It’s Still Ayoba, Babies

As you will have noticed, I took a long sabbatical away from my blog. I had a few reasons: it’s time-consuming; posts can take me an entire day and I don’t earn any money off it, so paid work has to come first. Then, trolls abound on this thing called the internet and it’s upsetting and exhausting being the recipient of gratuitous viciousness. But most significantly of all – and it’s hard to admit this – I started to get swept up in the bad stuff and the negativity surrounding our country, and I wasn’t sure I agreed with myself anymore. And that was a problem.

One thing about this space is that I’m not answerable to anybody; I write what I believe and I always tell the truth. Or, my truth. Which is why, over the years, people have learnt to trust me and they reach out for an agenda-less version of what life is really like in South Africa. ‘Is it okay to come here to study?’ foreign students ask me. Yes! I tell them, and they come (and sometimes never leave). Or, South Africans come back from Australia and the UK and write to tell me how the blog helped them make their decision and that they’ve never been happier in their lives. 

But loadshedding has been hard on the collective psyche. Covid was a disaster for us economically, never mind the foolishness of some of our lockdown laws. Cyril and his mattress have let us down (where are his words, that Scorpio?) Crime, corruption and unemployment are rampant thanks to our useless government. How to live with all these truisms and maintain a positive outlook without sounding downright silly became a challenge. Over coffee a while back a friend said, ‘you wrote those early blogs nearly a decade ago. Would you say the same things today?’ And I had to honestly answer, no. And answering no made me sad. 

But then I went to Europe on holiday. I get that going to Europe on holiday is the domain of the privileged few, and if I didn’t have a husband whose family and work are based in northern Europe we would certainly not be able to do our annual trek. But I do, and we did. And my word, did it ruk me right in about 14 seconds. It’s so easy to get mired down by the problems this country faces. And I don’t mean to minimise how hard life is for many people. But there are still so many amazingnesses to life down here and we forget them because we are used to them and we think everything must be better in The Overseas because there is less crime. 

But it’s not, my guys. I promise you. Especially now after Covid. They are kakking off for real, just like us. It’s easy to lose perspective and to start envying people in other parts of the world, but a month overseas opened my eyes and changed my mindset (thank G-d). Like the Buddhists say, two people can walk down the same road and have a totally different experience of it. It’s what you choose to see. And often you need to leave for a bit in order to understand how rich and joy-filled and sunny and privileged our lives here still are. 

Yes, many things don’t work but so many things do and we don’t often focus on that part of the narrative. I’m not going to go into a whole story, but I will say that I learnt some important things talking to my friends who live abroad: that the schools in many parts of Europe are struggling to cope with the massive influx of foreign children from war-torn countries who don’t speak the language and are traumatised. Teachers and school staff are trying their best to integrate them, but while they do this, local children – inevitably – get overlooked. A friend’s 8-year-old still couldn’t read. Some schools in downtown Malmö (southern Sweden) have classes where the learners are 100% foreign, usually Arabic. A close friend of mine is a librarian in one of these schools. It is not easy for anyone. Swedish families don’t want to send their kids there because none of the learners speak the language. Teaching these children Swedish takes priority, so everything is slowed down. Native Swedes move away from certain areas for this reason. Just like here. 

The healthcare systems are overburdened and no longer working very well (I’m trying to be fair; many people will tell you they don’t work at all). Friends in Sweden (who already pay a premium in tax) are having to take out private medical insurance at huge expense because you wait so long to see a doctor, even longer to see a specialist and years to get surgery. Trains are overfilled, late or don’t run at all because staff were laid off during Covid and have not been re-hired. It’s tough times out there, not just for us. Europe is fantastic, has lots more money than we do and a buffer to cope with crises like our recent pandemic, but it is not the utopia many South Africans imagine it to be. I love Scandinavia deeply and miss it and look forward to going back each year, but it’s a mistake to believe everything beyond our borders is better. 

The other day outside gym I bumped into a friend I hadn’t seen in some years. He is very negative about South Africa. I understand his reasons. He is a civil servant who finds himself on the wrong side of history. His teenage daughter just did a scholastic exchange in Germany. He wants to move to Germany. ‘It’s so free there,’ he enthused. ‘She can take public transport at night.’ ‘She can,’ I agreed. ‘One can take public transport at night. But then you have to live amongst Germans.’ I have nothing against Germans. My granny was German. I am fully one-quarter German. I love Berlin; it’s one of my all-time favourite cities. I love Rostock and its Christmas market. I play Alphaville in my car.

