Quarter Life Crisis

The world according to Sven-S. Porst

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My first two days in South Africa I spent visiting Chantel and Henno. Chantel did her M.Sc. together with me at Warwick and that’s how I got to know them. I last saw them in late 2001 – with them going back to South Africa and me going back to Germany shortly afterwards. They had just had their daughter at the time, who I saw when she was still tiny. And they’ve had a son a few months ago, so I was very curious to come and see all of them.

Even during my short stay with them I got treated with a lot of South African goodness, including a trip to the nice botanical garden, their pool, some delicious mangoes and a good old braai (i.e. barbecue). I could probably ramble on about each of these for hours, mentioning why they seem to be so typically South African and why they are so great. But I’ll just mention that I had completely forgotten how nice having a pool in your sunny garden is. Even though the last time we had a pool in our garden (ca 1988, with me being a lot smaller than today), the whole thing seemed a lot more exciting and dangerous.

One thing that really irritated me about Chantel and Henno’s house is that it looked like a secret service office. It’s surrounded by a plain wall with only an electric garage door that slides up and down. You can’t really see the house from the outside, just the newly built second floor office on top of the garage, which is very plain and has a large window with blinds behind it. On the roof there’s an antenna sticking out for a wireless network service. So it looks fairly high-tech and sleek but not really like a place to live in. More like an office.

Of course that changes once you are on the inside, but it makes driving down the streets less pleasant. That’s because this kind of development isn’t an exception but everybody seems to be getting higher walls and fences now. From what I can remember, this development is just a continuation of what happened in the past two decades. In 1984 we lived in a house that didn’t have any wall to protect it from the street more than optically. In 1988 we lived in a house that had a high wall all around it (although I think everybody could’ve just climbed over the gate if they wanted to). In 1992, my father and my brother lived in a walled in residential complex with walls everywhere and an electric security gate. Not too nice and a bit like a prison, really. And these days, I’ve been told, whole suburbs just declare themselves private areas with one guarded entrance only.

So people are quite scared. Because there’s a lot of stealing and violence happening and they don’t want it at their homes. While this may be understandable, it also appears to be quite a reduction in life quality to me.

That said, I got the impression that everybody is convinced the country is doing well. With both the economy (there’s growth and the Rand is getting stronger) and the politics (it seems like people are happy with Nelson Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, now after he had a rather rough start, even internationally, with his denial of the HIV problem). Despite those walls and fences, people seem to be much more relaxed when facing things like crime. Unlike a few years ago when it sounded like they’re really sceptic whether things are going to work out, this time there seems to be a lot of optimism that things are going the right way and that they want to be part of it. Back then you’d still hear many of the white people complain that with all the new affirmative action they don’t have a chance of getting a job and so on. Many seem to just have accepted that now and are trying to make the best of it (not that there is any other reasonable option, but there could be denial instead), By being creative and working hard in their own businesses, say.

But then, New South Africa (i.e. post-apartheid South Africa) doesn’t look too different from Old South Africa. Labour is still ridiculously cheap with many people earning less than thousand Rands (€120) per month. And, incidentally, most of the people who are doing those low-wage jobs are still black. But that’s OK now because it’s just capitalism rather than racism.

In particular, people still have people to do their garden and household. And – with my family never having any maid in our house – I still find that irritating. You get up and have breakfast and find your room cleaned up and your dirty clothes removed for washing when you return. But that may just be me.

February 26, 2005, 22:54

Tagged as country:za, south africa, travel.


Comment by Antoinetta: User icon

Cool recount of your time in South Africa. I just want to point out that even in 1980 our house in the suburbs of Johannesburg had extremely high walls, security gates, and 3 metal security doors inside the house that we locked every night. We weren’t extra paranoid or anything, it was just the norm in that area back then. Most people also had large dogs guarding their properties.

August 10, 2006, 22:08

Comment by ssp: User icon

Interesting Antoinetta. Perhaps Jo’burg’s suburbs are just a bit rougher than those of Pretoria where we stayed in the 1980s.

August 11, 2006, 19:11

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