A Southafrican in Berlin : "I've never felt safer than in Berlin"

I’ve heard Berlin can be a pretty rough place compared to the rest of Germany. Maybe so, but compared to the reality of South Africa, this city seems to be a very safe place.

Leila Samodien

I’ve never felt safer in my life – except perhaps for when I was a naïve six-year-old, who believed her father could do anything apart from flying and curing cancer. It’s when I got older that I realised freedom isn’t just about a fair vote or democracy. It’s also the ability to make your own choices, however simple they may be – coming and going as you please, at a time of your choosing.

Unfortunately, this is not the reality in South Africa.

The basics are simple and you learn them quickly: never take public transport at night; always lock your car doors when you’re driving and never roll your windows down more than a few centimetres; don’t speak on your mobile phone while you’re on the train (someone might grab it while you’re talking); have your house doors locked at all times; don’t walk alone at night and if you’re in a group, don’t walk in areas that aren’t busy; and, most of all, don’t trust strangers, even if they’re innocently asking for directions or for a cigarette light.

Despite all our precautions (alarm systems, barbed wire, high walls, steel gates, burglar bars), no-one is ever completely guarded from crime in South Africa. Just the other day, relatives of Nelson Mandela were held up at gunpoint in their driveway – on their way home from Mandela’s birthday party – in an attempted robbery.

I’ve had it pretty easy. My house has been burgled once, my car window was smashed once so that the robbers could steal my stereo system, my cellphone was once stolen out of my pocket at a festival, and my family and I were robbed in our home at gunpoint once.

This may sound bad, listed all together, but I count my blessings. As a journalist, I’m always writing about children being raped and killed, people being stabbed for the equivalent of two euro, a group of girls being kidnapped and raped by a man dressed as a policeman, and people being attacked just because they’re a Somali family in search of a better life in South Africa.

Don’t get me wrong. I love South Africa, particularly my home, Cape Town – I doubt I’ll ever want to live anywhere else permanently.

But behind the allure of the sandy beaches, the friendly faces, the diverse cultures and even the bright lights of the World Cup, we South Africans are always living with a vague kind of fear in the back of our minds.

If I leave my jacket in the backseat of my car, someone might break my window to get it out. I’ll need my purse in five minutes, but if I leave it on my work desk, it might get stolen. If I take my new, leather bag on the train, there’s a greater chance of me being mugged than if I took my old, scruffy one. If I put my cellphone in my bag, I won’t hear it ring, but if I put in my pocket, someone might slip it out.

These are the kinds of decisions I have to make every day. Funny enough, I don’t notice it. It’s just part of life, and I’m used to it – okay with it even.

I didn’t realise how ridiculous it all was until I arrived in Berlin.

My first culture shock was when I arrived at my apartment. My one roommate stayed home, while my other roommate and I went exploring. “Why are you locking the door?” asked an acquaintance, who was showing us around. “There’s someone in there.” “All the more reason to,” I said, truly fearing someone may come in and harm my roommate.

As the weeks passed, I saw how carefree Berliners were and I began to throw caution the wind. I could leave my windows wide open on hot days, when no-one was home. I could take the bus alone at 1am in the morning. I could walk home alone at night, certain that the man with the baby seat attached to his bicycle would do me no harm. I didn’t have to cling to my handbag for dear life on the bus. I could ask my landlord to open the door for me when I forgot my keys (how could he be certain I even lived there?), and I could even leave my grocery bags unattended for a few minutes. It was all very new to me.

Yet, I’m still slightly wary, as is my roommate from Johannesburg, which is considered to be South Africa’s most notorious city when it comes to crime. She was walking home alone the other day. She noticed the man walking behind her had trailed her all the way from the mini market. He went in the same door, walked up the same number of stairs and when she finally got to her floor, he stopped too.

“What should I do?” she thought. Her instinct took hold, and she stood at the door of the apartment opposite ours, pretending to look for her keys while she watched what his next move was.

“Excuse me,” the man said. “But this is my apartment.”

Maybe it’s a good thing we haven’t become too complacent in minding our own safety. We’ll be home in a couple of weeks.