On Surviving the Madness of South Africa

south africa flag

Yoh, masekinders – even the most patriotic and loved-up among us would have a hard time denying that living in this country can be a bit like living with an abusive parent; you know, those really bemal ones you see in Eminem videos where the children hide in cupboards and then turn out a bit funny. And when you mention the word apartheid to the white people and hear what they say back you realise they have definitely been living in a cupboard for most of their lives. A huge one. More like a walk-in closet with a chandelier and vending machines and a cocktail bar so they’ve never had any reason to step out of it.

And all of us, even the ones who do come out of our metaphorical walk-in closets now and again and go to Shoprite to remind ourselves that we are not, in fact, living in San Fransisco, have turned out a bit funny. And you can’t blame us. It’s mad here. One minute you’re sitting at the Grand on the Beach having a lovely pomegranate daiquiri and some tuna ceviche because #paleo and wondering if that jacket will still be at the Waterfront tomorrow, and next you’ve got a rock coming through your windscreen because somebody is properly annoyed at having to spend another winter in a corrugated iron box and there goes your Woollies handbag and Marc Jacobs sunglasses and your iPhone that still has a picture of your boobs in black and white because #art.

No wonder we’re all bedondered, and that when we hear of another person emigrating to Queensland it makes us reach for the Alzam. Because, what do they know that we don’t? Are we going to be dead in our beds by next Thursday? Sometimes I have delusional episodes where I think to myself, but Europe’s not that grey, and California does look quite nice on Facebook. I have these episodes especially when I read letters to Max du Preez from President Zuma’s son calling him a ‘lier’. At those times I even manage to convince myself that living in Europe was fun, which shows you how hysterical one can get.

But then I pour myself a stiff (Inveroche) gin and come to my senses. Somewhat. As much as one who is a South African is capable of coming to their senses. And I have thoughts like this: nothing really matters, and even the things that do matter don’t matter all that much. And: life is, after all, less a complete thing than a series of moments held together in sequence, so the ‘bigger picture’ must remain remote and always a bit more conceptual than real, if you get my meaning. And for the Queensland situation, I have to say that my moments in South Africa – even given the odd rock episode – are moments that feel more like real life than the ones I’ve spent in other parts of the world. There is more humanity, more connectedness, more something that – even in my darkest hours of uncertainty and fear for the future – won’t allow itself to be ignored.

So many examples scattered over the days and the years, but two that spring to mind as I write this: finding myself at the end of my grocery shop (at Shoprite) with four bags and two hands, and the woman who packed my stuff automatically picking up two of my packets and saying she’ll carry them for me. She has no idea where my car is and doesn’t ask. I could have parked in Roggebaai for all she knows. All she sees is that I need help and that she can provide it. My car battery dying while I’m on the school run and my husband is overseas. Managing to get us all to the service station and telling the mechanic what had happened and that I was grateful to have made it. And him, without thinking, writing his cell phone number down for me and telling me if I ever get stuck again to give him a call, no problem. And I have not a moment’s doubt in my mind that he meant it. I know for sure that these things don’t happen everywhere on the planet.

One day a week I’ve been teaching at a university for bright kids who didn’t get bursaries. I don’t know how to say this without lapsing into cliché, but they’re great people, and the best antidote ever when I’m feeling suicidal after reading the paper is to go to my classroom and hang out with them. Just talk to them, hear what they think, listen to their views. Some of them are poor as hell but they’re switched-on and sharp and determined to change their worlds. And then I drive home in my nice car and think, if they can be positive, what excuse do I have? And I consider the fact that maybe the biggest challenge of all about living in South Africa is accepting the ambiguity; the fact that you’re never going to know for sure what the future, or even tomorrow, holds. This country has been on the verge of disaster for 400 years, if not more, but somehow we still manage to pop a Kaapse Vonkel and get on with life.