But what people don’t realise is that when you move to another country, you gain some things but you also lose a lot of things. More things than you understand when you’ve never done it. You are not moving to South Africa without the crime, you are moving to Germany with German weather and German traditions and German rules and German Germanness. Culture shock is real and it’s lonely AF always being the odd one out. Never getting the joke. And I don’t mean to be rude but my goodness, I have visited a few times and not eaten one single good meal in that country. Even the eisbein is shocking. They boil it, for the love of. They do it much better at The Dros in Stellenbosch for a fraction of the price. 

Also, Paris. We were just there. We stayed in a very fashionable, hellishly expensive apartment in Montmartre. To call it compact would be an understatement. The whole thing was about 25 square meters in diameter. You climbed a narrow, frighteningly steep staircase to get to the seventh floor. You climbed into a cupboard to use the toilet. Everything was miniature, like a Barbie house. At 2am on a Monday morning the noise from the street made it impossible to sleep. It was hot (and due to get much hotter in the ensuing months), but if you opened a window you got eaten alive by mosquitoes. Paris is every version of magical; the entire city is like a movie set, but it’s noisy and busy and the food is expensive AF – and, frankly, underwhelming. You get better French food on Bree Street and at my friend, Marlene’s, house. I love Paris. But we live well here. And honestly, the croissants taste the same as anywhere.

Here, you go to Gallow’s Hill to renew your driver’s license and people say salaam and molo, sisi. You might wait a bit, but the people in the queue will be friendly and chatty and share their granny’s chicken masala recipe with you. Or you go to the Labia cinema on a Sunday night with your mom who has a dicky knee and can’t walk far but there’s nowhere close to park so you tell the parking attendant of your situation and three seconds later he’s whipped a couple of cones out the way and is directing you to park on the pavement meters away from your show. I mean. It’s a thing. Try that shit anywhere else, they’ll arrest you. Despite all the stuff we deal with, there is always a friendly word; a ready smile. A joke. A sense of humanity that makes you feel like you’re part of something. You’re with your people. They’re mad and they dress funny, but they’re yours. 

And expensive things are affordable. To get your hair highlighted or your teeth fixed or to buy a nice steak in Paris or Denmark, or order a bottle of wine (or anything) in a restaurant and you’ll pay out your bunghole. Yes, there is good public transport. You’ll wait for your bus in a wet little cubicle with smokers, your nice shoes in a bag because you’ll have to walk a way from the bus stop to your destination. It won’t be cheap. You’ll have at least one stop on the way where you will repeat the process. It will take you a decade to get there. In the end you just stop going out. Or, we did, especially when we had young kids. It’s just too hard. Here, an Uber on a Saturday night costs you R30. Or you drive. There’ll be no traffic and plenty of places to park. A bottle of nice wine costs the same as a glass of shit wine in Sweden. Restaurant food is better and incomparably cheaper. Things in SA are easy and accessible in a way they are just not in Europe (or Australia or the States). We don’t know how good we have it.

I’m sure, after a while, I’m going to get grumpy about Eskom again, but right now I’m so happy to be home it doesn’t even phase me. I light candles, read by the light of a paraffin lamp and spend some time gazing out of my window at the darkness of the African night. Out there, in all those houses and apartment blocks, are people who know who Riaan Cruywagen is and love Marc Lottering and are cross about the fishpaste. You don’t know how precious this until you don’t have it anymore. Your country, your tribe. There is something very comforting about knowing where your home is. Anyway, I’m back. Thanks for waiting.


98 thoughts on “It’s Still Ayoba, Babies

  1. Thank you. I needed this as confirmation that my saffer-type thinking isn’t denial – – or just me being provincial (as my husband like to say 🤣)
    PS. I write this (feeling homesick) -from a larnie house in Pasedena CA.

  2. Great post thank you Susan. A credit to you that you tell it straight. We moved to the UK 5 years ago by force of circumstance. We are privileged and there are great benefits but we are definitely kakking off, and it will get worse as winter comes and we have to pay the energy bills. Your post reminded me why for good reason we still feel heartsore. It was reassuring. We left our souls behind. We have tried our best to assimilate and make friends. Supposedly people speak English but often it sounds like a foreign language and they don’t speak the taal. We left friends, family, the character and the energy. Good to reconnect, thank you.

  3. Yay ! I’m so glad you are back. I’ve missed both your straight talking and positive thoughts. Holidays are great, but please no more sabbaticals for at least seven years. Thank you for the great reads!

  4. Thank you so much for such an uplifting reminder, you have been missed! Since covid most of my family have left, constantly on my back to do the same, I will be forwarding your blog to them! ;)

  5. So lovely to have your ‘straight talk’ again Susan – I actually wondered the other day whether you’d fallen off the bus! Thank you for the reminder of the fact that life in Zaffa is actually full of texture and flavour – nothing bland about it!

