I learned something new the other day – there are hand signals used by people here in South Africa who want to catch a taxi on the road side. I got this from my helper, Sannah, who comes in to clean our house twice a week. I can’t even remember how or why we got on to the subject but apparently if you whirl your hand in a circle it means you want to go to Mamelodi (one of the main residential areas in the city), pointing upwards means “town” and downwards means you are asking them to stop so you can find out where they are going.
It was like a secret that I had been let in on, like a code that only some people in this country understood. I was fascinated – but also a little embarassed that I didn’t know this already. Taking a minibus-taxi is something that the vast majority of people in this country have to do if they want to get anywhere and many spend long periods (including waiting by the side of the road at certain times of the day) simply getting to work or home.
But the reason I didn’t know about the hand signals is because I will never use one of these taxis. I have a car and on those occasions when I don’t want to drive we can use Uber. For most people however both a car and Uber are simply out of their price range and instead they have to rely on the packed, hot, uncomfortable and often pretty dangerous minibusses that are used as taxis here. And if you want to know how dangerous, just don’t ever try and get ahead of one at a red-light. These guys mean business.
Anyway all of this got me thinking – that although we often talk about living in our expat bubbles, how hard we find it to make friends with local people and to integrate, the two worlds here aren’t really between “us” (expats) and “them” (South Africans). Really, it is between us with money and jobs and cars and warm homes and security – and everyone else. We aren’t South African but in so many ways we have more in common with those locals who drive cars, send their kids to private schools, shop in the same supermarkets we do, go on holiday and basically live in “our world” than we – or they – do with everyone else.
It isn’t just South Africa of course but globally there are two completely separate worlds and I suspect few of us really ever gets to see the “other”. Sure, we go on tours and peak into homes and eat meals in downtown restaurants or sit and chat with the people who clean our homes and cut our grass. We listen to the radio and talk about politics with anyone who will listen and try and understand what it means to feel so hopeless about the state of your country that you haven’t voted in more than 20 years.
But we can’t understand it, not really, because we haven’t lived it. I don’t know what it feels like to live hand to mouth with no back up. To not know how long your job will last and if you lose it whether you will ever get another one. To fear that your children won’t ever get a job when they grow up or, worse, that they won’t survive long enough to grow up. To never have seen the sea in your own country or an elephant in the wild when you live in Africa.
So when we talk about “understanding” a country I don’t think many of us will ever really understand what life is like for (in the case of South Africa, at least) the majority of the people who live there. We can scratch the surface, we can do our best and we can keep trying but in the end the two worlds are so far apart I suspect we will never be anything but brief visitors to the other side.
To finish, another short tale. I started a discussion on a local expat Facebook page the other day about how much we should tip the people who help carry our shopping and guard our cars. Most people agreed roughly what we tip, which amounted to between 5 and 20 Rand depending what they had done for you (for perspective that is around 30p – £1). I don’t know what the local South Africans tip but hopefully if enough of us give a little each day then some of these people can at least afford to buy food.
But as well as discussing the amount we give we talked about how it made us feel. Yes I don’t particularly like following someone to my car as he (it is almost always a he here) pushes my trolley (“Princess syndrome”) and the guards that stand behind you and “guide” you out of your parking spot – often into the path of an oncoming car – drive me nuts. However, it isn’t about us and it isn’t about our feelings. Ultimately we are paying people to do a job and I can be pretty sure that most people would rather get paid for doing SOMETHING than to beg or steal.
So even though we can’t ever really know what it feels like to live on the “other side”, I think most of us can guess how hard it probably is. If all you do to help is pay as many people as possible to work for you in one way or another then you are doing something at least.
Two worlds – I wonder if there will ever be one?