Category Archives: ex-pat

Saying my Farewells to South Africa

In the same week that South Africa commemorates the funeral of former president and national icon, Nelson Mandela, it seems that I, personally, will be remembering the country itself – only from afar.

Which is a shame as, before returning to the UK my Beloved and I had hoped to spend a final happy Christmas together here in Johannesburg, basking in the sunshine and enjoying a bit of relaxed African downtime.

But, sadly, it seems that bureaucracy has got the better of us. Despite a trip to Namibia, advised by two alleged experts on all matters immigration in order to obtain a 90-day visa extension, I found that on returning from a weekend away in the capital Windhoek, the said extension was arbitrarily denied.

The only way I could get one apparently was to fly off to the UK and back again. Namibia, despite being a sovereign nation these days, simply didn’t cut it – even though Namibians are just as entitled as subjects of Her Majesty to enter the country for three months on a visa waiver. Go figure.

So what all of this means is that I’ve now had to change my flight from early January to this Saturday, or risk being blacklisted and not allowed into the country again. Charming.

But I must admit that this apparent making-up-of-new-rules-on-the-fly without anyone ever seeming to know about them is one thing that I won’t particularly miss about the African way of life.

Another is load shedding, the name given locally to the scheduled, rolling national power blackouts that are designed to keep South Africa’s national grid from collapsing, and which are the talk of the nation at the moment.

For one, they take place at all hours of the day or night, which is deeply inconvenient at a personal level.

On the other hand, there is lots of concern, especially among small companies unable to afford generators, about the damage being done to their businesses, the inevitable worry being that the situation, if it continues, will kill them eventually.

A question of power

To put a price tag on the debacle, some economists have pointed out that power outages cost the economy a huge ZAR6.8bn (£37 million), or 0.2% of GDP, last year, with conservative estimates indicating that the situation this year will be at least as bad.

Indeed, state-owned monopoly Eskom may have promised that the lights should more or less stay on until January, helped by generally lower power usage during high summer.

But it has also warned South Africans to brace themselves for ongoing power supply problems for at least the next 18 months until it can bring two new power stations online – a situation that, I among others, find deeply worrying for the future financial health, and related long-term social stability, of the country.

At the end of last week though, President Zuma took the interesting step of denying that the country’s energy challenges had anything to do with years of government underfunding or mismanagement. Instead he chose to blame Eskom’s current difficulties in supplying demand on the apartheid regime, which collapsed 20 years ago.

The utility, he informed delegates at the Young Communist League’s congress in Cape Town, had been structured to provide electricity exclusively to the white minority, “not the majority”, which is where the foundations of the problem lay.

But unlike hospitals, airports, mines and Parliament, it seems that the President’s official residences in both Pretoria and Cape Town are, luckily, insulated from power cuts themselves due to “technical reasons”. Therefore, he is in the fortuitous position of not having to share the majority’s pain.

But all of this raises two salient points about South Africa. One is the desperate, grinding poverty that most of the population still, very noticeably, lives in once you leave the well-heeled, predominantly white suburbs and business districts.

A land of contrasts

The disparity between the prosperous and the poor in this beautiful, resource-rich country is the greatest in the world. But it is this very inequality, which drastically bumps up average per capita income levels, that means South Africa fails to qualify for all too many donor programmes from bodies such as the United Nations.

As a result, the country all too often fails to get the financial aid it so desperately requires to help its needy population – an obvious wrong that should really be righted somehow.

Another distinctively South African issue raised by President Zuma’s comments is the thorny one of race, in this land still so deeply scarred by the brutalities of the apartheid regime – and one that lives on to this day, in fact, through the economic and social structures introduced by policies such as forced resettlement.

As a result, I can quite honestly say that I’ve never lived anywhere where race appears to form such an undercurrent to so many conversations, and where so few people of different heritage seem to mix socially – a culture shock after living in multi-cultural Britain, and especially London, for so long.

Despite this, what did give me huge hope – and not just symbolically – was seeing young students at Stellenbosch University, the so-called engine room of apartheid, starting to do just that – to learn together, play together and even, in some instances, go out together. And although not enormously widespread, the same is true to some extent of the younger generation here in Johannesburg too.

But in spite of its troubles, South Africa has a lot of plus points. I’ll certainly miss the climate and its balance in favour of warm/hot weather, appalling winters notwithstanding.

I’ll also miss the friendliness and courtesy of the people – being called “Tannie” (Auntie) by Afrikaans speakers or “Mami” by black Africans whose gorgeous smiles could light up rooms, despite past and current circumstances. Such terms, employed as a mark of respect for age, show a civility forgotten long ago in the UK.

But I’ll also miss learning about the country’s fascinating cultures and traditions and the ways of a nation in some ways so viscerally linked to Britain and in others, so vastly different.

So all in all, it’s been a blast. Thank you, South Africa – for everything. I’ll remember you always.

