When I travel to South Africa, it messes with my head. Afterwards I struggle to settle back into my ho-hum routine and it takes me at least a week to recover. Trips home always make me naval gaze and I contemplate big issues like the meaning of my life, where I should settle and raise kids and where and how I can be most happy.
This trip reinforced five unique points about South Africa:
1. South Africans are awake
My uncle asked, ‘Julie why do you just exist in the UK when you can come home and live in South Africa?’ That’s the thing about South Africans – we don’t sleep walk through our lives. We really live.
South Africans smile more, talk more, forgive more and take more risks. We pump it and can do in 1 hour what the rest of the world does in 3 hours (ok, I admit there are certain people in SA that haven’t yet acquired this useful skill). We exude a warmth and spirit that other nations, particularly the European cultures don’t.
There is a special energy and contagious charisma in South Africa that I haven’t seen anywhere else in the world. You have to feel it to truly understand it. I sensed it as I walked through the arrivals hall in OR Tambo airport. I felt as if I’d woken from a stupor, like a heavy mist had lifted. I think the World Cup spectators were overwhelmed by this and that’s why the tournament was such a rip roaring success.
What gives us this resilience, this optimism, this camaraderie? Is it our hot, reliable weather or our kaleidoscope of over 11 cultures? I reckon there are rich, complex reasons for our ‘awakeness’ and I could write a thesis on it. Basically, every day we teeter on the fine line between life and death on our treacherous roads and in our crime riddled neighbourhoods. We’re lucky to simply be alive. I would parp a vuvuzela to celebrate that fact alone.
Most South Africans have guts and balls and we tend to grab life like a dog with a bone. We’re not introverted and detached like our European counterparts. Our dark tunnels of economic struggles, political instability and social depravation have kept us on our toes. Scarce jobs, rising prices and affirmative action mean we can’t afford to zone out. With the popularity of dimwit Julius Malema and his cronies on the rise, we must be more awake than ever.
For good and bad reasons, I feel alive in South Africa. I love that feeling.
2. I belong in South Africa
South Africa is my turf. It’s my hood. It’s my tribe and when I’m on South African soil, I feel I am with my people. It’s the port in my travels and the place I can truly refuel and relax.
South Africa is like my family. I believe I can criticise it as much as I want but, as soon as any foreigner or permanent SA expat does, I defend my homeland like a lioness defends her cubs. I am also more confident about asserting my rights in South Africa in the same way that it seems natural to speak my mind, open cupboards and put my feet up in my mother’s house.
3. South Africa makes me laugh
Life in South Africa is complicated and you have one of two choices – to laugh or cry. This holiday, I opted to laugh.
- I laughed when the fat Mama receptionist at the police station stretched and yawned while I queried how to get a police clearance certificate.
- I laughed when a proud mom served me in a shop and oohed and aahed about the pictures she had just printed of her daughter’s stunning matric dance dress. She whispered ‘Guess what? You’ll never believe this but, the dressmaker was black! ’
- I laughed when the police said they can’t risk keeping petty cash in a safe on their own premises as theft is a problem.
- I laughed while I organised my police clearance certificate at the Hillcrest police station. I trotted along corridors and popped my head into random offices. No one questioned who I was and why I was waltzing round the police station like I was in charge.
- I laughed at the police processing speed. Everyone who helped me did so with movements and an expression of complete exhaustion. Words came out with great effort and most of the cops had the agility of molasses and the flexibility of a rusted fork.
Only in Africa! Ha ha ha ha ha ha
4. South Africa is expensive
I am stunned by the rampant consumerism and insatiable desire for more in South Africa. There is a shopping centre on every corner and I feel like I haemorrhage cash in a way that I don’t in the UK. Here a car guard, there a car guard, everywhere a car guard – and it all adds up.
There is too much temptation in South Africa. To get into Checkers in the Hillcrest shopping centre, you have to walk past over 10 appealing shops and even the most tight-fisted people, like me, struggle against the temptation to buy something extra that we don’t actually need.
Admittedly, the obsession South Africans have with fancy malls and the shopping experience has paid off as we are more attentive to our physical appearance which makes us a joy to look at. At Fourways Mall, I was stunned by how beautiful and well groomed everyone appeared compared to the mostly pasty Brits.
Prices in South Africa have risen to the extent that I no longer felt rich and powerful with my pounds and most prices were the equivalent of Tesco and other British shops. On an average working day in the UK, I buy a £1.75 coffee and a £3 sandwich. I spent far more on unnecessary, impulsive purchases when I lived in Johannesburg.
In South Africa, when is enough enough?
5. South Africans are so lucky to have maids
How I miss my Ennie! She cleaned my house in Johannesburg for 18 months and, during that time, I met her once. She arrived after I left for work and my house was sparkling when I got home. She was like a mysterious, magic fairy.
Most South Africans pay maids in a day what Brits pay an Eastern European cleaner for an hour. South Africans are so lucky and don’t appreciate the pain of cleaning your own house every week. I got back from Durban on Sunday and the bath was covered in soapy grime and there were toothpaste stains in the sink. I said a few f-words as I cleaned it. It’s the last thing you want to do after a long haul flight but if you don’t do it yourself, no one else will.
South Africa is like the Wild West. It has its problems and its risks. It’s wild. But there is also energy, hope and opportunities for growth and entrepreneurialism. We shoot from the hip, both literally and figuratively.
There is no place like home.