Having just listened to a Newstalk 106 programme about holidaying in South Africa, I am reminded about how little people in Ireland really know about the country.
I arrived there a year and a half ago, little prepared for the realities of life in Africa. I fell in love with Cape Town, and didn't come back to Ireland until last month. Coming back here to discover the country was in a mess, and there were no jobs to be found, didn't stop me from feeling somewhat happier about the increased personal safety and security that Irish people enjoy, and take for granted.
This could not be more evident from the aforementioned talk show, where crime statistics from SA were laughed off, and the usual retorts, 'ah sure you can get mugged in Dublin' were dragged out once again.
What the presenters failed to remark on in any way, is that it is not only the number of crimes that take place that define life in South Africa - it is the extreme brutality of those crimes that sets them apart from anything that happens in Ireland.
You can be robbed by a syringe-wielding skobie on Thomas street, but chances are you won't be forced to watch your girlfriend being gang-raped, then have petrol poured over your heads and set on fire.
Now, before you accuse me of being overly dramatic, please bear in mind that what I have mentioned in passing is NOT an uncommon way for armed robbers to act in South Africa. The disdain for human life and suffering by robbers is usually racially-motivated, and the hatred and cruelty heaped upon their victims is routine.
Tourists in South Africa are often targeted. There were a spate of instances two years ago, where foreigners -often embassy staff - were followed from the airport to their hotel, where they were robbed of all their possessions. In an upmarket area of Cape Town last year, a family arrived at their self catering apartment to find a gang of thugs waiting for them. They were tied up but luckliy unharmed.
The level of brutality is inconsistant with 'mere' removal of possessions. Long after the homes and wallets have been emptied, the ordeals continue.
The above are just two examples. These crimes are hate crimes, and need to be recognised as such. You will be targeted for being white, no matter where you come from. For those Irish people who think they are loved the world over - think again. These thieves have never heard of Ireland and even if they had, they wouldn't care.
For those travelling to South Africa, proper precautions MUST be taken. Stay in 'designated' tourist areas, private game reserves and places like Sun City or the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. Pay attention to warnings given to you, and never assume that you know better. Have your wits about you, and don't bother with 'township tours'.
Having said that, it is a fantastic destination, as long as you are properly prepared. It may have shiny malls and long sandy beaches, but it is still Africa.