5 Realities In One Of History's Most Violent Countries
Despite what District 9 taught us, South Africa isn't a murderous hellhole populated by monstrous aliens. It's actually a beautiful, modern, and industrialized powerhouse of the African continent ... although, in all fairness, it wasn't always like that. Living in South Africa actually used to resemble something out of a nightmarish sci-fi flick -- or at least that's the impression we got after talking with "James," a former member of the country's ruling political party, and Ben Pienaar, a resident back in the 1990s. These are their stories:
Three Words: Car-Mounted Flamethrowers
In Hollywood, slapping a flamethrower on a car (or, occasionally, a guitar) lets the audience know that the movie is taking place in a bleak, post-apocalyptic future where bullshit safety laws no longer hinder the terminally awesome. In real-life South Africa, though, making cars pee fire like a Transformer with a urinary-tract infection was more like the country's version of OnStar. Ben Pienaar told us, "While not many people had this, South Africa was the first place in the world to have flamethrowers installed on both sides of the car to fight off hijackers."
As were the hijackers, minus the "serious" part.
The device was called a "Blaster," because it blasted jets of fire at would-be attackers, and because "fucking radical" just wasn't descriptive enough. It was operated with a special foot pedal near the accelerator in case the driver was ordered to put their hands up. What's even crazier is that the Blaster was 100 percent legal, according to the SA police.
That's because, between January and June 1998, there were over 4,000 attacks on motorists in the Johannesburg area alone, and drastic times call for kickass measures.
"What smells good? Oh, shit, it's me!"
As a side note, the inventor of the Blaster later came up with a pocket-sized flamethrower "for self-defense," proving that if a real-life supervillain ever emerges, it will be in South Africa.
There Were Guns Everywhere
When South African amputee/sprinter Oscar "Blade Runner" Pistorius shot and killed his girlfriend in 2013, he blamed the incident on his being raised by a parent who slept with a gun under her pillow. Pfft. Big deal. So was Ben, and he never killed anyone ... that he is willing to admit to.
"My dad kept a shotgun in various places around the house, and he also slept with a handgun (a .38, I think) under his pillow for many years, until my mom said he had to put it somewhere else."
"Oh, just let the kids have it. A .38 is basically a toy anyway."
Hell, Ben says that when he was little, he had to learn to fall asleep to the sound of gunfire, because everyone around him owned and used guns. Sometimes, that wasn't such a bad thing: "Once my dad got into a road-rage thing where he and the other guy both pulled over to fight," Ben says. "My dad saw the guy get out of his car with a handgun, so my dad took out his own handgun and went to meet him. Instead of having a duel, they just had a very respectful and mutually terrified conversation and then drove away."
For the most part, though, people armed themselves for the upcoming race war. James, a regional South African politician and semi-professional black man, explains: "Many whites actually had and still have guns to protect them against the swart gevaar" -- literally "black danger" -- which was the fear that white South Afrikaners will start getting treated the same way they've been treating black people for years.
Luckily, their research into anti-Karma bullets never went anywhere.
However, James also points out: "In the black townships of many places like Cape Town and Johannesburg, there is a considerable gang culture of blacks who also have guns." It turns out gun-toting lunacy is one of those things that binds us all together.
The Rich Lived In Small Fortresses
It's not surprising that people willing to barbecue car thieves would go to Purge-caliber lengths to protect themselves from burglars. The standard home-defense package for well-off families was razor wire, a 10-foot wall, closed-circuit televisions, panic buttons, and just a pinch of madness.
Well, that's one way to keep the Jehovah's Witnesses away.
Ben's family lived in a rich suburb just down the road from Nelson Mandela, so their house had 10-foot-tall, double brick walls surrounding it. "We had thick bars over all of our windows, even the little ones. Our bedrooms were also divided from the rest of the house with a lockable metal gate. This was so that people robbing the house wouldn't be able to get at our valuables or murder us in our sleep," though probably not in that order of importance.
So, at which point do we start referring to these homes as "reverse prisons"?
