South Africa – what images do those words conjure up for you? Is it of elephants and lions lurking behind the bushes of Kruger National Park? The iconic Table Mountain standing sentry over Cape Town? Or maybe it’s the legacy of Nelson Mandela, one of the greatest leaders of modern time who changed history in this Rainbow Nation?
On the other hand, it might also be car-jackings and armed robberies. House invasions and corrupt police officers. Shootings on the streets of Johannesburg. Or perhaps the huge division of wealth between the shacks of inner-city townships and the shining villas of the opulent suburbs?
In fact, as I have discovered since moving here last year, it is all these things but it is also more – so much more. And the things that dominate both the negative headlines and the positive tourist brochures are often very out of proportion with the reality. In fact, just like I am sure is true for almost every country in the world, you really can’t know a country like South Africa until you live here. And even then, having been here less than a year still, I am really only scratching the surface.
The Size and the Beauty
First of all I have been totally blown away by the beauty and the diversity of South Africa. It is a huge, I mean really enormous, country. At least it is for me who comes from little old England. We have only been used to doing car journeys of an hour or two to get anywhere – a four hour trip would seem like a massive adventure! We also previously lived with our children on an even tinier island (St Lucia in the Caribbean), where the longest drive you could do was only about 2 hours long. So to find ourselves contemplating driving hundreds of kilometres for a weekend away was at first rather daunting – but we are getting used to it. And one of the reasons we are getting used to it is because there is so much to see and do we really don’t want to miss anything!
So far we have already ticked off many of those attractions that most people know about – Cape Town, Kruger, the Winelands, the whales of Hermanus. But we have discovered there is so much more to this country than the main tourist attractions – the Drakensbergs will blow you away with their majestic beauty, Madikwe is a wonderful safari park only a few hours drive from the capital, Johannesberg is in every way as interesting a city as Cape Town (and a little more hip to boot!). And there is so much more: coming up we have a trip planned to the KZN coast to include some wildlife, some diving and a lot of beautiful scenery (including a short diversion in Swaziland – that is another thing about South Africa: with both Swazi and Lesotho contained within its borders you get three for the price of one, never mind the close proximity of Mozambique, Botswana, Zimababwe and Namibia…). I also hope to drive the Garden route and up the coast, visit areas such as the Karoo and the Kalahari, explore Limpopo and Mpumalanga and so many other places with wonderful evocative names…
The Dirty Side
Of course you can’t ignore the dark side to this country and without a doubt there is a crime problem. But, and this is a big but, for me personally it is not as bad as I feared it would be. By that I in no way want to diminish the seriousness of this problem for a huge proportion of the population – you only have to look at the rape statistics or read about some of the awful home invasions to know that I am in a very priviliged position to be able to say this. However, as an expat with the backing of good physical security provided by our employer and a lot of common sense, I can go about my daily life more or less normally once you have become used to the bars and gates and locks and guards and alarms and keep doors…
But one thing I hadn’t really thought about but that concerns me far more is the high number of road traffic accidents and death toll they create. On our first weekend in the country we passed a horrific accident – there was a dead man lying in the road and two more badly injured at the side. Just yesterday we passed another here in Pretoria, two bodies lying under tarpaulin. In less than a year in this country I have seen more dead bodies due to road accidents than I have in all my life in the UK. I have lived places where the driving is a lot worse than here (apart from the minibus taxis, which are a law unto themselves) so it is hard to understand why the accident rate is so high but I wonder if it is something to do with the distances, the good roads, the fact that everyone is going to the same places at the same time…..
The Bit They REALLY Don’t Tell You About
This is the thing – what I have found hardest about living here isn’t the crime or the fear of crime but the weird underlying edginess and the racial tension that some might have thought would have disappeared after Mandela’s release in the 1990’s. But of course something like Apartheid doesn’t disappear overnight and in fact it will take generations for the problems it has caused to be resolved.
Often, I liken living here to living in an African version of the Help (the novel and then film set in 1950’s America). I live in Pretoria which I am told is the “Afrikaans heartland” and certainly in the part of the city I am in we are surrounded by affluent white people being served by black people (many of whom are immigrants from Zimbabwe and Malawi).
At the same time though there are white beggars on the street and white people leaving in their droves for other countries because thanks to a positive discrimination policy they feel they have no chance of getting a job. And the current (black) government is incredibly unpopular and yet most people I speak to won’t vote for the main opposition party because although their leader is black they are known as the “white” party. The other opposition is seen as a bit mad by most but has a charasmatic and clever leader and is gaining popularity amongst the disffected youth. There are things happening here – like students burning down their own universities – which may or may not be connected to race but is somehow all tied up in the same problems of an unhappy younger generation. The so-called “born free” children (those born after Apartheid ended) are starting to reach maturity and starting to question why life for them isn’t that much better than it was for their parents. It is a hot cauldron of bubbling tension that feels like it could overflow at any point. Add to that an economic crisis not helped by one of the worst droughts on record and this definitely feels like a country on the edge.
And yet my life here is wonderful. I realise that I am priviliged and my life does not in any way reflect that of the majority of South Africans. But I can enjoy gorgeous weather, beautiful countryside, cheap prices (thanks to the weak Rand – sorry South Africans!), good food, some of the best wine in the world and daily interactions with some of the friendliest people on the planet.
It’s a unique place alright but that is one of the reasons I love it!