    I live in Durban and during the riots in July last year (it was terrifying and apocalyptic whilst the sisters in Cape Town were sipping cappuccinos and getting their nails done) a friend who is Canadian was trying to see if he could get us out. Well the oddest of things was that instead of being grateful and relieved that we might be able to leave, I was frozen about the thought of leaving. It was and is ridiculous that the alternative to chaos, the peace and frigidness of Canada put me in such a hole. Weird people aren’t we those who absolutely love this crazy land and her people.

    1. Haha, am also in Durban and can totally relate. I literally joined every FB group about emigration… Yet I’m still here and don’t even feel the push to semigrate, nevermind emigrate!!!

  6. Your blog always lands in my inbox when I most need to read it. I’ve been battling with the negativity myself recently, feeling stupid for my determination to stay in SA, and no longer able to sound convincing in my own ears when I have conversations with people who are just as determined to leave – or who say “you’re still young, you should get out of here while you can. I would.” I’ve started hearing myself apologising for wanting to live here because it sounds so illogical in the face of everything. And it’s even harder because my husband has been job hunting …and that starts conversations I have always avoided, about being a white male in SA, and about how much more available jobs are (and how much healthier economies are) overseas. So thank you for being the fellow crazy I needed to keep believing this is where I want to be. I needed to read this today, so much that you brought tears to my eyes. This is home – thank you for the reminder xxx

    1. Hey Laura. Our sons are also young and could not imagine living anywhere else – both so committed to making SA and the continent work.My eldest boy, white,has never struggled to find work in private equity consulting and the younger is studying a Masters in Paris centered specifically on development in Africa. You are not alone – stick to what feels right.

      1. Thank you so much, Helen. It’s a relief and a huge encouragement to hear from a like-minded Saffer community xx

  7. It’s wonderful to have you writing again Susan. You so succinctly describe the very same feelings I have about my life. We split our time between Cape Town and London (my husband is English) and I am always so grateful to be back home when we arrive at CPT and I see the mountain and the sunset. Thanks for sharing.


  8. It really is a matter of perspective and counting your blessings, no matter where one lives. Thanks for your blog, it’s like a breath of fresh air!

  9. So much that you say is so on point. I emigrated to a country that speaks English and I live in an area that reminds me so much of Johannesburg and Pretoria.
    So many countries in Europe are feeling and showing the effects of legal and illegal immigration that I don’t know how they will ever be the way they used to be ( for eg, the schools in downtown Sweden).
    Sure there are many problems in SA but almost just as many in most other countries. If you make a choice to move hopefully you can accept it all and adapt. Everyone who stays in South Africa is lucky in that they live with their history and culture every day and don’t have to learn a new way of life.

  10. So excited to see you back again. I have been following you for years and so enjoy your wacky sense of humor and what you write about is so relevant to what we staffers are experiencing on a daily basis.
    Robyn Cape Town

  11. The only thing worse than the roast chicken and open shoe ban, was missing your uniquely brilliant words. I laughed out loud while crying – and I guess that sums up what it is to be in love with this crazy amazing place. Still so very ayoba. Thank you for you.

  12. I stumbled accross your page, a great read. We left SA for Australia 30 years ago this year! Australia is an amazing country and we are well and truly Australian now, however… there is still after all these years… an underlying feeling of something missing! And its family and friends, we were a large close connected family and all nephews and neices are now adults and we missed that and therefore have lost touch with them. Life moves on… life is fluid.. we safe(er) we still have crime here, our wine is (almost) as good as Stellenbosch, but even after 30 years, we dont have the huge inner circle of family and friends. So yes, we own our own home, live in a gorgeous country, have friends, one family member joined us… but SA will always be in our blood .. part of our heartbeat… part of who we are… always.

  13. I always appreciate reading your insights, so thank you for spending your time on this blog! I am sitting here in the USO lounge in Newark on my way back from an amazing 3 weeks in Windhoek and the Cape and I ask myself what is really so beneficial about living in the US. Yes, the kids education is a big factor, but we will be empty nesters soon so its time to reassess where we want to live for the next chapter of our life!

  14. Once one’s basic needs are met, life’s joy and/or problems will follow you wherever you go, no matter the label you wear, the brand of car you drive, or wine or meal placed front of you. Appreciating the little things in life feels good and helps with shifting the focus away from talk about perceived desirable neighbourhoods, cities, countries, shops, labels, and fancy wine cultivars and meals. Try it!