It would be nice to be able to navigate the world without the constant fear of that snotklap coming out of nowhere and taking you down just when you least expected it. But that’s not the deal here, and you can’t have everything. Here, you live on your toes. You bop and weave and skei for the gangster and keep your windows locked and tell the car guard he’s getting fuckall because he wasn’t here when you parked and the petrol attendant greets you like you’re his long-lost best friend and you donate your savings to your cleaner’s child so she can go to tech. Then you crap on the guy trying to mug you because does he even actually know how much you just spent on your sushi dinner and he says sorry and slinks away (true story). None of it makes sense; none of it ever will. It’s not America or Australia because it’s better and madder and richer. It’s real and broken and deluded and the only place I’ll ever call home.

We’ve been living back in South Africa for seven years now. In that time I’ve lost a measure of naiveté, gone mad with frustration, gained hope in humankind and felt more warmth and love than I know how to quantify. I have never, for a second, looked back; just been affirmed that we made the right choice. Maybe the harsh circumstances with which life presents itself here brings out the kindness in people, but there is something inside me that opens up. It makes me want to be nicer and  more switched on to the world around me. It elicits something gentle and good which I didn’t find in myself much when I lived overseas and never had to be anything but white and middle class. It’s hard to explain, but there is a part of me that becomes more of who I am here amidst the craziness of this struggling country. Unforgivably sentimental, but also true and real.

At my local Spar I’m regularly assisted by a cashier called Moreblessings. Her name is engraved on a piece of plastic pinned to her lapel. It makes me happy every time I see it, maybe because it sums up what I feel about life in SA. It will never follow the rules of logic. It will always feel wild and slightly out of control, but also beautiful and authentic and extraordinary and free. Like life is supposed to be. And I walk back to my car thinking, where else in the world are you going to find a cashier called Moreblessings? Nowhere, folks. Just, nowhere. And I thank my lucky stars.

 

 

 

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152 thoughts on “On Surviving the Madness of South Africa

  1. As an Aussie I have met quiet a few white South Africans Why are they so rude and up themselves , the men’s are the worst, the way they speak it’s like they think there shit don’t stink . Honesty it’s like the men are abusers to there wives as well the way they speak to them . We always cringe when a SA comes into work they are the hardest customers to deal with, they are like I’m so much better than you . Why come here if they act like they hate Aussies so much.

    1. Debbie, why did you bother to leave that worthless comment at the end of such a lovely story. Maybe those South Africans are right. Good grief.

    2. It’s because they are insecure. White South Africans grew up in an insular society. They grew up in a world where the rest of the world hated them. They pretend to be bakgat, and yeah, maybe that makes them arseholes. But there is a real reason behind it.

      1. We all did laugh when the husband stood over his timid wife while she asked how to operate a vacuum cleaner .i said haven’t you cleaned before and he bellows no we had blacks for that , and cleaners here want $30 an hr. Don’t they research that before they come to live that people do there own cleaning.

        1. Utter rubbish!! You make South African’s out to be stupid and unnecessarily aggressive. Yes, some people grew up with cleaners, others didn’t, but unless your parents were kak parents, every South African learned how to clean their owns homes.

          Yes, some South African’s are a bit bullish and can come across as a bit rude, but the guy you are talking about sounds like a total asshole. Before you judge a whole countries people on a few encounters, maybe you should come and visit SA, experience what we are really about, you will be eat your words, I am sure!

        1. Not lucky, those in Aus just doing the ‘laager’ thing that got us into the mess in the first place

          1. I count myself very lucky. You keep telling yourself whatever makes your life choices feel better

          2. Perhaps Jenny, it’s because those who left don’t understand that sharing what we have, both through our time and materially, is an inner pulse, a spiritual direction, a North star? And, as we have seen in Europe and the UK, there appears to be a world wide scramble to avoid that pulse because it demands of us what we think we don’t have? It demands of us to step into our vulnerability, to see and feel our empathy and that’s so damn hard at times. But to deny it is to deny that that makes us human. And so we will drift from place to place to avoid it, never realising that once we step into it we are finally home. Wherever ‘home’ is and irrespective of the challenges that ‘home’ offers. When we are connected to our North Star we fear very little because it is then that we know that life is about serving, not seeking.

