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A stroll in South Africa -- weird, huh?

Monday, July 5, 2010
Jul 05

Posted by Luke Cyphers

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- "You must see Cape Town," everybody said. "It's so much better than Jo'burg and Pretoria."

Everybody was right. Cape Town is nicer. But it is not because of the city's spectacular seaside geography, or its milder temperatures, or its modern stadium. Those are amenities, sideshows.

The real reason Cape Town is preferable? There are places to walk around.

South Africa invited the world for this soccer tournament but did not welcome its pedestrians. For the most part, the country shows little concern for anyone daring to walk, when not displaying outright cruelty.

In greater Johannesburg particularly, to cross a street on foot is to put your life into someone else's careless hands. Cars simply ignore walkers to the point where they become invisible. The sidewalks have no rhyme or reason, ending suddenly and kicking walkers to the curb. A simple stroll across from the hotel in Fourways to a shopping center across the street for toothpaste requires guts and guile. Cars fly into turns, with little to slow them down, and drag-race when stop lights turn green.

It doesn't help, surely, that most pedestrians' lives are cheap. For the most part, only the poorest walk. They amble down roads with no sidewalks; sprint across highways with no crosswalks; and slide past hawkers and, at times, robbers en route from their jobs to their homes. Apartheid is dead, but the divide between those with cars and those without continues to segregate the country along racial lines.

Anyone with access to a car eschews walking, for safety's sake. You can't blame them. During the World Cup, one American traveler was killed by a drunk driver as she walked with her family and another was shot in a robbery as he made his way on foot from the Sandton train station to his lodging. Hotel personnel often insist on calling taxis for trips even across the street.

Cape Town is different. Police and security guards line pedestrian corridors and populate street corners, so that it's possible for people of all races to stroll from pub to club to restaurant after midnight without ever dealing with an automobile.

In the grand scheme of things, that's a recipe for safety. The security of car travel is an illusion here; highway wrecks were a common sight. I counted six in one day early in the tournament, and the tournament opened with a tragedy when Nelson Mandela's 13-year-old great-granddaughter died after the opening concert, the victim of a drunk driver.

Meanwhile, studies show that abandoned public spaces breed crime; more eyes and ears and feet on the street lessen it.

And Cape Town does feel safer and cleaner. It's even possible to walk from bustling commercial zones filled with people of all income levels into an affluent hillside neighborhood not far from the stadium -- without entering through a security gate.

There's still plenty of razor wire and electric fencing, and nobody would call the drivers in this part of the country considerate. But it is energizing to actually see and feel a part of the country rather than stare at it from behind a locked door and a rolled-up window, and inspiring to walk through streets filled with life, rather than fear.

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