A different Reality

Things you usually don’t expect to happen: Having your air-condition explode three meters away from your head while you are asleep. (Saying that, I’m okay, it was more of an implosion, nothing happened to me.)

And here’s the story. After the internet connection broke down in my apartment on Saturday evening I decided to go to bed earlier than usual as I had to be up and about early the following day due to my counselling seminar in Johannesburg. It was at around 11 p.m. when I woke up with a start because of a loud noise inside my apartment. Slowly coming to my senses I noticed a strange smell. When I tried to switch on the light on my nightstand nothing happened. The whole place was without electricity. I grabbed my phone which was the only source of light, put on a jumper and went quickly outside into the corridor where I found a couple of my neighbors chatting, their faces illuminated by the screens of their laptops, tablets or mobile phones. Some reported light bulbs had exploded in their apartments. Others have had sparks coming out of the fuse or the TV. Apparently, the motor of my air-condition had exploded because of too high voltage and it took me around half an hour with windows wide open to get rid of the nasty smell and be able to go back to bed.

On the hallway, nobody really had a clue what had caused the turmoil. But one thing was obvious: There was no electricity in the whole complex. That usually is an annoying thing by itself. However, here it also meant that the security entrance gate was not working anymore leaving people stuck inside and those who were about to arrive unable to come in. The complex is secured by a high wall on top of which there is an electric fence. Furthermore, in order to enter or leave you have to swipe your personalized card at the gate. If you think that sounds like a high-security wing I have to tell you that there are other places – which given their size could easily be cities on their own – where you have to pass security measures that go way beyond those of border posts. First, you have to give your name and passport number. Second, your car plate is scanned. Third, your fingerprint is taken. The information is then compared to verify your identity. And lastly, the people you say you have come to pass a visit to are called and they have to confirm that they are expecting you. That much to surprise parties.

When I visited such a place on Friday evening, the level of security left me rather with a feeling of unease than with one of safety. Inside this high security complex I found one mansion to the next but no people on the clean sidewalks or in the decorative gardens. And to my biggest surprise, most of the houses were still sealed off by high walls! The complex appeared like a rich people’s ghost town to me. For sure, South Africa has a steady leading position in global crime statistics. But how much security do you need in order to feel save? Apparently, it can never be enough.

Back at my complex security guards have been positioned for now to monitor the building day and night and open the gates for residents by hand. Just before I left my room to take a break at my favorite cafe around the corner, an information sheet came sliding underneath my door. It reads as follows:

Kindly be informed that there has been a cable theft outside of [the complex] on the main submission box that feeds [the complex]. (…) The theft has affected the Internet connection in the building and the main electrical supply which has resulted in electrical appliances and power points being damaged in most apartments.

Living in a country that is shaped by extreme differences between poor, middle class and rich that still reflect the legacy of the apartheid regime talking and thinking about security is part of most people’s every day life. For me, it is a constant reminder not to take for granted the safety I enjoy at home in my small town in Germany where everybody will tell you to take care – because, eventually, bad stuff can happen to you anywhere. But let’s face it: you usually would not have to worry about someone trying to steal electricity cables in order to make some money.

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  1. The Art of Walking | Down the Rabbit Hole - 12. January 2015

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