MULDERSDRIFT, SOUTH AFRICA —
South Africa is a very violent country with a murder rate four times the global average. The current murder case against Olympian Oscar Pistorius has touched a nerve. His claims that he shot and killed his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, when he mistook her for a burglar does not sound far fetched to some middle class South Africans. In a highly economically unequal country - robberies can quickly turn violent, leading to extreme measures by people wanting to secure their homes.
At noon on a Saturday in Muldersdrift - a rural community outside Johannesburg - which has been hit by a wave of violence in the past few months, two dozen residents from Clinic Road, a quiet place in the gentle hills east of Johannesburg, have gathered at the Frog & Toad, the local pub. The occasion? A neighborly braai as South Africans call a barbecue.
Each newcomer piles on the table his contribution of thick sausages to throw on the grill. The conversation rolls onto everyday topics for this farming community: Dean got bitten by a snake yesterday, Vanessa's mare is finally pregnant, and what is new in terms of farm attacks?
“We haven't had a braai in about three years I think," Cochrane, one of the participants, explains. "It's just to find normal. You know, meeting somebody above a dead body, it's not the way to deal with your neighbor, if you know what I'm saying! It sounds horrific, doesn't it? But it's true?”
In the past six months, three people have been killed on Clinic Road, including a 13-year-old girl, and residents can recall over a dozen violent, albeit non-lethal, robberies or highjacks. This on a road that counts only 27 properties, mostly small cattle farms.
Gael Bagley, who manages a horse farm down the road, was the victim of an attack six months ago.
“I was just having a drink on a Friday evening. I got up to leave, and as I open the door this guy ran in and he pushed me out of the way. And the gun went off," Bagley recalls. "I saw the spare room was open, and I ran in there and I locked myself in. They basically stole silly stuff: two laptops, two phones, an iPad. When I came out, Ann was lying on the floor, and then next thing Dean walked in and collapsed. He had been shot as well."
Bagley says Dean was shot sort of through his butt, and the bullet is still sitting on his hip. Ann's bullet is in her spine, she was paralyzed for four days. But she's fine now, she's walking.
"And Dean got a colostomy bag, which they're gonna reverse in the next couple of weeks so... that should be better,” Bagley adds.
Charmain Cochrane, 20, recalls two attacks in her house when she was a teenager.
“It's not something that you can take yourself apart from. It happens to everybody here," she notes. "And we were lucky in the sense that we didn't get shot or raped, it's one of those lucky things. We, in a way, had a very good farm attack. It was a good one. It was gentle, it was nice”.
But residents say the attacks on Clinic Road have turned shockingly violent in the past few months.
“They used to come in and they'd sort of say: “shush, sit down”... and they didn't shoot you. They might smack you around a bit, but now they... they shoot to kill,” Bagley says. “They're not even stealing stuff, they're just shooting. It's almost like an act of war, it's terrorism! Because if it was economically based, they would wait till you're out and rob your house, wouldn't they? So, the fact that they're waiting for you to come home, it means it's intimidation."
The South African police have arrested five men linked to murders in Muldersdrift. Three of them have been connected to 14 different attacks. Authorities say, despite the violence, the motive seems purely for economic gain - even though what they took was relatively small such as cell phones.
But few Clinic Road residents can afford to pack up and leave their street's danger. As the crime rate shoots up, their properties' values dive down. Nikki Schimansky, whose husband's family has lived here for more than 30 years, says that there is no solution and no security system safe enough.
“Maybe six years ago it started to be a problem. The first thing we did was to get big dogs," Shimansky explains. "Then we put up security gates inside the house to close off the bedrooms. … then we put up security lights; we got an alarm system installed connected to a security company, with a panic button. … My husband has a gun, it's a .38 special. It is locked in the safe during the day, but at night, when we go to bed, the gun comes out and it's with him, next to the bed. ...It really is terrifying living here. You know, we feel like prisoners in our own homes”.
Since January, police have beefed up their presence in Muldersdrift - adding more vehicles on the streets, a dog and an equestrian unit. Residents have welcomed the efforts, but they say they still do not feel safe.