I grew up in small towns. A few of them did not even have what we call "robots" and the rest of the world "traffic lights" and none had tarred roads. To be sure we were safe enough to drive around on proper bicycles without imported aluminium extra-light frames or even gears or a front brake. Nope, we had back wheel brakes to do a proper sliding stop hoping not to fall off and if so not to tear our clothes as mom would take a dim view on hooligan behaviour and become violent. If you were really rich you may have had a shrill bell on the handling bars and everyone had an air pump as punctures were part of life. We could and did fix them within in minutes sitting next to the road grinning at your mates who may or may not wait for you. The bicycles gave us much freedom and we would race everywhere with them and they had balloon type tires, not the thin racing kind you see today. Those were proper bikes and helmets unknown and unwanted. Perhaps a decent bush hat and that was it.
Truth to be told we were rather wild in relation to what I see today. Each one of us could shoot and knew about hunting rifles by the time we were seven years old. Our knowledge on ammunition would have astonished most and all of us were as innocent in the ways of the world as could be. The girls, we were pre-teens, were for intends and purposed the same as the boys. They did not have ladies bicycles and could shoot as well (even better I am sad to admit) than us. And have no doubt, if needs be they would start punching and you better then run away unable to return the blows since she is a girl (in theory) and your dad will kick your ass for defending yourself. As they grew up and we realised they were different from us in a nice way and they stopped the attacks. That too is good, the way God designed us.
There was danger in those days unlike what we have today. After all this was in the middle seventies and in that place wild animals were to be found in your garden if not streets. I will never forget one old tribal chief arriving with the carcasses of two donkey attacked by lion one day. He needed my dad to issue a permit to shoot the lions and brought the evidence with. I am not sure what happened then, the lions were probably hunted down as being dangerous to everyone as this kraal (Afrikaans, village) was less than five miles outside our place. And that shows you what can happen in Africa in those days (not today, or perhaps still, I don't know).
The fact that there was lions around bothered us more than the idea of terrorists roaming the bush with AK47s. We had often seen the Police Counter Insurgency ooms (Afrikaans, adult men) passing through grinning from ear to ear. They had tracked down these terrorists and killed them. One teacher was a police reservist and showed us a boot he said was taken from a terrorist. It hung on his farm gate as a warning. As with most male teachers he married into money in the form of a farmer's daughter and became rather wealthy overnight. As a man he was a liar, that boot, I studied it, was not from a terrorist. It had the wrong chevron patterns on it but I suppose he wanted to make a point that we needed to be more careful.
The opposite happened and we organised our own gangs to search for more terrorists. As you can imagine this was well outside the need to know basis for adults and especially our parents. We had as weapons our pellet guns (air rifles) and one .22 rifle (single shot with five round the possessor stole from his elder brother, then eleven) and so we set out looking for spoor. We could track with the best of them but to be sure we got a few black kids we knew (they lived in the townships and had their own school) with us. They only had ketties (Afrikaans, slingshots) with them but fancied their chances as they were rather deadly with it. I have no doubts to today we could have tracked any terrorist group down but we would have lost the subsequent gunfight.
So why am I mentioning this to you? I stated yesterday on Facebook what makes America (or any other country applicable) great to me is the children playing ball or whatever they want to in the streets. Yep, I look at the houses and I don't see six foot high electric fences, guard dogs, CCTV, intruder beams and alarm systems linked to armed response. I see normality, not a warzone with concerned parents not even willing to let their children ride a bike down the street in the suburbs.
Where had it gone wrong I wonder? Back in the late eighties I was a sergeant in the Flying Squad, an elite unit driving fast cars and attending serious crimes like genuine murder (not a knife fight between drunks) and terrorist attacks. One complainant, he was elderly then, asked me if he should invest in an alarm system. I looked at him suspiciously wondering why he would spread seditious rumours by asking me if a private company can replace the South African Police Force. I was about to arrest him as I was pissed off and said "Oom, ons is binne vier minute van wanneer oom 10111 bel hier by oom en ons moer of skiet alles wat voorkom." (Afrikaans, Sir, we respond within four minutes of you calling 10111 and we will sort out what needs to be sorted.")
The idea of us not being there on the crime scene within four minutes never came up for discussion. That was our orders and our Colonel (bless his soul) would take a very dim view of you being late and would want to know if you feel comfortable in the nice Ford Siera XR6 or Golf GTi the police issued you? And if so then why the f are you then not driving at maximum speed? Are you not grateful for the honour of being in the Flying Squad? In fact he was starting to wonder that you may not be Flying Squad material and hence to be returned to your unit which was the ultimate disgrace. Next time you would be there within four minutes even after stopping to arrest a fellow who did not give way for your blue light and siren. He would be lying in the trunk bleeding whilst you attend to the real complainant. You can read about this in my Mean Streets police books.
I can tell you that today the four minute rule became the "four weeks" rule and soon it will be the "don't bother" rule. Our once proud police force is now our not so proud police service and held in contempt (unfairly at times) by almost everyone I know or talk to. It is so sad and the results are no kids in the streets anymore. So next time you see kids playing amongst unfenced houses remember that you are seeing safety in a country where the system is still working nicely indeed. No matter what else may be wrong, you are privileged beyond belief. What you see as a warzone we see as normal. We forgot how to play in the streets.
Koos Kotze is a former member of the South African Police Force. He served between 1985 and 1991 primarily as a sergeant in the Pretoria Flying Squad. After leaving the Police Force he obtained the law degrees B Iuris & LLB at the University of the Free State (Bloemfontein, South Africa) and was a practicing commercial law attorney for eight years. He also wrote several books on business, law, counter terrorism and security issues. He is a widower and lives in Bloemfontein, South Africa.