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.





180 thoughts on “On Surviving the Madness of South Africa

  1. So this made me cry a little and feel a little more lonely in my safe and predictable life here in California. You article is really on point, I loved reading it.

  2. Oh oh oh oh oh my sentiments EXACTLY!! It really came home to me when I asked the car guard for R5.00 in turn for my R10.00 (because I had already dished out R30 to 3 guards and there were at least 2 to go) and my 20-year-old son (who was with me) refused to SPEAK to me for a WEEK!!!! “How can you drive an Audi Mum and ask the guard for change…..!!!:
    Again I was reminded that this schizo country offers our children lessons in compassion like no other country. They may die poor one day my boys but they will die feeling connected and happy.

    And then my gardener Leonard Jack who sat outside Musi for HOURS on the morning (by then late afternoon) of the Argus for me to come whizzing past. It was our first hug. And then I cried for the next 10 km’s.
    Oh I am so glad someone other than me waits, like an abused woman, for her snot klap but wouldn’t dream of that being a reason to go anywhere,

  3. Net so masekinders! Tight around the chest but conscious of every breath. Risky but alive – more than can be said of life in the great white north. I love your blog. Thanks for writing

    1. “Tight around the chest but….” jissie…
      NOW I know what that feeling is!! Never thought of it like that, but SO accurate.

  4. Well written and sums up why we all hang onto our lives in Africa….its not for sissies…hence our amazing sense of humour, we would be lost in some European blizzard without it. Keep it up !!

  5. You nailed it, yet again. Utterly brilliant. You capture everything I feel (and think) with every fibre and I laugh and cry with recognition Xxx

  6. This made me a little teary eyed because it is so true and hits at the heart of what the better half of us all feel every day. Thanks, I needed to read that to reaffirm why I still choose South Africa every day. Also, your writing is bladdy wonderful. x

  7. As always thought provoking, humorous and a good read. My daughter lived in Holland for 7 years and came back a year ago. She never wants to move back, probably with the same feelings of “I belong here”, despite the odds. And where else in the world will you find a big grown up white male with the name of “Duifie?” And once we had a tea lady with the name” Goodness gracious me” Strus bob.

  8. Great piece. It’s what most of us SA’ns think, but it could be worse if we were unfortunate to be born a Syrian, Iraqi, or Afghan, or the north in Africa, where we and our families would be bombed or maimed daily by those ‘peacefully civilised’ western countries for having been born on the rich soil of the earth. Conversely, we may have even bigger problems in SA from those ‘peaceful civilised’ western countries, so eloquently pointed out in Money Monster now on circuit and tie it in with Malema disrupting parliament. He was in the UK last year, no wonder. Zuma is too cheeky for the west. Or worse, be killed by our very own government like the people on 9/11, or Paris shootings, shown clearly by truthers like Ken O Keefe or George Galloway or Richard Gage, men of substance and so many others. Where they do not steal your cell phone or mug you, or sorry wait, yes they do and so much more. Queensland, a country so racist against it’s own Aboriginal people, it separates the mother from it’s newborn, never to be seen again. Many ex-pats are returning home, because the grass is not greener over there, it just takes more manure, especially when you’ve watched Extreme World on SABC 3 last night and all the homeless white people in London, like it’s on another planet also called London when you think of the jobless super-rich royals and a Youtube video-“the lie we live”. SA is far from perfect, but then where else in the world is. The world needs new heroes, who can spread peace and harmony and maybe it should start with mothers and their children, meaning both sexes if you watch Hilary or Trump, one steeped in wars, the other a pathological incoherent liar, . We can start by boycotting the violent kiddy movies and computer games coming mostly out of Hollywood, and instil harmony and peace in our younger generations, not only for a safer SA, but the world.

  9. Lol! It’s a crazy place that’s for sure. I’m very happy to watch from afar and visit occasionally while I meet equally interesting characters who aren’t intent on snotklapping me or my kids. Being ‘nothing’ more than white and middle class is pretty damn awesome.

    1. I totally appreciate what the author is saying, but I wholeheartedly agree with you Jenny!

  10. 😂😂😂,Masekind jy is mal Qha Qwaba! ( in a lovely way)… You paint the picture so eloquent in your truth and undiluted…

    lol @ that Alzam, reading this alone makes one wants to reach for one or two of those…. Maybe a warning beforehand… As for the QLD “situation”😂😂😂😂 I feel you, just the other day I walked into a South African shop geez the “hostility” lol topic for another day…

    As for “more blessings” only in Zimbabwe they give special names like that and am sure the sister must be “Lovemore”👍🏾👍🏾..
    Namaste !form this Xhosa in QLD….

  11. Great writing, and funny, but naive to think RSA is the only place where people are kind and caring to strangers. If stepping out of the “cupboard with crystal chandelier” elsewhere in the world, you’ll also notice more than a fair share of random acts of kindness. The two elderly ladies who gave me a 40 euro concert ticket free when they saw me sitting alone and slightly sad at a cafe, the restaurant owner who gave me his phone number to make sure I get home OK with my kids after I insisted to drive home in a storm, the random couple who insisted to follow me home to make sure we are ok, the cleaning lady who brought her own furniture to our house to help a guest with back ache (without being asked)…I can go on and on. Not arguing that SA is a great place with unique culture…but when it comes to kindness it is not ahead of anywhere else. Just get out of those cupboards wherever you are and you’ll experience it.

