10 Random Observations About South Africa

14 Feb

2012-02-08 23.47.42It is seven years since I’ve been in South Africa. The seven-year gap is, very sadly, bookended with deaths in the family. Amid the sadness on both occasions, there has been some happiness. I have seen old friends and family members, hung out with my mom’s dogs and cats, and gone running in the warm sunshine.

Change is inevitable, especially in a fledgling democracy with a developing economy, after a seven-year period. Some of my observations today are based on change, but some are simply things that I had forgotten or perhaps, not really appreciated in days gone by.

  1. Security guards are everywhere. In Canada, you see security guards in obvious places, like banks and government buildings. In South Africa, they were in evidence almost as soon as I had stepped off the plane. When I caught the Gautrain from the airport to one of the major centres, there were about six security guards, complete with Kevlar vests and firearms, standing along the platform.
  2. Prices have gone up. A lot. When I do the whole currency conversion thing, prices of, say, movies and restaurant meals are more or less in line with what you’d pay in Canada. Last time I was here, prices were very low by international standards.
  3. Johannesburg weather is the best. Warm sunshine, little humidity, awesome thunderstorms to provide afternoon entertainment on some days.
  4. In many ways, South Africa is a very capable performer on the international stage. I got my first taste of this during my flight from Heathrow to Johannesburg, which was run by South African Airways. SAA is as good – and in some ways better – than most other airlines I’ve flown with. When I got off the plane, I went through a very efficiently run passport control, collected my bag within a reasonable space of time, and took a very impressive and well-run rail link (the Gautrain) from the airport. Compare this to Toronto, where a rapid link between the airport and the city centre exists only in the hopeful imaginations of the public.
  5. Some South African services are struggling to catch up with acceptable standards. This is partly due to inefficiency, partly due to technology that lags a bit behind the rest of the world, and partly due to social problems like theft of copper cables that transmit electricity and telephone signals. Communities here are plagued by interruptions in telephone and hydro services, traffic lights that are out of order, and bus services that are suspended due to illegal strikes.
  6. South African people are, in general, very friendly. There’s a community-like atmosphere here, where people know each other and look out for each other. As I’ve gone with my mom to her grocery store, her pharmacy, and her hairdresser, I have seen her chat with the people who work at these places, people who have hugged her, offered her their condolences, and been genuinely concerned about her.
  7. The South African accent is very, very cool.
  8. South Africa is absolutely, heart-wrenchingly beautiful. I went running on Sunday along the river that runs in front of my mom’s house, and my breath was taken away by how lovely it all was.
  9. South African roads are, in general, in very good condition. There is no salt or snowploughs to gouge up the roads every winter.
  10. In many ways, South Africans have the same concerns as people who live in other parts of the world. The economy is taking a certain amount of punishment, people worry about their jobs and their mortgage payments, and the gas prices are too high. There are, of course, some concerns that are uniquely South African. But in general, it is clear that South Africans are a part of the melting pot of the international society.
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