  15. I loved this blog! As a returning Saffa and often wondering if I should leave again, it was good to be reminded that the grass is not always greener on the other side, why I came back and why I am still here. Not quite sure I agree with your croissant comment…or maybe you just need to share where in SA you buy croissants as good as in Paris :-)

  16. Hi Susan, Welcome back, always enjoy reading your articles. An especially the positive message that you convey. However, please avoid stating that Scandinavia / Germany and Paris represent that only options for emigration. I agree with your view of what living is these countries would be like, But that these countries. Not North America or Canada. Where life is very different, not without some challenges, but not as doom and gloom as the countries your mentioned. For a more balanced view – I would love to hear feedback on this article from Ex-Pats who have settled down in other countries (like myself)…or do you write specifically to a South African audience , living in South Africa?

    1. Hi Rob, thank you, it is nice to be back. Obviously there are countless South Africans living abroad who love it and would not return. Some of them are my friends. I loved many things about Scandinavia when I lived there; I still do. The point of this blog is to offer a less widely shared narrative – that not everything is better in Europe (and Canada and North America). Many people who have not had the privilege of living overseas and traveling widely don’t have the perspective that that experience affords. Sometimes it needs to be pointed out. That’s all.

      1. Hi Susan – Thank you for your response.
        I fully understand and appreciate your point of view. As I still have family in South Africa, and wish nothing but the best for them. Originally from Uitenhage (yeah, I admit it !! ) and Port Elizabeth, with family still living in George. Sometimes I feel that I am more freaked out about the “goings on” in SA than my family. How their “new normal” has evolved into sometime not normal for the rest of us. But continually hope for the best, and contact them around load shedding. :)

        Regarding immigrating to another country, wherever you go for whatever reason, ensure that you are running TO a country, rather than running AWAY.
        Note that it’s just a series of trade offs. You trade one thing for another, and hopefully, the result of all these trade off is more positives (gains) than negatives (losses). You’ll do this calculation many times in years to come.
        Trade off – 1st World Country, Education, Safety, Amazing travel opportunities etc… against losing family connections, ie, No Grand Parents / Cousins / Aunts never being able to show kids where you grew up etc…
        Even now, my kids struggle to understand that our decision deprived them of having local family. It can be tough.
        My 15 year old daughter declared that she will always be South African, even though she was born in Canada, and has visited twice….which I think is kinda cool !!!
        Stay Safe, knowing that you live in Cape Town, arguably the most beautiful city in the world !!
        Best regards,
        Rob (Vancouver)

  17. Hi, it is so nice to have you back writing your blogs again, you were really missed. Your blogs always state what many South Africans feel as well. Thank you.

  18. What a load of crock. Going on holiday is a lot different to living overseas and when you take your blinkers off and compare the entire SA (townships, informal settlements etc) with the entire of another country then come tell people how nice and cosy SA is. Until you have actually lived in another country and not just been on holiday you have no idea.

    1. Hi Jon, I lived in Sweden for eight years, so actually I have a very good idea. What I perceive amongst some readers is the inability to understand nuance, and I think perhaps you fall into this category. You entirely miss the point of the blog.

  19. I met some Swedish docs in SA (getting trauma experience) in 2016 and they were complaining about the Swedish healthcare system back then before Covid. I’ve worked in state and pvt health in SA and the UK and SA pvt is by far the best to be a patient in (with decent med aid). The NHS is struggling, it’s better than SA state health, but not nearly as good as SA pvt.

    I think both Sweden and the UK struggle a bit in that they don’t pay their docs very well. So people bugger off to nearby countries that pay better, or go pvt and spend their days injecting botox for 4x the pay. People also have odd expectations of the hospitals here. In SA state when a patient is discharged the family comes and takes them home, for the most part. Here the family expects the hospital to arrange a nursing home etc… it’s an oddly passive approach which massively drives cost up because patients stay in hospital for weeks or sometimes months unneccessarily.

  20. Thanks working in government health, I have been fairly negative of late. Thanks for reminding me that being a tourist is a lot different from being a citizen. The glitz and the glamour seem to fade with the latter. Visiting is nice but staying is a whole other kettle of fish.

      1. In any country, when you’re a tourist they tend to only show you the pretty. When living there, you learn where the muck and grime is.

  21. Such a big welcome back!!
    Ignore the trolls and keep writing – your post is just what I needed today, having been feeling the same dismay at SA’s seemingly endless issues. A welcome breeze of perspective it is.
    Thanks lots.

    Please note I have changed my email address… will head over to the relevant bit on the site and change it there as well.

  22. Oh, happy day! You’re back to enchant us with your sharp observations. You have that rare gift of writing conversationally so I felt as if we were having a chat. I’m an expat – we just spent a month in Europe – and I really didn’t want to come back to angry America. Someone, hearing my accent, asked where I’m from. I said, “Originally SA, now The US.” He asked, “Why would you leave SA – especially for America?” I couldn’t answer

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