    1. 100% agree – I have been blessed by kind people too and I haven’t lived in SA for many years.

  12. So funny and beautifully written ….. But what made me really well up are all the comments ! The people make this country …. Lived in UK and now back – much MUCH happier here

  13. Makes me “can’t wait” even more for our return, in two years, to the moederland. By then we will have been out of South Africa for nearly twenty years and let me tell you, there is nowhere in the world I would rather retire to than back home.

  14. Are these desperate reassurances or a real victory over despair?
    Who cares. VIVA today Viva now.

    Beautiful……more more….no stop it.

  15. Thank you so much. Loved the article and all the comments. We live in Ireland at the moment and the whole ‘health and safety’ issue drives me wild. If my kids get told to get down from climbing a tree again (because they might fall and then what might happen?) I might cry or swear or both. Here’s the thing- risk and life go hand in hand. We love Ireland- lots of amazing people here and beautiful moments to be had. But we’re really looking forward to a 7 weeks back in KZN where our kids can go barefoot, climb trees and we can live simpler if not slightly more vigilant lives for a while.

  16. I could not have read this at a more appropriate time. Durban is blazing today with rioters, well, rioting, over some ANC candidate drama. I have felt VERY disillusioned about our country – but reading this has settled me somewhat. Thank you!

  17. I found myself reading your beautifully written article, and nodding and muttering in agreement… What a gorgeous insight and so poignantly you have brought it to life: like the other comments, I too needed to read that today, because we all find ourselves at a crossroads and it helps draw things back into perspective. At least for a sultry moment.

  18. I’d rather run the risk of a violent death in South Africa than the certainty of dying of boredom in Australia.

    1. Lol, what aspect of Australia do you find boring – the lack of violent crime? If so, then yes, I think you would find it deeply boring. I am a South African living in Sydney and I’ll tell you it’s anything but.

  19. Thank you so much for your insights. I know your feelings exactly having lived through quite a number of those episodes myself. I have lived abroad and enjoyed every moment, but when arriving in Cape Town and seeing THE mountain and hearing the flower sellers’ banter I know I am home

  20. So beautifully written…so much laughter…and a big lump in my throat. I love South Africa so much…have never been able to fully articulate that feeling…which you have done so “bladdy well”.

  21. This is a delightful piece on the art of living, on a particularly unique peninsula named The Cape of Good Hope.

    There is no place on earth like South Africa, and it IS really a land filled with friendly, funny people and idyllic weather.
    It is the place we call home and being away from it makes us feel homesick.

    But, and yes there is a beeg BUT:

    1. The Cape is just a few years away from being like Gauteng
    2. Multitudes of frustrated, starving people live in Limpopo, Mpumalanga, North West Province, Free State, Northern Cape and Eastern Cape.
    Do you think that they feel the same as this ‘privileged person” who yearns for the promise that could have been South Africa?
    3. There are 50 million disillusioned people who want more, and 4 million fortunate people who also want more.
    That is the time-bomb which homesickness and nostalgia is not going to wish away.
    4. We do not have a government of guardians who have a passion to invest to preserve the Rainbow.
    They have become greedy, ‘care-less’, bloated rulers. That is the truth.
    Rose coloured glasses and scintillating sentences are not going to colour them differently.

    This is not a tale about Alice in Wonderland.
    This is the land of harsh reality where brutality has become the norm.
    This is the land of the truths by Max Du Preez and, ‘still acceptable to too many’, the tyranny of a ruling party.

    I am tired of making excuses about the excesses and obscenities so that I can justify being South African.
    I weep as I watch us revert to the barbarism that we thought would retreat after the defeat of Apartheid.

  22. Spot on and absolutely wonderful! The every day reminders of human kindness and awareness despite the “snotklaps”… and also all the above examples – brilliant. Thank you!

  23. Your piece is well timed. I was having a similar conversation with my sister-in-law and niece this weekend (visiting from Cape Town and Prague respectively). My sister-in-law was telling me about a food blogger she follows who lives round the corner from her and I happened to mention I follow your blog. Turns out said sister-in-law (Lynne Moss) went hiking with your other half in Namibia (Fish River Canyon) and has subsequently had you both round to hers in Rose Bank. Couldn’t believe it!

  24. It is beautiful Susan. You could be quite right. I have tried to understand it for years. From Sweden.

    Sent from my iPad


  25. I love your blog. I read one of yours about 2 years ago while living in Canada and it helped me deal with the emptiness inside that I felt being away from my home. It helped me make my decision to finally move home and be whole again! I love this place. Thank you so much for the positivity you put back out there about our special place. Positive vibes = positive life! Thank you for helping me. Keep doing what you’re doing!

  26. After ten years in the UK – moved not because of the politics but to marry a Pom – we are moving back. You article voiced my sentiments exactly. I made a life here because I had to but slowly cam to the realisation that I was a different person here. Nothing here makes me better, fulfills me or answers the need of my soul. As has already been said, I would sooner live a full life with risk than a safe existence in this dull, miserable and maddeningly over-safe country. I also greatly commend your writing – a thing of beauty to read today.

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