On Moving Back to South Africa

A good place to remind yourself to let go and let it be.
A good place to remind yourself to let go and let it be.

When I moved back to South Africa after spending nearly a decade in northern Europe, it was with no small measure of shock that I realized I had forgotten how to live in this country. It wasn’t just the small things like not knowing where to buy stuff or at what age kids here go to school – it was a culture shock which took me entirely by surprise, having longed and yearned for home during most of my time away. In retrospect, what happened was that I lost my tough outer shell.

During those years of living in a place where egalitarianism is the norm; where nobody goes hungry and almost everybody had a roof over their heads, the thick skin you need to live in South Africa had grown soft. I couldn’t cope with the children begging at the traffic lights and the thin women with babies who knocked on the front door asking for food. Once, in Pick n Pay, I found myself behind a woman with two things in her basket – pilchards and rice. That was obviously all she could afford. Yet, she continued to walk up and down the aisles as if, magically, the contents of her wallet would increase the longer she hung around. I had to leave the shop; I couldn’t bear it.

I gave to everyone who asked me. In those early months I parted with vast sums of money. One morning I gave an old man nearly blind with cataracts R500 so that he wouldn’t be evicted from the room he shared with his son. I would stand behind people in queues and pay for all their groceries. I was in despair, and utterly outraged by the wealth surrounding the poverty and the collective blindness everyone down here seemed to practice. I shook my head at the people waving the children away from their 4X4s – as no doubt my friends shook their heads at me, wondering how I was ever going to survive living back in this country.

Then, slowly, I became immunized like everybody else. I started being more selective about who I helped; stopped taking every sob story at face value. One day a man whose groceries I was paying for asked me to hang on a second and dashed off for five minutes, coming back with wine, salmon pate and imported crackers. I hired somebody to clean and look after the girls. Before I knew it I was attending meetings with her grandson’s school principal; buying stationary for her cousin’s child, bankrolling the entire family and – by the way – being taken for the biggest ride. Slowly I started to realise I was behaving like a total imbecile, and if I couldn’t come to grips with my white guilt and accept South Africa for what it was I would be better off living in Perth.

Eventually, I stopped giving to people on the street. I guess I got tired of it – the constant, relentless need and the tales of woe coming at me each time I walked out my front door. And the gaping black hole no amount of R5 coins will ever fill. At first I was horrified by this callous version of myself. Now I’ve made peace with her. There is no other way. Random acts of kindness just don’t work down here. You need to get over yourself and understand where you’re living. The complexity of our socio-political context is impenetrable to foreigners, and you have to have lived here a long time to get it. It’s everything and nothing to do with race and colour. It’s the wild west where dog eats dog and survival of the fittest is the ethos you have to practice, even while you’re acutely aware of the injustices. It’s brutal, and you have no choice but to be as tough as nails.

You make a decision about how you’re going to give, whether of your time or your money, and then you draw the line. You pay people well, care about their families and behave like a decent human being, but you institute boundaries and you stick to them. And, paradoxically, South Africa remains the warmest, friendliest (dare I say ‘happiest’?) country I’ve ever been to, and I’ve been to many. I live in a road with a couple of B&Bs. I’m regularly accosted by tourists who want to tell me how much they love my country and its people – how they’ve never encountered such warmth and generosity of spirit and that they can’t wait to come back. And I have to agree – it’s a crazy place, but it’s beautiful and vibrant and alive. It buzzes with a kind of energy that makes me feel like I can do anything I choose. And what I probably love most of all is the freedom and the open-endedness of life down here; there is something which makes the human spirit sing. A sort of wonder at being alive which Europe – for all its fabulous old buildings – lacks. For reasons I can’t really qualify, it seems to fill people with joy.

So, what I’ve learnt over the past four years is that I can’t save Africa and, frankly, I’ve started to wonder whether it needs my saving. A while back I got a whatsapp from a friend who receives daily words of wisdom and counsel from a sage by the name of Abraham, and it was a message that challenged the way I see this country. It said, what if there is nothing ‘wrong’ with South Africa? What if it simply operates by a different set of standards and norms? What if the ‘problems’ are about us and our perceptions and that there is nothing, in fact, to fix?

Of course I interpret this in my personal paradigm that nothing is random and that this earth realm is the school of hard knocks. We come here for a certain type of experience, and we choose our setting accordingly. No, this doesn’t exempt us from doing the right thing and giving whatever we can, but it does serve as a type of reminder not to take too much to heart; to step back a bit and observe rather than taking everything on as a personal battle. Practice love. Be a good human being. But, it is what it is. It was the a-ha moment I’d been needing all along. You don’t always have to understand things to love them. Sometimes it’s the complexity and the mystery that create the firmest grip on our hearts. We all have different ways of interpreting our truth, but I felt like I ‘got’ it at last. And what a relief to lay down my panga.


231 thoughts on “On Moving Back to South Africa

  1. We wish you well for coming back home. I’ve got black friends who have left here for to the UK for more than 10 years. Maybe due to extreme poverty they experienced; they don’t even have an inkling of coming back home. They have established themselves. I think there’s a black experience and white overseas. As graduates, they stayed unemployed in SA. However, when they landed in the UK, they immediately got absorbed.