    3. Susan, a wonderful article.
      In Corsica I met an italian who couldnt speak English. I couldnt speak italian but nevertheless we got by after some red wine at the fire. He summed it up “Di problem widda Europa, dere is a no more combat for life”. Well, we certainly have it here in spades.

      1. Life as combat is sad, uncertain, stressful and often desperately tragic. Having lived in Europe I find it stimulating, interesting, wonderfully historical and inspiring and providing plenty of opportunities to be challenged.

        One can have combat for life without being imprisoned behind razor wire and electric fences and fearing for the safety of one’s children.

    4. As a white male South African visiting expat friends in (Western) Australia about 19 years ago, I was struck by the apparent genuine friendliness of most Australians I came into contact with. I never got the impression that any of them saw me as full of it.

      1. Aussies are a great people! Been here 8 years now and loving it! Africa will always be in my blood, just remember our nation was started by people that moved on from where they were for better things, those of us that have left have just continued the journey.

        1. Spot on Gary. I’m in New Zealand and of course have been ups and downs, but I’m not one of those people that miss “home” because this is my home now. There is nothing wrong with people overseas, it’s just a different culture. I count myself really lucky to be where I am, and although I had a good life in SA, it was time to move on. I don’t wish to throw shade on anyone for choosing to stay in SA, and I’d like them to return that favour to those of us that have left.

    5. Maybe they are just used to decent quality service and are absolutely gobsmacked that with all our endless privilege and every single advantage, we still are cheats and lie to get out of work constantly and treat our customers like they should thank us for the privilege of taking their money.
      Not to mention how incredibly hateful and bigoted and xenophobic people like you are! South Africans are awesome. Best time of my life when I went over there, the blog is so true.
      Get over your pathetic hatred. And get a dictionary..you’re making us look bad.

    6. You are exactly what is wrong with this world, Debbie. You have met a “few” of us and then labelled our men as “abusers”. South African’s aren’t harder to deal with as customers. Germans aren’t harder to deal with as customers. Americans aren’t harder to deal with as customers. Assholes are assholes and they come in every race, shape, age, sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity. Unfortunately your experience with difficult customers happened to be South African. Please keep your stereotypes to yourself. We have very strong laws regarding being prejudice in our country. Thank God you are not over here. You would have had a law suit to deal with. How would you like it if I told you to stay of the internet and go wrestle a crocodile because that is all Aussie’s are good for?

    7. Hi Debbie.
      Always bear in mind that not all South Africans are the same but having said that, years of isolation (self-inflicted) created a defensive mentality & we had to ‘blow our own trumpets’ for so long that’s it’s a kind of habit now. We have always had bad customer service in SA & so we learn early on that ‘he who shouts the loudest gets sorted out first’. Not pretty but it works here. I hate to think how much when-we-ism you have to put up with but this is just homesickness. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that most of the South African’s in Aussie feel resentful at being ‘forced’ to leave SA. You are stuck with them now, but hang in there….they aren’t all that bad once you get to know them :-)

    8. ”the mean’s are the worst” really, the men’s what? ”honesty it’s ike the men are abusers to there wives” wow. I just hope and pray that there is a grammer god out there somewhere waiting to be as kind to you as you are to the English language…. Are you actually Australian? Didnt realize the education system down there was so bad.. I do hope you feel better, and remember what you put out is what you get back…
      What a beautiful article, just words like ”snotklap” and ”Roggebaai” make me all patriotic and wanting to stand and sing the anthem with my hand on my heart! Bravo

    9. Hello Debbie
      As a genuine South African, who has many Aussie relatives and who has actually been to Oz, let me tell you how I wished I had a pair of red slippers to click together to take me home. It is people like yourself, who are so blind, that give Australia a bad name. Your language is atrocious and your grammar is awful. I would love to know what line of work you are in?

