Joburg Expat: The Price Tag of Safety

July 23, 2015

The Price Tag of Safety

If you could do everything in your power to keep yourself and your children safe, wouldn't you do it?

Duh, you will say. Of course!

But not so fast. I'm going to show you that there is a price you pay for safety. Or, conversely, that you get unexpected benefits when easing up a little on the safety. It's the age old question of freedom versus security: It's not possible to have 100% of each at the same time.

Take crime. It's definitely an issue to take into consideration when contemplating a life in South Africa. But it's just one issue. You'd make a mistake to base your decision only on that. In the case of South Africa, most expats there will tell you, it's worth taking on a little risk for the great life you get in return.

While this is true about crime, it's also true about safety in general, and South Africa makes for a wonderful case study. Some examples:


  • Seat belts often seem to be optional in South Africa. Children can be seen climbing around inside moving cars all the time. But that's actually tame compared to when you see children riding around on roof racks of 4x4 vehicles. When we first arrived, Noisette and I both swore we'd never let our kids do that. Until they were invited by friends to their car's roof rack and had the time of their life.
    Children enjoying a rooftop ride in South Africa
  • I also don't think I ever contemplated letting a 13-year old drive around on regular roads for hours at a time. But when that same thirteen-year old has had to perform the adult task of changing a flat tire - three times in a row, I might add - then your view of what is and isn't appropriate might change. Most of our local friends' kids knew how to drive a manual, and their cars showed the scars of the learning process.
    40 miles on a godforsaken gravel road in Namibia - perfect
    opportunity for a 13-year old to 
  • I've already told you about the lion park in Joburg, and the fact that you never once sign an indemnity form before entering. And yet people have been killed in that park. You might have heard of the American woman, just weeks ago, who fell victim to a lion attacking through the open car window. It's tragic, and I cannot condone the verbal attacks I've seen online targeted against this woman and her lack of judgment, but it's also true that what makes safaris so great, or even possible, is the fact that there are no fences, no warning signs, no indemnity forms. All that stands between you and a lion is the talk given to you by your guide, which you'd do well to pay attention to.
    South African school children at school sport, barefoot
  • South African children run around the school grounds barefoot all day long. Entire cross country races are completed by hordes of barefoot kids. Are there, miraculously, fewer pitfalls awaiting bare skin on African soil, you wonder? Not likely. And yet I know of no edicts against bare feet in South African schools.
  • A friend told me a story of a fundraising event at their school. Someone had brought in a wrecked car and a sledgehammer and deposited both in the middle of the rugby field. For a per-minute fee, kids could climb onto that car and smash it to pieces. Needless to say, the field was subsequently covered in glass shards, but cleaning it up didn't occur to anyone until the next match was well underway. I can't quite imagine this activity being offered at your average American school.
    Thinking back, I can't believe we were this close to the lion,
    not even a sleeping one, when I took this picture in Madikwe
  • Not one of my kids made it through their South African school's Design and Technology class without cuts or other injuries. Even the younger children are entrusted with knives and hammers and drills so as to learn how to handle them. And there isn't even a school nurse on hand.


Now I'm not advocating for anybody to be reckless. Seat belts, for instance, are non-negotiable, especially on the roads of Johannesburg. Access to guns, such a huge safety hazard in the wrong hands, should be tightly restricted. Airline pilots, it turns out, should have more stringent psychological evaluations.

And yet there is a limit on restrictions and precautions before you pay too big of a price.

Yes, you can ban the use of the monkey bars at your school forevermore and save a few kids from the fate of a broken arm, but isn't losing the joy and thrill of climbing high and swinging wildly too high a price to pay?

Yes, you can ensure school kids eat a proper lunch and sit down quietly in an orderly cafeteria monitored by ten parent volunteers, but what about all the other fun things they could be doing instead at break time? Even if that means they forget to eat their lunch?

Yes, you can put rules in place that force children to include everyone on the playground, but aren't you robbing them of a learning ground to improve their social skills?

Yes, you can put fences around all the wild animals and eliminate any risks to the visitor, but what a tragedy that would be for Africa.

There is a price you pay for safety. Often it's worth it. And I would argue that nowhere have we had to endure such stringent safety measures (but not indemnity forms) as in Africa. They get it when it matters. No one wants you to fall off a tree during a canopy tour. Stand up in a safari vehicle for a closer look at the sleeping lion right in front of you, and you will be dressed down very sternly by your guide.

But the price you pay for more safety isn't always worth it. In general, South African kids seem to grow up with more opportunities to injure themselves than your average American child, but also with more opportunities for experimentation and personal growth. The approach of those in authority seems to be that of letting things move along and dealing with the consequences when they arise, instead of trying to anticipate all consequences ahead of time and eliminating them by imposing draconian rules.

In many people's minds - particularly someone like me who grew up in Europe - the United States is a land of golden opportunity, of personal freedom, of relatively few government restrictions. But to many South Africans, life there would seem unduly restricted.

Getting back to the issue of crime in South Africa: Yes, it would be wonderful if the country was safer, with fewer break-ins and carjackings, without the need for high-voltage fences around neighborhoods, less violence against women, less violence in general. Perhaps one day it will get there. But in the meantime, don't let crime define the country. There is so much more to life in South Africa that you wouldn't want to miss out on. You might start with this list: Top Ten Reasons You Should Move to Johannesburg Despite the Crime Rate.

You might also enjoy: Legal Common Sense in South Africa