    I think our experience in this land varies especially in view of our socio economic backgrounds. I enjoyed my stay in the UK; I’m even contemplating going back. I saw opportunities that would make me thrive over there. I guess it is a case of seeing different things standing from the same window.

    Well written piece, but lacks certain fundamental social facts.

  2. Africa is not Europe and England not New Zealand. Africa has it’s own set of rules. In all South Africa is just becoming another African country where it was very Western many years ago. Understand this and you understand South Africa as part of the continent now.

    If you expect to have England value, system in South Africa you will have a hard time. Good post!

  3. I am a New Zealander that moved to South Africa. It took me a long time to come to grips with how things are here, but its a wonderful place to live.

  4. You have said all the things that I have wanted to say and couldn’t find the words. I too have had to choose the people and organisations that I support and not to feel guilty when I don’t roll down my window and hand out another R5. Yes there is crime and poverty and corruption but there is also so much else – good people trying hard to work their way through a period of transition, generosity, warmth and good will. And both of these categories have both black and white people in them. Neither is exclusively one or the other. Some of us are lucky enough to be able to make a choice about where and how we want to live. I chose to stay and make a conscious effort every day to look for and find something that is positive and working well. They are out there if you want to see them. Equally the bad stuff is out there too – keep focusing on that you and it is certain that you will never find the good.

  5. I felt similarly when I came back. You have to develop a thick skin in the sense that you cannot be crushed by all the poverty and injustice. Of course you don’t become inured to it and of course you have to do something. I agree about establishing boundaries and then choosing how to do your bit to uplift people. I think more people should try to avoid conspicuous consumption. Luxury cars in particular make no sense when we are surrounded by poverty. You’re just thumbing your nose at the poor. Downscale and donate the difference to charity.

  6. What a great article. I seriously needed to hear your positive spin on our beautiful land. Having been back in SA for 11 years after a short stint abroad, I’ve gotten to the point of irritation at constantly being drained. I pay a ton of taxes and see no benefits whatsoever. I give and give and give and still get told that all the poverty is all my fault. I’m tired of stuff not working, of rampant corruption and fraud, of those in power lining their pockets and ignoring the poverty. I love the land – no where else can compare. I love the average man and woman and give happily of my time to help. But the leaders, the police, the politicians are killing this country and my spirit. I’m pinning my hopes on the next election, the next generation and I hope that t wont be too late for my children to once again fully enjoy our country.

  7. Having lived (not really lived, merely grew older and less alive) in UK for 10 years I found I really needed to return to SA. It was and is home to me. Yes the inequality really hurts and confuses one, especially when your nature is to do good but overcoming the challenges and poverty is like climbing Everest. But the reality is that Everest can be climbed and is regularly climbed.
    It is heartbreaking to see on a daily basis the crime and corruption in South Africa and the negative effect it brings to all but a very few heartless people.
    So, how do we conquer this Everest? I suppose one step (one good deed) at a time. When we feel like giving up, we can seek encouragement from some of the best leaders SA has ever had, and we are fortunate enough to have access to, people like Desmond Tutu, a caring courageous South African.
    Just as Everest is extremely dangerous, so can South Africa be. We need to be strong and outspoken against the criminals and self serving politicians who would happily ruin South Africa for their personal gain. I truly believe that I don’t live in South Africa, rather it lives in me. It always has, even when during my 10 years in UK.
    I am nor arrogant enough to believe I have answers to this complex situation, but I do believe that by doing a bit of good whenever I can will help both my heart and my fellow South Africans who find it extremely difficult to help themselves. It is easier to live within the the confines of a secure environment than to venture outside that environment and face the challenges existing here. It is however the same as metaphorically staying at base camp when the beauty, excitement and thrills of trying to summit our own Everest are within our reach.
    How much should we be willing to give in terms of time, money, courage and emotion in our attempts to make South Africa a better place for all South Africans? I truly believe we should give until it hurts. That’s what we would do to have a better body, why can’t we do it to have a better country?

  8. Thanks for writing this, I came to South Africa 8 years ago, and got taken for a ride too many times… and everything you’ve written here is exactly what I went through… People used to ask me to loan them money for food, say they were going hungry… Till one day, I discovered that I was actually funding a drug addicts habits… It was a wakeup call.

  9. I love the positive comments! :)
    What a lovely article, and what a beautiful Country! <3
    Yes, Africa lives in us, and yes, I concur: we must help until it hurts! :)
    We live in the land of milk and honey, and we're a very young country, lots of growing up still to do, and these are merely growing pains…
    The most powerful tool we have is positivity and of course LOVE! Love WILL conquer all!

  10. Oh how true. SA born and bred.
    But I can give the kids at the traffic lights biscuits and fruit instead of money and I can give the beggar at the door a cup of soup and some bread. They have also tried to ask for more and the thick skin then comes into play. Well said.