  2. If you have no other choice but to live in South Africa you have no choice but to try to make the best of it. If you have other choices then you are fortunate because SA has only one direction, sadly, downwards and for anyone who wants some sort of civilized and secure future, then taking up any other options is a wise choice, particularly if you want a future for your children.

    Having lived in quite a few African countries, including Cape Town and Joburg, and quite a few Western countries, I know without a shadow of a doubt that life can be safe and rewarding, fulfilling, enjoyable, delightful in many countries and that the only ‘frisson’ in Africa is fear.

    Having just left another Africa sojourn of more than five years, I rejoice in no razor wire, no electric fences, no fear of driving at night and stopping at lights, no power cuts, no water cuts, no empty supermarket shelves, no ‘safe’ rooms, and no fear.

      1. It is a matter of mindset, as many things are. One wishes it were other but SA seems set on the same path as the rest of Africa, and no doubt for the same sorts of reasons.
        At the time we were living in Joburg, Mugabe visited the SA Parliament and got a standing ovation and that was a prophetic and profoundly depressing moment.

      1. Of course, Cape Town and Joburg are cities and I did not mean to infer they were countries as that would be ridiculous. Perhaps a lack of clarity on my part and misinterpretation elsewhere.

        Throughout history people have sacrificed for the sake of their children and left their homelands and that is of course, exactly how many South Africans got to be South African, whatever their ancestry.

        Africans have invade and colonised and migrated throughout the continent and everyone else has done the same thing.

        If people had not moved, in search of a better life, then Homo Sapiens would still be crammed somewhere and we would have seen no human evolution.

        In this age of air travel it is not hard for contact to be kept with family and friends and you make new friends anyway in new lives.

        It is the lack of fear and the lack of chaos which makes life out of Africa so much better.

    1. I think you are 100% right. I love the place and life is good. But it is only good for the 1 % of South Africans. If one wants to compare apples with apples, then the 1% in the rest of the world has it much better than we do.

      I can help but identify just how bad it is getting. With not much light for the future.

      1. And that is the problem. A tiny few live very well popping the ‘blue pill’ every day so they do not see or face the realities, and most live desperate Third World lives.

        Having lived in four different African countries, including SA, and having known SA now for more than 20 years, it is very clear that things are getting worse all of the time.

        The belief has been that SA is different but it is not. The problems in SA are the same problems in all other African countries, cultures sourced in self-serving corruption; an inability to have community consciousness where people can think for the good of all; entrenched tribal and chief systems which are divisive and destructive and too much aid and foreign support which creates mendicant societies and attitudes.

        The other factor is that ‘servant’ societies are always dragged down to the base level and will remain, less developed because of the structure of the system.

        Having lived in India, I saw the same thing happening. Those who live well think it is fine, but the Western, read most developed and modern world, gave up servants as they still exist in the Third World, more than a century ago and the society, culture and thinking changed because of it.

        ‘White’ South Africans think they are different, but they are not, they think like Africans, as of course, one would expect.

      1. Of course they are not countries. Who on earth would ever think they were, particularly if one has lived there?

        Who on earth would think that someone who has lived in each would think they were countries?

        Misreading on your part.

  3. Perhaps the most succinct explanation I have ever read. Thank you for a great read, the belly-laugh and a chance to re-evaluate my behavior. Well-done.

  4. I just had a disagreement with my friend about how her boyfriend who makes kak racist jokes on our expense had the white priviledge. She expects me to believe he was poor. So I asked her was he black poor or white poor. She was stunned. I’m just pissed off at older white guys always saying how they made it on their own.. Bull shit..even if you had fokkel schooling back in the day the best jobs were reserved for you. And even if you had a kak job. The fact that you were white got you a good salary and that’s a fact. I’m just repeating what we all know or should know. I’m glad fir a person like you. You’ve admitted to yourself what the reality is and in your small way is making a difference by reminding others in your position to get to reality. Please keep on reminding them and I will endeavour to do the same.

