/ 19 March 2010

Life in Oz is too ruff for us Saffers

I hear that growing numbers of mostly white South Africans, who moved to Australia so that their children could play safely on the streets, are re-packing for Pretoria.

Why? Because, I was recently informed by someone in the removals business, “there are just too many rules in Oz”.

Apparently, there’s loads of cool stuff we take for granted here that you can’t do there without someone calling the cops. For instance, there’s one weird local custom that says if you break the law, it will be only a matter of time before it catches up with you.

This massive culture shock is apparently proving hard for some South Africans down under to swallow. I’ve never been to Australia, but I’ve heard they take their laws very seriously and, if you get caught crossing them, what happens next is not negotiable. You just get into trouble. Definitely.

In Australia, they say, you can’t negotiate a fee with a police officer to let you off a breathalyser test. You can’t play chicken with pedestrians who assert their right to cross the road when the green man’s flashing. By the sound of it, you can’t even borrow a supermarket trolley, park in a disabled zone unless you’re disabled or drive 5km over the speed limit without attracting a siren and a sheriff. Crazy stuff.

A South African colleague who once lived in Australia explained it to me: “It’s not that they have more rules and regulations than we do; it’s just that they enforce them. We ignore them.”

Why do we do that? Because we can. Because we can buy a driver’s licence (sometimes it’s the only way to get one). Because we can drive drunk and get away with it. Because we can drag-race down a major road on a Monday afternoon until a tragic accident and public fury force the authorities to do something. Because we can be suburban vigilantes and assault suspected criminals. This happened in a middle-class townhouse complex filled with nice young, mostly white, families a few Sundays ago. A shared alarm system alerted residents to an attempted break-in at one house. The would-be burglar was savagely kicked and punched by half a dozen husbands and fathers who flung down their braai forks and paused the rugby game on PVR before wading in to do the neighbourly thing. When the police arrived, they joined in.

Crimes like these are committed by people who probably consider themselves to be decent, upstanding citizens, even victims. That’s until they move to another, more regulated country and become impatient with the saturation policing that tends to keep our darker sides in check. We have been taught, by apartheid and then by our own rowdy version of democracy, that laws are made to be bent. It’s enough to make us homesick.

So-called law-abiding South Africans do not always appear to discern the creeping connection between the violence of the vigilante and the violence of the mugger or even of the murderer. We do not seem able or willing to join the dots between the way we relish hearing how the authorities regard prisoners — scum to be raped, beaten, starved — and our own stated, but patently false, desire to live in a less aggressive society.

Take the story of George, a shaggy golden retriever, currently under sentence of death from an anonymous neighbour for barking too much.

The death threat, written and posted to George’s Cape Town owners, was polite, even a bit officious.

“Please make sure that your dog stops barking at night between the hours of 8pm and 8am,” it said. “You have 30 days in which to retrain your dog or come up with a solution …” At this point it all sounds rather reasonable, like a letter from the dog licensing department on City of Cape Town stationery. But if a solution is not found within 30 days, the letter writer finishes, “there is a very high chance your dog will no longer be around to disturb the neighbours”.

To cut a long story, Sea Point’s finest detectives are out scouring the nicer neighbourhoods for the would-be assassin — who is most likely listening to Cape Talk while pruning his or her roses — and George is, well … either doing 30 days in a re-education camp or still barking. A woman calling herself a pet behaviourist told a Sunday newspaper: “I hope they find the coward who wrote the letter and string him or her up.”

So, in the space of a single news week, we have a rate-paying dog-killer, an animal lover who would hang a human and two youth league leaders who sing “heritage” songs about shooting people who disagree with them.

Proves my point: we are all barking mad. Two hundred years ago, South Africans would have been able to get into Australia for free — we’d have been transported there in shackles.