The title seems broad, but months pondering this subject and I’m yet to come up with a better summarization of my feelings. White people here, are indeed, afraid of everything and everyone…it seems at least.
Stellenbosch is located in the Western Cape. It is 17% white, 49% coloured, and 33% black African. But I’m going to be perfectly honest. Despite my returning to the United States and everyone imagining that I spent my days surrounded by “black Africans”, I spend my days in Stellenbosch almost entirely interacting with whites and maybe, coloured people. Stellenbosch is an Afrikaans university, which is why it attracts that demographic. In fact, despite the Western Cape being 17% white, the most of any region in South Africa, Stellenbosch University is 68.5% white.
So great, we’ve established there isn’t much diversity here. But that’s not really my issue, as whether I’m here or at a small liberal arts college in the United States, I will probably find myself disappointed by the sea of white privilege—myself being a part of that. What I’m disappointed about is the connection it has taught me here between race, income and safety.
Last semester we experienced two girls, on their own during dark hours, individually get kidnapped on campus. It shook the campus. Suddenly students were saying there was a “crime spike”. Every kid who had his wallet stolen or was approached by someone weird contributed to this theory. Emails were sent out explaining the situation to parents, and to avoid another “incident”, evening exams offered bus trips for kids to and from the exam venue. I later received an email from the University president that “crime had been pushed to perimeters of campus”.
And I stood there, and I wondered what that meant. Crime had been “pushed” off campus? There was always crime in Stellenbosch. The kidnappings had just made people more aware of it. And there are reasons for that. Despite the university being, predominantly wealthy and white, the town of Stellenbosch itself is not. In fact, Stellenbosch is actually vastly majority coloured and there is a huge township, Kayamandi, viewable from basically every window at this university. Within a 5 minute walk from campus, you can find yourself in a very different world. Forget the tree lined streets and cute cafes, bring in the discounted expired-goods grocery stores and beggars on the streets.
As such, its not so surprising to me that Stellenbosch University would be a target for crime. Kids here have grown up in literal bubbles of gated communities which within themselves have 8 foot walls and security systems. They went to private all-boys and all-girls schools where they receive a world class education while other students in their country can’t afford books or even a school lunch. They walk around campus with I-Phones in hand and newly bought clothes. This is all not so different from my university at home. But what I’m saying is that the blatant display of class difference here would piss me off as someone not part of that social class, too. Though kidnapping is certainly extreme, for a large amount of robberies or theft to go on here is unsurprising to me, as from the outside it looks like these kids have everything- and could certainly live past losing a laptop or a sandwich.
It is also shocking to me that the university would promote its students to stay indoors during evening hours, to bus to and from exams, and to never walk alone. Perhaps living in DC has given me a thick skin, in which they text us to tell us of crime but don’t necessary guide us of what to do- instead assuming us mature enough to react on our own. I feel like promoting these things only keeps these already naive students in their bubble. Hiding from crime does not make it go away and these same students will one day be entering into the real world where crime still happens, and be equally as uneducated of how to handle it.
But that is one more caveat. I totally understand why the kidnappings shook this campus. That just doesn’t happen here and is incredibly unfortunate. However, aside from that students are convinced that Stellenbosch is incredibly dangerous. As they spread this message, as do professors and university officials, a general fear becomes ingrained in students. For example, I had a study partner tell me that she previously lived on another side of Stellenbosch and moved because she felt “unsafe”. I asked her why and what had happened. She told me that nothing ever happened, she just felt it. I asked her if there were more black people around her previous residence, and she explained yes. I’m not sure she caught my connection between the two. Students come to fear the outside world as if its going to eat them alive. It also creates an unnecessary fear of anyone who’s not a clean-cut kid. I was walking with a friend once who saw a black man carrying a chair down the road ahead of us. She instantly grabbed my arm and told me that we should stay away from him because he “looked dangerous”. I, naturally, laughed and asked how carrying a chair makes someone scary. I then explained that if it was a white person carrying that chair, they would assume it was just a student moving or doing something stupid. Suddenly it’s a black guy and you are in danger of the man-with-chair. It’s actually ridiculous.
I am yet to feel unsafe at all in Stellenbosch, any more than I am in DC. I feel that if you look like you know where you are going, what you are doing, and look people in the eyes you are doing yourself the largest favor. I’ve walked at all times of day and night, alone, and have rarely been approached. When I have, I have acted calm and nothing has happened to me. I think that by the time you are in college you should not be hand-holded of how to function day-to-day and unfortunately dealing with crime is part of that here. And even if crime, predominantly theft, does happen, can you really blame them?