Crime rates unimaginable, compared to safe, little NZ

EMOTIONAL: Olympic and Paralympic track star Oscar Pistorius reacts during his trial at North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria.
EMOTIONAL: Olympic and Paralympic track star Oscar Pistorius reacts during his trial at North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria.

My wife is convinced that Oscar Pistorius is 100 per cent guilty and that his entire story is preposterous.

I really don't want to speculate on his guilt, no matter how absurd his version of events may appear. Celebrity trials seem to defy justice in the way they transpire, and they truly are a bizarre spectacle to observe. The overblown attention creates a terribly imbalanced perspective that means the truth is even more elusive than it is in other high profile crimes.

Pistorius is, of course, a superstar in his home country but this is also a country that has unimaginable crime rates compared to safe, little New Zealand. To us it is a highly suspicious admission of underworld ties, or a paranoid disposition, to sleep with a loaded gun under the bed and wake up shooting at shadows. But in South Africa I would be hiding a semi- automatic weapon in every room in the house.

Ten years ago I travelled to Johannesburg as part of a New Zealand delegation and at our first briefing we were given a pretty frightening overview of what to expect. One line that the protection squad officer used that has stayed with me ever since was, "Now - when you come to traffic lights just use your common sense and don't stop at red lights". Now that is obviously South African common sense as it certainly isn't New Zealand common sense.

Once we got there I could see what they meant. Most controlled intersections, outside of the opulent suburb of Sandton where we were staying, were surrounded buy up to 100 hawkers, street merchants and window wipers who descend, very menacingly, upon you and your vehicle once you come to a stop.

We had dedicated drivers and they were meant to be experienced at transporting people in this sort of environment, but before the end of the first week our two Israeli drivers quit as they thought the situation was unsafe. Then within a day or two of their departure one of our other drivers was ferrying people back and forwards from their rooms to a restaurant. Having dropped off a group he was heading back to get the next load when he took a wrong turn and got attacked. He was pulled through the front windscreen, beaten and robbed ending up in hospital.

Not surprisingly that company withdrew their drivers, leaving us with limited transport options.

A couple of days later I was lucky enough to travel with a New Zealand Aid group to see some projects we had been funding. I got to see some things I never expected to encounter face to face, including a makeshift village in a rubbish dump, communities of Aids- infected mothers and cardboard box towns in the middle of Soweto.

While we were travelling we requested the driver to take us to Soweto. He told us he wasn't allowed as his boss wouldn't let their vehicles go in to the town. We harangued him in a friendly Kiwi sort of way until he succumbed and took us to the Kliptown Youth Club. I noticed he was terrified. His hands were shaking as he lit his cigarette and he was watching the local kids with furtive glances.

Our visit was great but much longer than expected so we were leaving Soweto in the dark. This made our driver even more anxious. I was chatting to him and discovered he had lived less than an hour away, in Pretoria, all of his 50-odd years and had never been to Soweto before. He seemed proud of himself that he had actually been there now, although running out of petrol a few miles down the road didn't impress him too much.

Our accommodation was in Sandton, one of the wealthiest suburbs in Africa. The street was blocked at both ends by arm barriers with guards manning them 24 hours a day and there were also guards at the entrance of our gated compound housing estate. I understand this is the norm in Sandton. That is because South Africa is a dangerous place for its citizens.

The murder rate is 31 people for every 100,000 of the population. This is, of course, only a very small percentage of violent crime in the country and some analysis of the statistics is required to truly appreciate where the greatest risks are. The majority of violent crimes occur in urban CBDs and most murders are in lower socio- economic areas between people experiencing similar social conditions as each other. In the very wealthy areas the murder rate may be as low as 10 per 100,000 but that still needs to be compared with New Zealand's 0.9 per 100,000.

The experience, the media hype and the fear generated about South Africa's violence is palpable when you are there so it is not surprising to find privileged white people shooting at shadows.

The Press