Joburg Expat: Christmas For Criminals

December 8, 2012

Christmas For Criminals

The following is a guest post by Barbara Bruhwiler.

Everybody knows the Festive Season is a dangerous time. We’ve all heard about Christmas trees catching fire, for instance.

And undoubtedly we are all aware of the jeopardy that lurks in refusing to meet the rest of the family. Even though the prospect of spending yet another five days in overcrowded quarters can be disheartening at best, we all know that it is far more dangerous to stay away when the clan’s matriarch has issued an invitation for the festivities.

Driving to the family gathering has its fair share of unsafe moments, what with the howling, crying and shouting that comes from the backseat of the packed vehicle, causing the most diligent driver to be prone to sudden swerves – or at least sudden swearing.

Once we have arrived at said quarters, there is the danger of cat fights between sisters and rows between brothers, while Mums spend hours slaving in the kitchen with pursed lips, preparing the turkey and its trimmings. 

All the participants at the family gathering take on the risk of never having a single moment, one single calm minute, to themselves.
Strike While The Iron Is Hot, A New Madam & Eve Collection
by Stephen Francis & Rico.

In every family there is also someone like my Uncle Nick whose jokes will make you want to jump out of the window – a highly unhealthy pastime.

And we haven’t talked about those extra kilos that always pile up on our hips. Yes, the Festive Season bears dangers to our health. Raising our cholesterol. Giving us a hangover. And perhaps leading to a near heart-attack. 

In Johannesburg, the Festive Season also holds certain risks that are not directly related to the family’s social dynamics. It is a time of the year when criminals are most active. Call it the criminal’s Christmas, if you want.

And it starts early. Those of you who have lived in this country for a while know that South Africans are early risers. If you want to avoid traffic jams in Joburg, you have to be on the road before 6 am. And did you know that 5 to 8 am is considered peak time in Joburg’s gyms? So not only do Joburgers get up extremely early, but they are really up and running, or swimming a kilometre or hopping and stepping in a strenuous aerobics class.

But I’m getting off track. What I wanted to say was: South Africans are early risers, and they are early Christmas shoppers, too. By mid-October, you will find your local supermarket decked in Christmas decorations and delicatessen, and plenty of reindeer and snowmen will be grinning at you as you are buying your groceries.

No wonder that the well-organized in these parts start making provisions for the Festive Seasons early.

The well-organised criminals, on the other hand, are very well aware of these habits. And they know that many Christmas shoppers carry large amounts of cash with them. So pick-pocketing reaches its peak in the weeks before Christmas, and it is a good idea to a) use your credit cards instead of cash and b) always keep a close eye on your bag.

Pickpockets are incredibly skilled. Someone once stole my wallet out of my handbag, with me attached to the latter. It must have happened while I was squatting down, inspecting children’s shoes on the lowest rack in a shop, having pushed my handbag to my back so it wouldn’t dangle in front of me. The thief had to squeeze his hand into a slim opening, open a zipper inside my handbag (!), and get the wallet out of it. All the while I was blissfully unaware of what was going on behind, or to be precise, on my back.

Incredibly skilled, as I said. If only it hadn’t been so annoying.

Because people need more cash during the Festive Season, there are also criminals who position themselves close to Automatic Teller Machines (ATMs), ready to strike when there is a good opportunity. At this time of the year, it is even more important to only withdraw money from an ATM at a busy spot and during daytime hours. Don’t use AMTs unless there are plenty of other people around you who would witness if you were to be robbed. That seems to be the best strategy to avoid being targeted by criminals.

Now apart from your wallet, criminals will also go after your house during the festive season. It’s the long summer and school holiday, and the majority of South Africans, poor and rich alike, will travel to meet with their families for Christmas. For most of them, the holidays start early (surprise, surprise!), and between mid-December and New Year’s the roads and shopping malls will be pleasantly quiet in Johannesburg. Some neighbourhoods will even look nearly deserted, which makes them an inviting target for criminals.

If you are going away for the holidays, I would strongly recommend that you think about some protective measures to put in place. Here are some ideas of what you can do: Tell your security company about your absence; do not tell other people, and ask your maid to refrain from talking about your travelling; turn on your alarm system; if possible, ask your neighbours to keep an eye on what’s going on on your property.

Because of the frequent heavy storms and rains around Christmas in Joburg, it is a good idea to have someone check on your property on a regular basis anyway. They may have to prevent the pool from going green, wipe up water that somehow got into your house and threatens to ruin the carpets, keep the ants from making your house their home, make sure the power didn’t trip, and so on. This explains why at this time of the year, you will find plenty of ads from people who offer to house sit. South Africans know that it is not a complete waste of time to have someone looking after their home while they are away.

Now, the second part of this blog post sounds gloomy compared to the first part, doesn’t it? But think about it: There are just a few security measures you can take to try and avoid the dangers of pickpocketing and robbery. But when it comes to the dangers associated with spending days with the extended family in a crammed house, I feel much more helpless.

Does anybody out there have some tips on how to survive this?


Barbara Bruhwiler lives in Johannesburg with her husband and two children. She is an internationally successful author of five books. One of them is the Expat-Living.infoGuide to Johannesburg, a handy reference guide full of practical, useful information and advice for expats moving to or living in Joburg.