September 15th, 2003

Whoever has a razor wire business in South Africa...

...must be making money like mad. And the folks who build security fences, too.

You can often tell whether a neighborhood is dangerous by looking for certain cues. Unfortunately, one of the signs I look for is totally useless here.

In the States, if you see bars on the windows and razor wire topped fences, you're probably in a bad neighborhood. By that measure, all of South Africa is a bad neighborhood. Even in expensive suburbs (in fact, *particularly* in expensive suburbs), houses have bars on the windows and razor wire. Some even have electrified wire along the top of their enclosing walls.

And most houses have signs from ADT, Chubb, or some other security company saying "Armed Response", meaning that if you trespass, some rent-a-cop will come and shoot you.

I'm guessing much of this is required by the insurance companies as a condition of homeowners insurance, but it is daunting anyhow.

I'm staying in the suburbs of Nelspruit, the capital of Mpumalanga province, in a neighborhood with a Southern Californian feel. Except for the massive amounts of security fencing. Oh, and the mean-looking dogs behind the fences.

A South African idea which has really cleaned up the environment here.

At the supermarket (and, I guess, most other places), you have to pay for plastic bags. It's only on the order of 10-15 cents (1.3 to 2 US cents) a bag, but vaguely annoying.

It wasn't until I talked to Jason, a South African on the bus with me, that I found out why this was. It turns out that not only do you pay for the bags but if you turn them in you can get a small amount back. "There used to be so many plastic bags along the roads we used to call them the national flower of South Africa," he said.

The contrast with Swaziland, where I've just been, is striking. There, plastic bags still litter the countryside. Here in South Africa, you can see some other litter, but not a plastic bag in sight.

It's a little thing but it seems to work.