    1. You sir are a fuckwit! Apartheid ended years ago! Were you even there? Do you know how it was? So two kids started school together at the end of apartheid, went through to matric, should they then be on equal footing? One would think so, but it is not so, don’t talk shit about something you have no idea about!

  5. Thanks Susan. I love your writing. I have one criterion (concerning any country I have been to) that persuades me to stay in South Africa: How many people did I ever meet here (in 18 years living in RSA) that I would NOT want to meet again?

    The answer is just one. I will spare you the details.

    ‘Nuff said … ?.

  6. Oh my word, I loved this, and totally reflects exactly how most of us crazy people who live here feel.

    I almost cried feeling the patriotism.

  7. What you managed to capture in words is how many of us feel, Patriotic and crazy for living in tho beautiful country.

  8. Thanks for this. Been so negative lately, very un-South African of me. I guess we’re all in this mess together, and it’s up to us to fix it. #Moreblessings … lol :)

  9. Everything can be justified. Each to the own, however this comes across as another article as to why SA is great but fails to realise the irony that seeing people so poor all around while you retreat to your life of comfort is in itself a stress. I love the UK and the weather and the people. No stress, simple and rewarding. Life is all about choice, choose what makes you happy and be happy.

    1. Except we don’t retreat – we choose to stay here and make a difference . It’s an assumption that we retreat. This country offers us opportunities to recognize and step into our compassion all the time . Moving away is more about what you suggest we may be doing ? It’s just about putting more distance between you and those whose lives you could assist. Out of sight out of mind. Staying here is much harder but the possibility of spiritual growth that stepping out of our comfort zone offers is huge.

  10. I was a bouer and lifted a Zim gardener from the landscape owens we grafted with to sort out my Kakuia every second Saturday. So I phone his boss one morning tuning where is ‘ Bareing Gifts ‘ , like I have a tiny barbie and he’s gay and he just laughs and laughs at me ek se. – no bro, he’s names ……
    Ps I married a Zim lady, the best.

  11. Rosross, you are so out of touch with what’s happening around the world, notwithstanding your own backyard. Look up your own fellow countryman John Pilger. He will enlighten and inform you of your other countrymen, the Aboriginals, of their hardships, which you all choose to ignore and sweep under the carpet. With America’s military basis spread all over the northern coastlines, ready for imminent war, with peaceful countries, I wouldn’t be so smug, after all most of us know, Australia is an ally. And if it wasn’t for all the looting of the West, including your precious Australia, you would be worse off than in Africa. We are a rich continent, but with all the US & UK military bullying and destabilising, of our continent, we’re in this precarious situation. But, but the wheel turns and whilst you’re asleep, the rest of the world is waking up.
    Oh, and our men are just fine. They have a little class, sorely lacking amongst yours.

  12. ADM, there’s no stress. There are poor people and crime all over the world. And our black countrymen are on the up and up, and by ratio, there are now more wealthy and middle-class black people equal to whites. It is just that whites are hugely outnumbered, hence the lopsided picture. Watching Extreme World on Sunday night was an eye-opener to how many homeless and poor whites there are in the UK. I know of a few SA’ns who have lived over there and been violently robbed. I’ve travelled, but one is oblivious to the downside of a country when on holiday. Not every white person here is well-off, but you also do not see that from the outside. It is getting infinitely boring using SA as scapegoat, when it is worse over there. There the killing is done to others in other countries, including our continent.

  13. Beautifully captured, Susan! I just don’t get why after such a hopeful account of life in South Africa, someone who chose differently decides to spread negativity. Just don’t get it? Loved what was shared! It made me smile. It made me proud. It made me want to walk another extra mile!

