A robbery and a reflection

by nathan thanki

*This is a little something from the start of week 2 in Durban that got sucked into the confusion and only resurfaced now, with some minor edits for clarity. 

The Earth in Bracket’s team had a rough old time of it this morning. And no, it wasn’t from staying up all night letting off some steam at the NGO beach party (that was the night before). It was something much more undeserved.

We were robbed.

Waking up as usual this morning, bright eyed and bushy tailed at 6.45am, some members of the team began to ask where all their stuff had gone to. The 11 bed dorm has been messy at the best of times, and things get moved around, so it took us a few minutes to realize what had happened. Then alarm bells started ringing. “Where’s my laptop?” “I don’t know, where is mine?” Possibly even worse, as it is less understandable, “where are my shoes?”

As we slept, exhausted from the madness of the first week at COP17, two men (it was later revealed by CCTV) had broken in to our room, rummaged around for 20 minutes, and then made off with their (our) loot. Phones, laptops, cameras, clothes, all halfway to Johannesburg by now. The reasons why some were targeted and others not is unclear, which adds to our frustration. Sheer luck, I guess. Needless to say we were upset, and furious that this could happen. So far the hostel staff and management have proven to be fairly useless, even if comforting. A police task force was called, who knows what they’ll manage to do though. Our expectations are low, and the robbed seem to be taking it all very gracefully and are accepting what’s happened.

What’s ironic about the whole incident is that it is the closest brush with the reality of South Africa that we have had. Durban was bleached clean and the homeless swept away in anticipation of this COP. Roads re-routed, ANC extras bused in to staff the ICC. Everything sanitary, everything good. The robbery was an unfortunate reminder of the truth; that this is what life in South Africa is like. You’re either scared of being robbed in your barbed-wire and electric fence compound, or you’re on the outside trying to get in. South Africa is a confusing mix of developed and developing, and the harsh economic realities and scars of an oppressive past came to visit us last night. We suffered the trauma of being robbed as we slept–that feeling of vulnerability–and it was awful. But at the same time, can we imagine what a whole lifetime of being that vulnerable would be like? In South Africa 12% of the population lives on less than $2 a day. That’s a kind of vulnerability that dwarfs our own, no matter how keenly we felt it this morning.

Understanding any place you visit is important, even if difficult. We have therefore a double incentive to put extra effort into learning the local context. As we follow the circus of environmental diplomacy around the world, whether it is to Rio, or Qatar, or Bangkok, or even Washington, we should be mindful to do this learning as much as we are mindful to learn the jargon acronyms and UN structures. One thing that could help us is if we made our logistical preparations earlier, and had them out of the way. We would then not end up in the only hostel that has rooms free because it has been robbed repeatedly. We would spend less time on rushing through payments, designing business cards, figuring out where the bus stops or where to buy groceries. Rather we could devote more time to understand, for example, the drivers of crime in South Africa. We could investigate the impact that hosting the UN circus has on a developing country city. And we could focus more easily on explaining why Durban was such a disaster from a policy view as well as a personal security one.

All things to think about when we’re back on terra firma at COA…


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