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Not Taking Privileges For Granted

To this day, I have never owned a key to my mom’s house in Montreal, simply because it is barely ever locked. This fact amuses my South African friends, who all hold a 4-key set to get to their rooms. I remember growing up sneaking in my parents’ room at night because I was afraid of burglars, and was reminded every night that I was having an irrational fear: we were safe. And we were always safe (knock on wood!). Fast forward 15 years later, living in Canada and Europe in the last few years, I would not think twice about my safety coming home alone in a taxi after a night out, or even less so going out for a run in the neighborhood in the middle of the afternoon.

According to the South African Police Services, Cape Town has the highest crime rates in South Africa, and falls within the infamous top 10 of cities with the highest crime rates (be wary of statistics, it is more a reflection of crimes reported). Of course, I knew this before coming here, and was fully prepared to be vigilant, act responsibly and let go of my very Canadian ways. Completing my internship in the field of gender-based violence, I am also aware of the high rates of sexual violence occurring in the city that I now love, yet somehow could distance myself from these stats and stories as they happened in different neighborhoods, or to people of a different race. Nonetheless, I became increasingly aware of crimes happening in the very places and times where I felt safe: on the University of Cape Town campus, at home in the morning, in the middle of the day on a busy street. And slowly, my sense of security was disintegrating as overwhelming distrust set in. My behaviors changed further - I stopped going for runs, I avoided walking alone and I carry pepper spray - which further influenced how I perceive the spaces I engage in, now with suspicion and fear.

On March 14, a 16 year-old girl was raped and murdered in a popular forest area of the Southern Suburbs of Cape Town (middle-class, mostly white area), in the middle of the afternoon, a mere hundred meters from her family. The public roared with furor and the media incensed the sense of panic with no shame of the obvious “white-bias” where crime against a white person warrants mobilizations, while the vast majority of other crimes are ignored, trivialized even. I am guilty of the same reaction. And it is important to understand the reasons why some crimes hit home more than others, to be honest about the way we respond emotionally and personally to horrific events because they happen in the intersections of our lives and become easily translatable to “It could have been me or someone I love….”.

With the recent attacks in Brussels, there has been a parallel uproar on the “ignored” terrorist attacks in non-Western parts of the world. While I believe that it is our duty to inform ourselves about global events, systematic oppression and the clash of societies, I am also of the opinion that it is natural to strongly respond to events happening in a sister country, in a community just like the ones where we didn’t lock doors. It is born from our sense of self-preservation, but mostly attacks our perceptions of the world, of how we interact with others and how we engage in different places.

I am hoping deeply that I will feel safe again when I land in Canada, that I will learn to trust my surroundings just like I always have. Yet now, I won’t take these privileges for granted.

Valeria is interning at the Gender, Health and Justice Research Unit at the University of Cape Town, through the Department of International Development Studies at Dalhousie University.

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