Trip to South Africa My Thoughts on Life, People and Politics

I arrived in South Africa under the impression that everything functioned with the efficiency associated with an industrialized society. This was a misconception on my part.

When I arrived, Donnette, whose work depends entirely on the internet had not had e-mail access for two weeks as Telcomsa was having problems. The telephone landlines are totally erratic. Getting anything fixed involved many long and expensive calls on a cell phone reporting the problem. Getting to someone who actually knew what they were talking about was a long, frustrating process.

People in the service sector, in the main were,pleasant enough and there were some who positively bowled me over with their charm. But businesses do not seem, to me at least, to be interested in creating long term customers The emphasis is on the here and now. Donnette and I went to print flyers. We were charged separately for 10 minutes of computer time, downloading the pdf file and printing the files – Fair enough. Donnette then asked the assistent if he would guillotine the pages. Yes, he could at fifty cents per page. Donnette and the assistants started laughing at the shocked expression on my face. We only had a few pages so Donnette did the job. The things that can be charged for as extras are amazing showing great ingenuity.

Public services which fail to offer a regular, efficient service are particularly fierce when it comes to settling bills. If customers are even one day late in settling telephone, water or electricity bills the service is disconected and a 50% late charge added.

Another misconception of mine was as to how the countryside and people would look. Perhaps I have watched too many wildlife programmes filed in the dry season when all looks, brown and dessicated. My visit co-incided with an exceptionally wet summer which had led to rivers bursting their banks. KwaZulu Natal is incredibly beautiful and was a radiant green while I was there. It soon became apparent to me how many common English garden plants are actually indigenous to Southern Africa. The trees were of indigenous species unknown (or so it seemed to me) in West Africa. The Drakensberg Mountains rose in the background and the landscape in a strange way reminded me of parts of England – no wonder English settlers were attracted here. I never stopped exclaming how beautiful the views were.

The West African urban street scene is vibrant, bustling and colourful. The areas if Pietermarizberg that it was safe to visit were dull and lifeless as if time had stood still. It had not always been like that I was assured. Many people remembered a time when it was safe to sit in a park or attend some event or other. It was only later that I realized central Pietermaritzberg (the capital of KwaZulu Natal) must have been very much a “White” area in the days of apartheid.

To experience a more lively atmosphere it is necessary to venture into what were formerly the areas exclusive to the “Indians” and “Blacks”. In West Africa people are out and about wearing bright prints fashioned into traditional garments. At least in the areas of KwaZulu Natal which I visited people were dressed in a very drab and uninteresting manner. I realize that there are still beautiful traditional costumes which are worn on special occassions. My remark is specific to everyday wear.
Women from the less affluent groups seemed to all wear long skirts or dresses with what to my eyes was an odd assortment of accompanying garments. I remember one “Zulu” lady wrapped in a heavy winter coat proceeding with great dignity along the road. She looked like a Guy Fawkes figure but was quite beautiful in her dignity and strength.

I have never in my life encountered so many seriously overweight people of both sexes. I was told that this is due to poor diet on the part of both the “Afrikaans” and “Zulu” populations. The “Afrikaaners” and “White” population in general love meat – biltong (dried meat) boereworse (sausage), droe worse (dry salami) and incredibly calorific pastries such as koeksister (a fried plaited sweet soaked in syrup). There are advertisements for slimming salons and slimming pills and potions everywhere. I did not gain the impression that exercise was on such peoples agenda. Having made that comment there were many young people to be seen out cycling and jogging.

The Zulu diet is very heavy on carbohydrates and people seem to gain weight even though they work hard physically. What really upset me was seeing children who are already reaching morbidly obese proportions. The link between obesity and ill health does not seem to be made.

Everyone is affected by the Global Economic Recession. Young people of all races are trying to emigrate and find jobs overseas. The New Constitution of South Africa is not, very unfortunately, a level playing field for all its citizens. I was informed that “Whites” are not eligible for state child maintenance or for free schooling or free health care.. If this is so (while personally understanding the psychology behind the ruling) still cannot condone any laws which do not give all citizens equal rights. While it may be that “White” South Africans still belong to the more affluent strata of society there are many who are struggling to pay school fees and pay medical bills. Not everyone can afford medical insurance. I know of people who can no longer afford to buy their long-term prescribed medication.

As everywhere there are always people who are not prepared to do anything to help themsleves. There is a well known “White” woman who stands in the middle of the road at a crossroads holding a cardboard sign. She is a beggar and has operated on this spot for years. Morning and evening she is transported to and from her pitch by car. She owns a house. Many years ago the owner of a local restaurant offered to train her as a waitress. He was prepared to pay her a basic wage (not normally offered) and said she would also get commission. The offer was refused because the woman maintained she could make more money by begging. I was not able to find out who actually gave her money. One suggestion was that the “Indian” Muslim community might be generous to her.

KwaZulu Natal has the largest population of “Indian” origin in South Africa. Some people have been in South Africa for so long that where they came from on the Indian subcontinent is unknown to them and they have never been out of South Africa. There are two distinct groups some being Muslims and others Hindu. Many people of “Indian”descent feel that their contribution in the struggle against apartheid has not been sufficiently recognized and that they are still discriminated against.

The Malls are filled with frail, ancient and often disabled “White” South Africans. Somewhat to my surprise I felt deeply sorry for them. It is not easy in the later years of life to adjust to massive social and economic changes.

In the same way I felt incredibly sad at the thought that so many “Black” South Africans are still without basic amenities, schools and often without hope. Things are improving but the question is will they improve fast enough for the masses who were promised so much.

All the people who I met on my trip were open and friendly – truly delightful. But it will always be a searing pain and deep sadness to me that I as a fellow African was never able to meet any “Black” South Africans on a social basis. My friends one “White” one “Indian” do not see and have never seen people in terms of colour. They behave in the same friendly and courteous manner to everyone. One friend got herself into trouble with the authorities for helping “Black” South Africans . The father of my other friend was a political activist who had to flee the country and spent twenty years in exile in England.

Once this friend and I were on our way to the Ladies rest Room with women of all colours when I remarked that not so long ago we would all have had to use different facilities. My friend started to tell me about that period. Suddenly I felt that the subject would be too painful for both of us and I backed off.

Apartheid created for South Africans a life where everything from birth to death was regulated by skin colour. Real social contact between groups became virtually impossible. Now South Africa finds itself in a position where people do want to get to know each other but do not necessarily know how to build bridges. It appeared to me that the different groups do not seem to know a great deal about one another. Out of this diversity a common South African culture needs to be built. A culture which everyone can identify with. The “Rainbow Nation” still lies in the future.

This will clearly not happen overnight. Schools are integrated and all pupils must learn Afrikaans and an African language. This is a big step forward but real integration will take time. I went to South Africa to promote my children’s book “Tales My Ghanaian Grandmother Told Me” but I would dearly love to return to do work connected with culture and education or lecturing teachers on the benefits of Dance and Movement Therapy for children with Special Needs.


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