Is it really fiction? The Unimaginable Realities of Crime in South Africa

It is just after dusk. I hop off the Bus. The relief is exciting because the anxiety of being inside the bus with all windows shut constantly reminds me of the Covid-19 virus that is lurking. I walk down the street of Bok, Polokwane. A group of ladies standing by the road side with their skirts way above their knees, to a point I could almost see things I do not want to mention. Smoke comes out from both their mouths and nostrils. A fancy German car hoots and all of a sudden the skirts are almost off. They get to the car, and I hear them call the driver all sorts of names. And I think to myself, these must be the most romantic and melodious names I have ever heard.

Meanwhile a man emerges out of no-where behind me. Although fascinated by the ladies of the night, I am scared of the man behind me. I increase my pace, and start jogging. Thinking, haste is a solution. Unaware that the streets at night belongs to them. They own them. They run them, and they use all means necessary to get their way. We just call them “Nyaope boys”, but the truth is, they are part of the major crime problems which go unnoticed, perhaps ignored and even unaccounted for on the streets of capitals cities.

As I walk faster, more of them peel of the walls of the fortified houses along this street. I have always thought fortification is unnecessary but now I know better. Before I know it, both my hands are held up against a vicious barbed wire, and I can feel its ruthlessness on my back. A knife raised to my forehead. Knees in between my thighs. The ladies are just watching, and the men are going on about their business. My laptop, phone, wallet, keys to my apartment and lunch box are all gone by the time ‘I am set free’.

With fear and shame I walk, and then begin jogging, to my place. I had just experienced crime at first hand and I know my life will never be the same again.

Does it all feel and sound fictitious? From a literary perspective it sure does, but it is not. Often we academics remove ourselves from reality, building glass houses in the comforts of our labs, libraries and offices. This is where we debate what are ‘thought’ to be key issues of democracy and humanity, and forget the simple things such as human dignity and safety. These are compromised on a daily basis by the system that fails to detect criminals and keep our streets safe by putting these criminals behind bars.

My research interest is in crime fiction, and now I wonder why I study a fiction of something that is already a reality. My argument has always been that fiction offers some kind of solace to victims. Now, having experienced crime at first hand, I can tell you, it does not. Your belongings forcefully and violently taken away from you by men who have made crime a career is not only psychologically damaging but also makes you question your very own right to exist and to be free. Even though writers of crime fiction exploits the genre’s popular formulae to extend its critical boundaries so that these texts can engage with the many difficult, and conflicted moral concerns that shape contemporary South African society, the genre itself does little in helping us cope with the actual crime. Perhaps it is time to engage in ‘empirical research’ and not to imagine our everyday realities through fiction.

 All these makes me question my very own scholarship and realities of everyday.  

One more thing COVID-19 and lockdowns have changed drastically: Scientific conferences

Attendees at the 18th World Congress of Basic and Clinical Pharmacology in Kyoto, Japan.

Conducting research can be one of the most laborious things for a person to do. It involves identifying gaps in the current body of knowledge and providing clues to various unanswered questions within a specific field. The approach differs slightly between various research specialties. In my field, Pharmacology, it involves reading a lot of scientific papers, planning and conducting of experiments, and ultimately publishing the obtained results in the form of journal articles and a Doctoral thesis. In all of this, there is one specifically exciting and rewarding part… sharing your findings with peers at scientific conferences.

Academic conferences are a platform where researchers meet to share research ideas and discoveries. This is usually done via oral presentations by senior researchers and presentations of posters by students. Conferences are a valuable platform that allow for collaboration and establishment of relations among academics. Typically, conferences run over a period of 4-5 days, and are a worthwhile experience, especially for young researchers.

Personally, attending conferences offered me an opportunity to travel out of the African continent for the first time. I got to travel to Lindau Germany to meet Nobel Prize winners. For any young scientist, being selected to attend the Lindau Nobel Laureates meeting is a huge privilege. Not only did I get to meet and have discussions with Nobel Laureates for the first time in my life, I also met and interacted and shared research experiences with PhD students from the most prestigious universities in the world. As a result of being selected for this meeting, I was featured in an article from the largest newspaper publishing in my city. As such, this meeting will remain a major highlight of my academic career.

From Germany, I immediately travelled to Japan to present my research findings at the 18th World Congress of Basic and Clinical Pharmacology. We had booked the return tickets to both countries during different times, and I had to first travel back to South Africa the whole day, and immediately connect to Hong Kong for a 14-hour flight, before taking another 4-hour flight to Japan. As you can imagine, I was fatigued when I got to Japan, but experiencing the difference in the landscape and way of life in Japan compared to Africa rendered the fatigue was worth it! I found one thing bizarre though, some individuals wore facial masks in public, are rare sighting in the South Africa at the time. It turns out, Japan has a long history of disease outbreaks, and with the current advent of COVID-19, I now understand why they wore masks in public. The conference was abuzz with researchers from across the globe, who shared ground-breaking findings from their individual labs.

In addition to these international conferences, local conferences have afforded me the opportunity to meet peers form various Universities in South Africa, with whom I have exchanged research findings and ideas. Conferences have also offered me an opportunity to display my presentation skills. As a consequence I was given the Young Scientist Award in Basic Pharmacology for the 2nd best podium presentation at the First Conference of Biomedical and Natural Sciences and Therapeutics in 2018, while my late colleague lab mate got the 1st prize.

Left: Myself, presenting a  poster in Kyoto Japan at a world Pharmacology conference. Right: colleagues and myself carrying awards at a National Science conference in Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Unfortunately, the global wave of lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic has rendered conducting science conferences in person a challenging task. As a result, there has been an increase in online research conferences, as a way to sustain the level of academic exchange during these difficult times. Virtual meetings have many advantages, including a decrease in the financial burden and ease of access. A screen with multiple faces (figure below), and phrases like “please mute your mic” have been a familiar feature over the past year. Although the online environment allows for easy organization of meetings, I personally feel like the social connection that usually happens during person to person interactions is lost. For example, when I am presenting I love making eye contact with people in the audience as a way of evaluating their level of concentration. This falls away when your audience is behind muted mics and cameras and all one has to stare at is a computer screen.

The 2021 South Young African Academy of Science blogging team, meeting for the first time, in a virtual meeting earlier this year.

Person to person interaction during conferences fosters the establishment of relations and collaboration amongst researchers, and this is not particularly easy to do in a virtual setting. With vaccination strategies being rolled out in various countries being rolled out, I am hopeful that COVID-19 and lockdowns will soon be a thing of the past and we can safely resume physical conferences.