Monday, May 30, 2011

Thoughts from South Africa

This week’s Southern Man – Letter from New Zealand comes to you from South Africa.

This is my first trip back for around a year. I thought I might share some thoughts with you.

· The sunsets – as magnificent as ever. There is nothing like an African sunset. I can’t even describe the colour of our sun here just before it sets – it isn’t orange and it isn’t red – it is something in between. Fiery but comforting. I can understand why the ancestors worshiped it.

· Everything is far more expensive. When I first started coming here 20 years ago this month I thought the place was pretty cheap. Even ten years ago. No longer – it is anything but cheap. Even with real money.

· Woolworths cooked chickens – still the best cooked chickens on the planet. But what happened to being able to buy a half? Now I just pig out on the whole thing!

· Middle class South Africa is getting poorer – I made a prediction about ten years ago having assisted many Zimbabweans that South Africa will in the end financially trap much of the skilled middle class who will if they decide to emigrate no longer be able to afford it. I get the strong feeling that day is here for many. Unfortunately.

· Unemployment is still going up and is now officially 25% yet the country has extreme skills shortages. Plenty from the skilled classes have left (at last count around one million – mainly whites – have voted with their feet). A social and economic time bomb quietly ticking.

· Poverty – I just cannot get used to it. Coming from a country like New Zealand I do not think you can ever get used to it. Our ‘poor’ may not lead glamorous lives but they get a (three bedroom Government owned) house to live in and nobody goes hungry.

· Politics – there are local elections this week. Strangely and possibly uniquely, the country votes on a Wednesday and everyone gets a holiday to do it. What exactly is wrong with voting on weekends?? South Africans seem to always be on holiday.

· Direction signs at the airport are almost all green, black and yellow – the colours of the ruling ANC party – coincidence or subtle propaganda?

· Frustrated people – road rage rules. It all spills over when people get behind the wheels of their cars. Ugly and frightening.

· Political standards are shall we say, not as high as they might be. The Minister for State Security’s wife was sentenced to serve twelve years in jail for cocaine importation while I was here. The Minister saw no reason to resign. Did he think the white powder under her nose was incorrectly applied make up? The wife works as Director ofHealth Servicesfor a local Municipality……

· Corruption from the top down is as bad as ever – you can’t pick up a paper without reading about who in Central or Local Government is on the take and they deny it with wonderfully straight faces;

· Politicians can sing ‘Kill the Boer”, tell their supporters ‘All whites are criminals’ and should be treated accordingly and one of the President’s favourite campaign songs is ‘Pass me my machine gun’. Senior politicans can stand up in Court and ask ‘Hate speech? You are joking…..’

· You can still get really great wine really cheap. A man could easily slide into a life of quaffing the finest wines around here without denting the bank balance.

· South Africans still walk r-e-a-l-l-y slowly – do these people have all day to get to Nandos for that chicken and chips and then back to the office?

· If so why do they drive so fast as if today is their last? (given the driving habits of many and if road death statistics are any indicator - for many it probably is).

· Cape Town– at last it has sorted out its airport. Nice. Pity the porters are so, well, persistent. I only carry one suitcase when I travel but thanks for the constant offers of assistance guys. Thanks. But no. Thanks. Really nice of you but no. Thanks. No. No I won’t tip you because I have just hauled my own suitcase to the taxi while you walked along beside me.

· The weather – you gotta love the weather but I forget how chilly Johannesburg gets at this time of year – always feels colder than Auckland (no humidity). Cape Town airport, sunny, cloudless sky and 25 degrees yet 20 minutes drive away at the Waterfront - sea fog, windy and 15 degrees. What is this? Auckland? Four seasons in two suburbs?

· It never rains in Durban – except when I am here apparently.

· The whole countryside is a tip – rubbish everywhere.

· Gautrain in Johannesburg – what a marvel. I, along with the other 4 people catching this train after my arrival in SA, each had a carriage to ourselves.

I assumed some dignitary was arriving in town and the platform had been cleared such was the security from airport platform to Sandton. I felt like President Zuma – carriage to myself and personal security posse!

The 15 minute ride cost me about NZ$20. A taxi would have cost me five times as much. I can but extend my thanks to those hard pressed South African taxpayers who have stumped up something like R35 billion (nearly NZ$7 billion) so folk like me don’t have to risk death with the local taxi fraternity and their fellow road users.

Wish Auckland had one of them.

Thank you South Africa. And your great grandchildren who I suspect will still be paying for it.

Oh and did I mention I was robbed at knifepoint by two thugs in Cape Town? I was walking back to my hotel at 2pm at the Waterfront which is the main tourist area for those of you that know the Mother City.

I had been thinking as I walked along a very main road lined by beautiful multi million rand waterfront apartments how nice it must be to live in one but I had noticed the security was intense. Fences, electrified wire around the top, boom gates, security guards – what price luxury I asked myself?

Then I found out first hand why.

Seemingly from nowhere two guys approached and asked for money (as they do here). I said I had nothing and then one of them pulled a knife. Thug number one was standing in front of me and thug number two behind. I found some coins (as you suddenly do) but they said they wanted ‘notes’. I assumed they didn’t mean they wanted me to hum a tune.

I told them I was not giving them any more money, went to push past and then thug number one waved his knife at me and said 'Don't make me use it'.

No time for arguing I thought and quickly pulled a R20 note out of my pocket. Then the other guy wanted some and he had an even bigger knife. So he got R30 but he still demanded more.
And I started to sweat ever so in a country of 50 million people could I be alone on this footpath with my new friends?

I had a satchel slung over my shoulder with my wallet and cellphone in it but pushed the second guy out of the way and said I didn't have any more. He still demanded more and was flashing the knife so I turned my pockets inside out and said I haven't got any #$@! more. What I was thinking 'But I wish I had a BIG $#@! gun........'

All the while cars roared past.

Could happen anywhere? Yes I guess it could but it just seems to happen a whole lot more in South Africa.

Wouldn’t happen in Knysna right?

Nice to be back in South Africa where I love the sunsets, the red wine, most of the people but strangely always feel safer inside the game reserves with the wild animals than outside them with the humans.

Which is where I am headed for a couple of days R and R.

South Africaremains a beautiful country but it just ain’t beautiful enough any more to make people stay.

Until next week (with I hope less excitement in my life)

Iain MacLeod - The Southern Man

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