My father, who has lived in South Africa for 40 years, was in London and the news he brought with him was not good. It was not as bad as it could have been but it put reports about unbridled gun and knife crimes in Britain into a certain perspective. My half sister, who has been car-jacked twice in recent months, was held up in her own home by armed robbers. The first time she was car-jacked the thieves demanded she hand over the vehicle keys while her toddler son was still in his car seat. She refused point blank and thankfully someone turned up and scared them off. This time she was holding her baby daughter gunmen burst into her home. My nephew was having his afternoon nap and as they tied her up, still clutching the baby for dear life, she was beside herself with fear that might wake up and walk in fearing if he surprised the intruders they might shoot. It goes without saying she was petrified about them targeting her children rather than her. In the event, they took her valuables and skedaddled. She was lucky. Not so long ago robbers shot dead her sister-in-law and she knows, or knows of, numerous others who have been through the same or similarly terrifying experiences. Most of what was taken is covered by insurance, sadly what can never be replaced is the childlike faith she had before that she was invincible: that everything would be all right and that nothing bad would happen to her or her family. In some ways it's what having children does to you anyway; it hones that fearful timorous yellow streak until it gleams and makes you neurotically convinced every bus, bullet and disaster has your name - or more terrifyingly your child's name - on it. South Africa's crime wave means it is not just a neurosis but a real threat; I don't know how people live with that on a daily basis without going slightly mad.
A continent away, the fear is diluted to a dread of opening emails from anyone I know in South African for fear of what terrible news they will impart. Crime in South Africa, declares my father, is "out of control". Having said that in almost the same breath he proclaims South Africa to be "the greatest country on earth" and that he could not, would not live anywhere else. He finds London dirty, overcrowded, hectic, noisy and says he could never live here. He is as critical of Paris and not only because it is full of French people ("your grandfather would be turning in his grave to think you married a Frenchman," he says and I think he is only half joking.) He misses the big African sky and vast open spaces almost as soon as he arrives in Europe.
I say: "But it's not all bad here. The odds are against being shot dead getting into your car or in your own home." He nods and says: "You have a point, but after a while in Africa you become an African."