
I've lived, happily, in Lagos and Luanda, two African cities notorious for armed crime, but I still came to Johannesburg with a degree of apprehension.

On a continent of violent cities, Johannesburg, is, so they say, the worst of all.

Drive through the wealthy - predominantly white - northern suburbs, and you'll see high walls and electric fences, hiding houses which are in turn protected by alarm systems, metal grilles, and infra-red sensors.

This is the architecture of fear, and it is hard to feel relaxed in such an environment.

Fortress homes

And just as wealthy whites have turned their homes into fortresses, so too they have turned their backs on Johannesburg's high-rise city centre.

In the past decade, central Johannesburg has changed beyond all recognition.

  Click here to see international murder rates compared

The fear of crime has made the old city centre no longer desirable; the real financial and business heart of Johannesburg is now 20km to the north, in the gleaming new towers of Sandton.

Meanwhile, black Africa has moved in where the whites have left.

The offices down-town are being colonised by new small businesses, whilst the streets are bustling with traders, selling fruit and cheap clothes.

To my eyes it looks more like an African city, and, in fact, many of these new entrepreneurs come from as far afield as Nigeria, Congo, Ghana and Senegal.

So to what extent is this fear - which has wrought such dramatic changes on Johannesburg's architecture and geography - rational?

The city's crime statistics are awful... according to the police about 5,000 murders are committed in Gauteng Province (Johannesburg and neighbouring Pretoria) each year.

There are at least twice as many rapes.

The vast majority of these crimes are not committed in the prosperous suburbs, but in the poor black townships.


Some black commentators complain that violent crime has not significantly worsened in recent years; it is just that white people have felt its impact for the first time.

South African gun shop
Gun culture: A shopper tries a weapon for size
And they argue that the city centre is not more violent these days; it is just that white people feel uncomfortable as a minority on streets which were once their exclusive preserve.

Perception in South Africa is invariably coloured by race, and perceptions of crime are no different.

Eight months into my stint as a Johannesburg-based correspondent, I have neither suffered nor witnessed a violent crime.

I do take precautions that I would not take if I lived in, say, London.

But I also try and be philosophical about the risks; and not let the fear of crime limit my horizons, or determine how I live.

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See also:

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12 Sep 01 | Africa
Drugs crime rises in South Africa
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