If you’re interested in finding out about the social and cultural mores of the UK, feel free to catch up with my new blog entitled www.mygreatbritishadventure.com.

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Education: Inspiring South Africa

It strikes me that, even if there’s money for nothing else, the two things that should always be invested in are health and education.

 

Health because it’s fundamental and without it, at both the individual and national level, you’re on a hiding to nothing. And education because the future economic and cultural wellbeing of citizens, communities and states across the world depends on it.

 

So with this in mind, I found myself duly impressed by the valuable work being undertaken by San culture and education centre !Khwa ttu, which I visited during my trip to the Western Cape a couple of weeks back.

 

Situated in an 850-hectare nature reserve about an hour’s drive north of Cape Town on the R27, the organisation, which is majority-owned and run by the San themselves, provides an annual nine-month residential tourism and training programme for members of this disadvantaged indigenous community.

 

Each year, skills instruction is provided to 20 people aged between 18 and 40 from across southern Africa – where they are also known as Bushmen – in everything from literacy and marketing to hotel management and community development.

 

Participants are likewise provided with invaluable hands-on experience of their chosen vocation in !Khwa ttu’s offices, restaurant, guest house and conference facilities.

 

But they also have the opportunity to act as tour guides, showing visitors around a replica village, discussing heritage and folklore and explaining the medicinal uses of various plants in an effort to educate people about the San’s traditional ways.

 

!Khwa ttu itself, meanwhile, started life in 1998 when the Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (Wimsa) partnered with the South African San Institute to kickstart the project.

 

A year later, anthropologist Irene Staehelin also joined the party, setting up the Switzerland-based Ubuntu Foundation to help with funding.

 

Success story

 

The Foundation subsequently bought the farm that was to become !Khwa ttu – which means ‘water hole’ in the now extinct, local !Xam language – and which my San tour guide Andre Antonio reliably informed me was actually situated on ancestral land.

 

He also told me, rather shockingly, that until 1873 when the last of the San were eradicated from the Cape, it was possible to purchase a hunting licence in Cape Town to shoot them down and kill them. In fact, the practice seems to have gone on all over southern Africa, with the last hunting permit issued in Nambia as late as 1936. Appalling.

 

On a more positive note though, it seems that Andre himself is actually one of !Khwa ttu’s success stories. Originally hailing from Kimberley in the Eastern Cape, he is one of the 40 or so full-time staff now employed at the centre.

 

But as well as having ambitions to run a hotel in Berlin, Andre is also fast developing a local and international music career after recording various tracks at !Khwa ttu’s very own recording studio, San Sound Records, and travelling extensively as a result. And he’s still only 22.

 

Another inspiring educational initiative that I’ve been involved with since the start of the year, meanwhile, is The Link.

 

After having spotted an article in local newspaper, the Rosebank Killarney Gazette, which indicated that the charity was looking for volunteers to help teach literacy to disadvantaged kids, I thought, being a semi-trained adult literacy teacher myself, that I’d give it a go.

 

And as luck would have it, it turned out that one of the nine schools included in the scheme was Parkhurst Primary, which is literally five minutes down the road from us.

 

Positive experience

 

While Parkhurst is scarcely a deprived neighbourhood in and of itself, it seems that the school’s 542 pupils are all bussed in from historically disadvantaged areas such as the Soweto and Alexandra townships – although with school fees as high as R6,500 (£350) per learner per year, a lot of money for the average South African, I’m guessing that most of the children come from middle class families rather than anything else.

 

Because from what I’ve gathered, the quality of education that you get in South Africa depends very much on your ability to pay. So if you live in a poor rural area in Limpopo and have very little income, for example, you won’t have to fork out for school fees, although you will still have to buy books, uniforms and the rest.

 

The problem is though that your teachers are unlikely to be anywhere near as well qualified as those in more prosperous neighbourhoods, which can end up simply entrenching disadvantage.

 

But the fees charged to parents in wealthier areas also seem to vary quite widely depending on how much subsidy an individual school receives from the government. This means that even more affluent parents can struggle to send all of their children to a good school in their catchment area if a number are of a similar age.

 

Anyway, the kids that I help out with at Parkhurst Primary are Grade 2s (seven year olds) who are in the lower quartile of their class in literacy terms.

 

During two separate sessions of 45 minutes each, the 15 or so volunteers, including myself, hear either one or two of the learners read, play literacy games with them and finish off by reading a story to them twice a week.

 

It’s all very heart-warming, especially as the kids always love to cuddle in and give you a big hug at the end – something that would never be allowed in UK schools these days. You’re not even the equivalent of CRB (Criminal Records Bureau)-checked here.

 

And it must be said that the children do amazingly well considering that English, the elected medium of education in this particular school, isn’t their first language – that’s more likely to be Zulu or SeSotho.

 

In fact, the progress they’ve made in the short time that I’ve been there is quite incredible. It’s amazing what a little bit of attention and a wee bit of praise can do. But then that probably applies to us all.