Melville in Johannesburg is the equivalent of Golf Links in New Delhi, only grander, in a fortified way. The houses are free-standing bungalows and every bungalow is screened off from the road by high walls topped with small, sinister electric fences. The walls are interrupted by high gates, which work like electric sliding doors that open and close at a touch. A few signs, a foot square, appear in a row on the front wall of every house, like medals on a shirtfront. The signs have names — ADT, Chubbs, Stallion — that seem enigmatic only till you read the last little board, which invariably reads “Armed Response”.
That’s the clue a stranger needs: these are the logos of the security firms that have electrified the fences, rigged the alarms, rolled out barbed wire wherever live wires didn’t seem enough, reinforced the bedrooms with steel shutters (which make them strongrooms at night where the rich sleep reassured) and set up systems that send cars full of guards to any bungalow where an alarm might sound. Those little signs are the bungalow’s safety credentials: advertisements for the security firms and warnings to thieves.
I was in Johannesburg for a literary festival, staying in a small apartment in a hostel block in the University of Witwatersrand (pronounced with two Vs and two broad As). To enter the campus, drivers either used swipe cards at the security kiosk (which raised the boom) or had to explain their business to the security guard. Our hosts at the university, the event managers who had organized the festival and the staff from the Indian consulate all made it a point to tell us (the Indian writers who were visiting) not to venture out of the campus unless they were escorted, not to walk around the city and to generally be careful in public because Johannesburg was a dangerous place. I was reminded of New York in 1987 when all sorts of people would warn you about straying into Harlem. The difference was that the no-go warnings were about one part of one borough of New York, which was easily avoided, whereas in Johannesburg the sense we were given was of a city made up of islands of gentility in a sea of Harlem.
Melville’s main street was locally celebrated for its restaurants. I ate in one of them called the Loft; it was properly high-ceilinged, the waitresses were relaxed young women who stood hipshot by tables reciting the day’s specials. It could have been Brooklyn, only I knew it wasn’t because we had been driven to the restaurant and instructed to call when we were done, so we could be picked up again. It was like being parachuted in and helicoptered out. Also, Brooklyn’s main streets were crowded with people walking; the pavement that ran by the Loft was still.
I’m not suggesting that all Johannesburg is like this. I was there for less than a week and an Indian friend who lived there for more than a year in Hillbrow, a non-bourgeois, black part of Johannesburg, had warned me that I’d receive what he dismissed in advance as paranoid advice. He had hung out in Johannesburg’s streets, spent long evenings in happening nightspots in Soweto, learnt Zulu, and made friends without once feeling threatened. So perhaps your sense of a city is a function of how long you stay or how intrepid you are. What I saw of the city was mostly seen through car windows that were always wound up and not only because of the air-conditioning.
But even allowing for desi timorousness and post-apartheid paranoia, there is a real difference between an outsider’s first impressions of, say, the Indian city I live in, Delhi, and the one I visited, Johannesburg. I can’t recall ever having told a visiting foreign friend to watch out for muggers, or car hijackers or murderous thieves. I tell them to avoid tap water and street food and zebra crossings (they tend to assume traffic will stop), but for a man (women are more vulnerable), Delhi’s a safe place to walk about in. I told my new South African friends this, because the prudential advice I constantly received made Johannesburg feel like a creepy jungle and made my car rides feel like urban safaris. Delhi, I said virtuously, is not like this.
Some of them had been to India and they agreed. The ones who hadn’t been said that they had heard the same thing from other people. So what explained the difference' I didn’t have an answer. Perhaps the end of apartheid and the large-scale migration of once segregated blacks to white urban enclaves juxtaposed white privilege against black deprivation in such a stark way that violent crime was inevitable. Then I thought about the misery and degradation that I saw at traffic lights every single day in Delhi. I saw young women with their babies begging on the streets in Johannesburg, but not one of them came close to looking as ravaged as the starving woman with a big-headed baby and the old bandaged man with leprosy that I see every day at the Kotla crossing. No place in the world is as vividly unequal as an Indian city; if there was a law that laid down that the adjacency of paupers and plutocrats was a recipe for violence, Indian cities would be killing fields. But they aren’t.
Johannesburg’s urban crime (car hijackings, armed robberies, murders) is, according to the police, mostly the work of organized black and coloured gangs who prey upon unemployed young men who pour into the city in hope and live there in desperation. Delhi is a violent city but there is no significant organized crime in here, no massive protection rackets, no syndicates that run whole neighbourhoods. But this in itself explains nothing. What explains this absence' Is it the deference and docility that comes of knowing your place in the hierarchies of caste' Or is it merely that India’s urban underclass is so exhausted scrabbling for a living that it doesn’t have the energy to be violent' That can’t be true. Hundreds of rural districts in India are controlled by ‘Maoist’ insurgencies made powerful by plebeian anger; why isn’t this reflected in some form in India’s metropolitan cities'
I don’t have an answer to that, but I do know that even in the absence of an immediate threat from an urban underclass, Delhi’s comfortable citizens have begun to walk down the road to Melville. Twenty years ago, Delhi’s localities became gated neighbourhoods. Now the houses in these neighbourhoods are guarded by men in sketchy uniforms. International security firms have begun to sense an opportunity: Group 4 is already here: it’s only a matter of time before ADT, Stallion and Chubb move in. The reason for the gates and the securitymen is not an uptick in violent crime: it is an abstract anxiety born of having more to lose. I know a man in Greater Kailash who chains his sedan to a tree. There are people in Johannesburg who know exactly how he feels.