South Africa: You think you know a country and then you move there…..

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.

When you think of South Africa is this what you see?

When you think of South Africa is this what you see?

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…

Namibia road trip....

Namibia road trip….

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).

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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

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!

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11 thoughts on “South Africa: You think you know a country and then you move there…..

  1. Nice piece. You understand the country well after being there for such a short time. When I moved to SA as a teenager I remember being totally freaked out by the endless skies and vastness of the landscape…nothing like the neat English countryside!
    The race thing is always tricky to assess, and I think a large part of your impressions could possibly stem from the fact that you live in Pretoria. It’s the Afrikaner heartland that’s for sure! That being said there wonderfully liberal and tolerant Afrikaans people all over the country. I’ve lived in Cape Town and Durban and I’m not sure the racial tensions are that obvious there…although they do exist in the older generations.
    The Help reference I don’t agree with 🙂 Unemployment is at epidemic proportions and finding a job as a domestic worker often means a regular salary, a roof over your head, and often schooling for your kids and a sense of family. Of course there are exceptions but many many people treat their domestic workers like family.
    SA is such a complicated country and I love the fact that you are curious and fair 🙂

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    • I definitely agree that some of the most friendly people I have met here are youg Afrikaaners; on the other hand our neighbours who literally live opposite us have never said one word to us, not one, not even hello when we first arrived! It is very odd. I totally agree about the fact that a domestic job is a good job for many and certainly this is how I have always treated it, our helper is treated with respect and kindness and I am in awe of what a great job she does. But nevertheless I have never met a white person here who cleans houses. Again it could just be where I live, but there is a race divide here still. I think probably less so in other parts of the country, even as close as Johannesburg. The Help reference though was as much to do with my lifeystle and that of others like me as so many of us can’t work due to restrictions on our visas etc as well as lack of opportunity – so there is a lot more meeting in coffee shops than we ever did back home 🙂

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  2. Very nice post. Where was the elephant picture taken? It looks so un-South-Africa-like, if you know what I mean:-)

    I really think you summed up well many of the sentiments I’ve also felt. I also have thought of “The Help” many times while living there. Yes, domestic helpers need those jobs to support their families, but they still exemplify the huge divide that is still there. Many are treated very well by their employers – like family, yes, with the employers often even funding retirement – but in many ways South Africa is still a patriarchal society.

    And yes, road traffic accidents are appalling. I’ve always said the same – don’t fear crime as much as traffic! I think this is mostly caused by minibus taxis – they are often not roadworthy, and they are almost always crammed too full. There needs to be better public transport – it’s shameful how a country with the size and economy of SA doesn’t have a better public transport infrastructure. The Gautrain has only scratched the surface. Busses, busses, and more busses, or light rail, or whatever, is needed in the cities, esp Johannesburg. The taxi cartels are a law onto themselves and resist the introduction of buses, of course, but that is what’s needed. And functioning robots and a city governance that fields complaints and repairs in a timely manner… Sigh, so much to be done, and yes, DA-led Cape Town is an example of some things can improve, although even there there is much ground left to cover.

    And yet – love this last point of yours. Beautiful country, perhaps precisely because its contradictions, and especially because of its wonderful people.

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    • Thanks! The elephant pic was taking at Olifants camp in Kruger – I’m not sure if you have been there but you stay up high over the river with the most amazing views. Due to the drought there was very little water so we were able to sit watching the animals coming in to drink at the river, it was like a wildlife documentary. At one point a hyena was prowling around and all these poor animals with babies were trying to come down to the water but working out the best way to avoid him. One giraffe was desperate for a drink but of course this is when they are at their most vulnerable so it took him around an hour to pluck up the courage!
      As for the transport issue, have you been following the latest taxi/Uber wars? It makes my blood boil! It’s impossible to regulate these damn taxis because they just start shooting people! Plus their vehicles are filled with breadwinners so every time there is an accident they aren’t just harming all the people in the minibus (plus anyone else they happen to hit) but all those people who rely on the wages of the passengers…..

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  3. Love what an honest entry this was. I think one of the toughest parts about blogging about a new country is sharing the positive AND the negative without feeling like you are offending your host country and you balanced this nicely! Glad to hear you are still enjoying it there too!

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    • Thank you! As much as I love SA I would be doing any reader considering moving here a misjustice if I only talked about how wonderful it was. It is wonderful, don’t get me wrong, but it is important to know that moving somewhere isn’t always what you think it is going to be. I am sure if was true for you moving to the Netherlands too – I bet it isn’t all bicycles and tulips!

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      • Oh it’s definitely not all bicycles and tulips but it doesn’t have the safety concerns of SA. I have a friend that just moved here from living in Cape Town her whole life. The sense of freedom that she has for herself and her girls, of not worrying about the violence, etc, she said is amazing. Having only ever lived in first world countries, I think I often take that safety for granted.

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  4. Lucky you for having the chance to do some fab exploring around SA. I also often feel so torn by the two sides to living in Nairobi. A huge privilege but also scarily ‘real’ at times (especially when you see those road traffic accidents). #preconceptionsvsreality

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