Why has our society become so isolated and distrusting?

Moms and Dads of the world- please forgive me, but I do talk to strangers.

I know, I know. It’s a cruel, dangerous, uninsurable world out there. But this is not about to read like a lesson in “How to Chat Up Strangers and Get Yourself Kidnapped”. This is an exploration of how some of the rules we’ve constructed to help us live safely might actually might be blinding us to fuller, richer, more colourful lives.

Kloof Street Art

Here’s my gripe:

Over the years — through travels, cultural exchanges and serendipitous conversations — I’ve found it deeply ironic, and somewhat troubling, that I and those with me are typically more open to meeting everyone and trying everything as visitors in a foreign city, but we return home to a society that is inherently fearful and distrustful of its members.

I’m no sociologist, but I imagine that decades of international isolation, suburban idealism, technologically-accelerated inequalities and a generally depressing media, all contribute to a South African psyche of self-defense — whether we’re conscious of it or not. Given our appalling crime stats and less-than-desirable public service standards, it is little wonder that we do not advise walking home alone — or walking anywhere at all for that matter.

Because, you know, “you’re just making yourself a target, Dear.”

Pseudo-academic theories considered, I still cannot find an acceptable justification for this…this inconsistency of citizenship. (Think of citizenship as more than just the legal — but the psychological and emotional — sense of belonging to a place too.)

Upper Kloof

Don’t get me wrong — informed senses of personal safety, street-savviness and contextual awareness are essential in a country where the odds are not expected to be in our favour; but not to the extent that it turns us into reclusive, prejudiced, distrustful citizens…or motivates us to enshrine access-controlled (read: economically-exclusive) communities. (These communities take on many forms: from the more obvious residential-retail complexes, schools, offices and shopping centres; to the less obvious petrol station cafés, restaurants, bars, cinemas, parks, beaches and roads.)

So here’s what I see — based on on-going observations in a field called The City —

The more we fear each other, the less we trust each other. The less we trust, the less we open up to each other, and the less we learn about each other. And the less we know, or understand, about each other, the more we fear each other. And so on and so forth until fear (and Facebook) diminish what little experience of neighbourliness we have left.

In short: fear desensitises.

But here’s my next hunch — based on trial experiments whilst living, working and playing in said field —

Somewhere between being besties with everyone and a paranoid recluse lies the neighbourhood-building power of opening up, saying Hello, and taking the streets less travelled.

If you’re ready for some academic theories (bell-curves depicting optimum conditions for urban happiness and so forth) you should stop reading now. But if you’ll indulge me, what follows are a few anecdotes of the makings of a more neighbourly city (a city that is gritty, multi-modal, mixed-use, retro-future and still the kind of place you’d want to raise a family in) as well as one big idea about the role diversity plays in all of it.


So after a fair amount of time living in Cape Town’s central city (enough time for the novelty to wear off) I find myself reporting daily activities like these:

Whilst my building’s laundry machine did its thing, I cycled over to Natalie (manager of my favourite restaurant) to drop off a batch of cookies; picked up my shoes that Chris (trader over at Greenmarket Square) had fixed for me; and then popped into the gallery to see what’s up. Came back home, hung up my laundry to dry, and made some tea…

Coming from a girl who grew up where errands are run inside shopping malls, and where someone else is usually employed to do the washing, this new narrative is so bloody romantic. This is what I have been dreaming of since I watched Rachel run into Central Perk in a wedding dress.

Every day of life in the city could be my own episode of Friends.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. Shopping malls are nearby enough; and even without a car there are buses to help me with any heavy lifting. I’ve just chosen not to exercise that option as far as I can help it. For me, that choice has made all the difference. Had I just avoided all spaces that did not resemble familiar retail centres, I probably never would have learned about Chris-the-Cobbler and his proud tradition of craftsmanship (that is extremely affordable might I add), and his story of building a successful business as a foreigner in Cape Town. I might never have gained the mentor that Chris has become. Had I simply shuttled myself to the nearest neon-lit SALE sign, I might have missed the delightful mix of old Dutch and post-modern architecture fencing the maze of marquees of Greenmarket Square.