  11. Finally someone who speaks sense!!! We have to be charitable within our own boundaries; if we break them we are of no use to anybody. As my wife says, we have to learn to be “comfortable within our hypocrisy. A smile will certainly not fill a belly, but it can help someone feel that the universe is not cruel, but merely indifferent.

  12. Its nice to see and to read everyone’s comment but for me is no more a save place to stay. Yes I know its hard to say but if a have the change to move I will. I can’t take it anymore to see whats going on in our land.

  13. It is true in a very broad sense, after all we live in South Africa and we have the rainbow nation. I would like the author to experience what a metro rail user experiences every day. The “blind singers” that sings the gospel songs for a few coins, the little boy that sings praise songs in Xhosa (so beautiful) for a few coins, the con man asking for any donations with the article from the SON newspaper about his house that burned down two years ago (and still going strong), the poor young drug addict who’s train fair got stolen (oh and so well mannered), the old diabetic lady who’s wallet was stolen with her grandchild fees for school, and in desperate need for something to eat, to the old man trying to sell a pen for a cigarette, all of these characters I meet on a daily basis, as such many of my fellow travelers, the people with the good heart, smile and give a few coins (if we have). For us we know it is there job, it is a business and the truth of a hard reality out there, at least they are trying to earn an income, they are not stealing from me or you… or are they? Try to travel on Metro rail, it is full of talented beggars that have perfected the art of trying to tug at your heart strings. This is not India, where parents break a limb for their child to earn a bigger income from begging, maybe this is also happening here under my nose, I have just been lucky enough to be spared the sight. I shudder to think of the mothers that rent out babies to other women to stand at robots to collect money… this is the harsh reality of poverty in our country, and yes while I can give I will, it is my human right as an privileged white South African.

  14. I am a South African born and bred, love the country, I left due to employment in the UK, been here for 11 yrs now, love to return but am almost on pension. To be able to live one would need a good medical aid and rent a fairly decent accommodation.

  15. I love the phrase: Sometimes it’s the complexity and the mystery that create the firmest grip on our hearts. After living in Europe, the UK and now the US I have to say that they can never compete for that grip on my heart. I wrote a bit about there being no place like home in this post: http://growingonup.wordpress.com/2013/03/27/following-the-yellow-brick-road/

  16. Go and visit a game park and you will observe how Africa really works? There is mutual respect between the various groups but they normally hang around in a herd and have sentries posted? They know who the bad/good guys are and avoid or sort them out. The young and or weak are under constant threat unless protected by the group? Welcome to Africa, keep them peeled, and be vigilant, it’s a jungle out there!!

  17. Hi Susan I was so very deeply touched by your article as well as the many responses you have received from all over the world, especially regarding returning to the beloved country. My family and I decided to return from Oz just less than a year out of Africa 11 years ago and were so blessed to have done so. Our Rainbow nation is such a unique and special one, and as you travel through our beautiful land and meet amazing people from the Cape to the Limpopo, it becomes more and more apparent to one that God has His hand on Africa and this is a very special and unique part of our amazing planet!

  18. Wouldn’t you agree though that there is something wrong with the fact that a great portion of South Africans choose to collectively be “immunized” and how this is ultimately is contributing to the economic inequality that exists?
    I can relate to this post as I too move on with my life when I return from abroad and make sure I don’t bankrupt myself with handouts. But this time I’ve found myself extremely concerned with how many people actually do very little, and much because that’s accepted and is the norm. The structure of our society and many of the “powers at be” continue to ensure that we, the privileged, can live our lives hidden from the poverty that surrounds us (at least here in Cape Town). And this is scary, because even though a lot of us are warm, generous, vibrant, friendly people, we’re forced to wear this shell and eventually it changes our perspectives and opinions.
    I’ve just returned from 5 months in Malawi and Mozambique, and I’ve realized that many of us live here in beautiful, vibrant, happy Cape Town oblivious to the seriousness of the poverty and inequality that exists around us. I don’t know if there is much we actually can do about it individually (nobody is going to ‘save Africa’), but understanding is the first step and I’m worried that many people living here really don’t understand the situation, they simply wear their tough outer shells and move on. And if most are doing that collectively, then a great portion of South Africa is going to be left behind.

    1. James has it spot on..I left cos I stopped giving and I just felt too guilty and angry and probably depressed too..my heart hardened and I wasnt able to be the person I know myself to be..ive been gone 3 months now and although I miss my friends and family im utterly relieved not to be hiding behind a tough exterior anymore. James is right..if majority of those that can help become hardened, then what?

  19. Susan, I share many of your returning experiences. Harsh reality is that South Africa is a wonderful country for people that can afford a privilege life style. It is most certainly not so great for people that live on less then 80 rand a day and that deal with night curfews due to the very real threat high incidence of violent crime and other crime . So how we define a great country is most certainly based on a perspective and experiences. What I am essentially saying is the much work needs to be done to make this country great for all.

  20. Well written piece! I agree, living, and surviving in SA is a choice to adhere to a set of unspoken “rules”. A choice to sometimes keep compassion covered up by a thick skin as not to lose it completely. It s not easy, but it is worth it in the end.

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