    1. Thank you, Michelle. I find when I say positive things about SA it really touches a nerve with people who have left. It would be nice if they wished us well, but I think it speaks to how conflicted they are about their decision to go. It must be hard to live like that. So happy it inspired you. Big hug xxx

  14. great post it’s true, crazy place but somehow no other place feels quite real, and I don’t feel quite myself and have to try and live in my little cocoon, and not reach out too much, people don’t want our appreciate it, sad

  15. Hello Susan
    I loved your piece ‘Surviving the Madness of South Africa’ your writing is energetic and fun, just like South Africa. I am a South African in ‘purdah’ and am plotting my return to SA, just you lot wait. You describe the ‘alive feeling’ very well.
    I sort of skippped many of the ping pong – you prune, you mango, you aartapel, insultathon that arises

  16. I’m so torn by this article!! I consider myself as a citizen of the world and not a country, but alas, here I am with my SA ID and Passport, no wait, been waiting on that for a couple of months. haha! Anyway, I’ve been backpacking around Southern Africa, and in my experience, I find that you can have a much better quality of life in the countries bordering ours (excl Zim). In countries like Bots, Mozam, Nam and my favorite Malawi, you still feel that bond, that “conectedness” that you explain. I don’t think what you are describing is South African, it is being an African. No matter where you are, or where you come from, some people grow immense bonds to the pure wildness of this place. It is African, that feeling you get, when you look at the moon shimmering on a lake, or that wildly pink sunset. That is African. And I never wan’t to leave it.

  17. Brilliant as always ….touched my heart and I have read over and over again.. Thank you for your incredible talent !!

  18. All I can say from sunny Florida, USA, is that if that short-fingered vulgarian, Donald Trump, becomes president, be prepared for all of us to come back home!

      1. We visit our homeland, SA, as often as possible since emigrating decades ago. Invariably, our first encounter lifts my heart with familiarity and the knowledge that I’ll always be a South African. This crazy-quilt amalgam of warmth and humanity exists nowhere else on earth. 🇿🇦🇿🇦🇿🇦🇿🇦

  19. Great read! Thanks for this. Having lived in Mzansi for over twelve years as an ex-pat (and now back home in Toronto), there is no other place in the world that I have been where I felt so moved and shocked and overwhelmed and empathetic and connected…i.e. ALIVE…Each and every day.

  20. Whites must help one another.
    Those in squalor camps with kids must be taken in by more well to do whites and offered free or modest housing, perhaps they can end up in Orania down the road. But for now, the squalor camps offer nothing. They in turn can provide around the clock security as well living with better off whites. Please pass this idea around. We must care for our own.

  21. Susan, you nailed it on the head! What a poignant and real post, thank you it made me laugh and cry at the same time.

  22. I have been reading your blog on and off since 2013…We have decided to return to South Africa next year. I am scared and excited at the same time. I left SA 16 years ago. I have worked in Asia and the Middle East with a good income and got used to being safe. I am leaving all of that and coming home with no job offer and just our savings. We worked out we can stay unemployed for a while with our savings or maybe even start our own business. Its all crazy at the moment but we are going for it. Already bought a house that we are currently renting out. Im scared when I read about the crime but then again where in the world is it really safe anymore?

  23. Loved your article. We recently chose to move home after being away for too long. Africa is in your blood and I wish more people would realise that we have to be part of the change that needs to happen. The grass is in fact not greener on the ‘other side”. We have a lot to be very grateful for in this beautiful country of ours.

  24. What a fab article! Written from the heart and full of truth. While everyone has a different journey I would hope that we could all respect each other’s decisions even though we may make different choices :) Having emigrated twice, I love living in Australia but realise that it’s not for everyone.

  25. I think that is wonderful, but still cannot live in gated towns and burglar bar windows… I really like looking out of my windows, feeling safe and free. Are you not worried about the future?

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