Also, while most parents teach their children what to do if a stranger offers them a ride home, Ben's folks had to teach him what to do if someone put a gun to his head.
"Our front gates were big spiky things operated from inside the house," Ben explains. "My parents had to develop a contingency plan in case there were robbers holding a gun to your head outside the house. When you pressed the intercom, you were supposed to say: 'Is Ted there?' This would be the message for whoever was inside to then call the cops."
Even today, fortified houses are very popular in South Africa, only now black people are actually allowed to live in them too. James now resides in a "security village," which is basically a gated community with more armed guards and less pushy HOA heads named Madison.
"P.S. No Teds allowed."
The Country Had A Permanent Servant Class
"Domestic servant" was the name given to black people who worked for white South Afrikaners, probably because "slave" seemed a bit on the nose. Domestic servants also lived with their employer's family, who often controlled every aspect of their lives: what they ate, where they slept, how long they got to hang out with their own kids, etc. There's even a story about a South African maid who was dismissed because she asked for a day off after working without a break for 10 straight years.
And, of course, they were paid next to nothing for their work. According to James: "The employers constantly threatened to dismiss their domestic workers. But because of the extreme poverty and the lack of employment opportunities, some blacks were mostly willing to work for starvation salaries." Many also were forced to live in squalor in old shacks with no toilet facilities.
"Squalor? Hello? She's got room for another two-thirds of a person in there!"
Ben says that he and his family treated their servants well, but there was always an underlying distrust between them.
"I had one gardener and two maids. The maids made meals, cleaned everything, helped look after us when we were young, and stole constantly. Mostly small stuff, like sugar and coffee. They also irritated my parents, like by pretending relatives had died to get off work. (One maid told my dad on three different occasions her uncle had died.)"
In Ben's family's defense, they still gave that maid the day off.
Things improved slightly for domestic servants after the abolishment of apartheid, but things are still far from perfect over there. "The government has introduced the grant system to counter the extreme poverty, which is a legacy of apartheid," James said. "Apparently, 15 million of the total population of 50 million of South Afrikaners are receiving it."
Crime, Murder, And Violence Became Part Of Everyday Life
In South Africa in 1995, there were about 65 murders per 100,000 residents. That might not sound like a lot, but it's actually 13 goddamn times higher than the current murder rate in the United States, and that includes Detroit.
Which South Afrikaners refer to as "a quiet vacation getaway."
There really was no way to escape the chaos. Even in Ben's affluent neighborhood, things got so bad that his family fled the country for Australia, the continent designed by Satan during his death metal phase. Even super-jumping knife-spiders and other such charming Australian fauna start to seem appealing after your grandma almost gets beaten to death with a shovel in a robbery gone wrong. That actually happened to Ben's family, by the way:
"Our next-door neighbors got hacked to death with pickaxes. Another time, a friend of my mom was standing in a shop somewhere, but his buddy made the mistake of having a very expensive camera hanging around his neck. Someone came up behind him and shot him in the head to steal the camera. ... Murder was always in the peripheral. You'd get together with friends and someone would talk about how they got hijacked the other day, or how their gardener got shot, or how their friend was killed."
Then it would turn into a bragging contest about who'll end up needing more therapy.
If you're wondering where the police was during all of this, well, back then no one really trusted the cops. Ben disliked them for shaking people down during bogus traffic stops, while black people saw the police as tools of the apartheid government. According to our source: "Blacks protesting against inequality were killed and beaten and tortured. I was also a political prisoner and what has been experienced ... was inhuman, including the solitary confinement."
The most depressing thing about that is that the country's GTA period isn't ancient history. Some of you probably have pants that were made around the time people still sort of owned slaves and used flamethrowers on criminals. And because that's a shitty thought to leave you with: Did you know that the red panda often uses its fuzzy-wuzzy tail as a blanket?
In 1960, 69 black protesters were killed by African police during the Sharpeville Massacre.
Ben is an aspiring horror writer, because what else would he be? He also has a blog full of his short stories at www.freenightmares.me. Cezary Jan Strusiewicz is a Cracked columnist, interviewer, and editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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