Greenmarket Sq Shoe Repair

In this, I find a different sense of security. (That is, after I call my embarrassed self out for having barriers in the first place — barriers based on the buyer-seller, local-foreign, young-old, female-male interaction that dictated a far more impersonal interaction.)

Why should any of this matter? Who really cares where my shirts come from, or what the surrounding buildings look like? As long as the shirts are presentable and the buildings are economically-active — right?

No. At least not for me. I believe that it a large chunk of the quality of life lies in the quality of the seemingly ordinary activities of everyday. I believe that the time and space between destinations we set for ourselves are no less important than the destinations themselves.

It makes mathematical sense to me too. The proportion of our lives spent preparing for, traveling to, returning from and waiting for is…huge.

(If you’ve ever arrived at work cursing the traffic — or the barista who took the express out of your morning espresso — and have found yourself bemoaning the state of the nation the rest of the day, then you already know what I’m talking about.)

These seemingly mundane interactions and activities matter. Our sense of context, community, adventure and joy are all influenced by the routes we take; people we encounter; the things we see-smell-touch-hear; and — above all — our responses to it all.

So with the choice to live in the central city, for instance, comes the opportunity to build a life — to actively construct a navigable, nurturing network (of places, people and things) that promotes a sense of neighbourhood so strong that Jerry Seinfeld himself will be whistling down my road in search of falafel. At my disposal I’ve got the city’s mix of historic and new; public and private; secular and devout; local and foreign; craft and canned. I don’t know many home-makers with this overwhelmingly exciting toolkit.

Currywurst at St George's Mall

Such are the easily overlooked nuances of the city that make the fabric of the city a wearable source of warmth. Granted, it has its frayed edges of dodgy characters, douche-bags, petty criminals, and pedestrians who will death-stare you as they jaywalk at a snail’s pace. But what city centre doesn’t?

To ignore, rush past, or hastily dismiss that (people or place or thing) which simply “too unfamiliar, and therefore of little value”, would be to deny oneself the undefined joys of opening up to one’s environment and taking it all in — bit by colourful bit. And yet we do it all the time. We — who’ve grown up to transact more than we interact. We — who blinker ourselves to the touch-points of a touch-screen. We — who forget that a wave meant“Greetings” before it meant “Not interested.”

What I’m getting at is this:

In pursuit of familiarity, I fear we lose diversity. This is not a diversity that is derived from grandiose soccer World Cups or free New Years’ parties on public squares. These big events are wonderful, sure. They remind us of the awesomeness of coming together untethered by class, nationality, race and gender. But they do little to cultivate a deeper culture, and daily practice, of diversity. This is also not a diversity that can be gained by donning a Kenyan Masai blanket (guilty) and celebrating multiculturalism (although I’m in full support of an African textiles revival). This is diversity that must be practised in order to be realised.

Adderley Street Flower Market

In a society engrained with self-defence biases based on historical segregations, growing classism, and xenophobic entitlement (to name but a few social villains), we’ve lost out on decades of cultural exchange and enlightenment at the human scale. And it’s going to take a sincere, conscious effort to interrogate these unconscious biases, challenge them, unlearn them and start living with diversity — not merely among it.

This is a sense of diversity that is experiential in the smallest of ways — one that comes from taking the side streets home; from sharing a bench with a homeless person; or from sharing an umbrella with a stranger at a bus stop and walking away with unanticipated pan-African perspectives (true story).

These might sound like ordinary urban occurrences to some — hardly worthy of an entire essay. But when the predominant social paradigm is“each to their own… as long it’s not in my backyard”, every conscious decision to shift perspective from outsider-looking-in, to eye-to-eye at street-level, is a victory for community-building. I find a visceral optimism in that, one that makes me want to be besties with everybody and sing in Cape Town’s sideways rain.

Now who wouldn’t want more romantic days like that?

(This article originally appeared on Medium on 10 June 2014.)