the muiz

Thursday, 17 January 2013

What I loved about living in South Africa, pt2


Following from my previous two blog posts in this mini-series about my recent decision to leave South Africa, country of my birth, and return to Australia where I had lived for many years... Here is the list of the main things I loved about living in South Africa (again).

The first three are also the reasons we decided to move back there in the first place....

1. Family and friends

Of course. It goes without saying that it’s much nicer to be closer to family and friends and have the opportunity to see them more often. The opportunities I had to reconnect after 10 years living out of the country I grew up in were much treasured, and I have so many happy memories – including our wedding on Noordhoek beach; my best friend from school days flying down to help before my wedding, and again to meet my newborn daughter a year and a half later (this could not have happened if I was still living overseas); my surprise baby shower with family in the Eastern Cape; a Christmas in our rambling Muizenberg house with my in-laws and my mom (closest thing to a real family gathering I have had at Christmas time since I was about 10); and a number of lovely visits back and forth between Cape Town, Durban and the Eastern Cape.

However, as those of you who know the country will have noticed – those are not exactly in close proximity to each other. Cape Town is quite far from the rest of the country, in a sense, and flights within South Africa are very expensive. Bus journeys of about 24 hours or more are almost too horrendous to contemplate, and anyway this eats into the amount of leave or time you have to visit... So. Again, not as many opportunities as I would have liked, to see my now far-flung family. And when I did see them, it was often for just a day, before dashing back to Cape Town. Ahh well, such is modern day life it seems.

     2. Contribution

One can ‘contribute’ anywhere of course – everywhere in the world there is need of some sort. However, in South Africa there are needs right on your doorstep and just around the corner, and on your way to work, and just about everywhere you go. In other words, you have the opportunity to do something every single day, even small, to make a difference in other people’s lives.

In many other countries, the ‘needy’ are so far removed from people’s comfortable lives, their clean and respectable neighbourhoods, that it’s easy to think everyone in the world lives like you do. Those who do give, do so via international charities to ‘those poor people’ (out theeeeeeere somewhere)... Suffering or poverty or inequality don’t even seem real to most people.

In South Africa, much as the privileged would like to deny it, they cannot really truthfully say they do not know about suffering and poverty in their very own city. Which of course means they are responsible to do something about it – if they have any conscience at all, or even just want others to believe they are good people. This sort of challenge to one’s conscience is good – good for our own personal growth, good for the growth of community, good for the people who need help.

I am not saying everyone responds positively to this challenge, but it is at least there, and doing something about it is an immediate possibility. Even small things like giving away from our own excess can be immensely rewarding when people sleeping in your local park will benefit before your very eyes. This is living and giving in true community – being able to give to ‘THESE people’, right HERE. It often demands a lot more of us than giving money in a faceless transaction via an international charity (important too) – but again, soooooooooo good for us to be stretched beyond ourselves, beyond our comfort zones. Daily.

This is one of the things I miss (and yes, feel relieved not having to face daily) as soon as I leave South Africa. No one here in New Zealand has yet approached me to beg, or tried to sell me something I really don’t need, or followed me down the street haggling over this thing I really don’t need... I have not had to cross the street to avoid an awkward conversation with a drunk/ ‘ice’-d up person; and I no longer size everyone up as they approach me, wondering if they might try to mug (or rape) me, and if so can I run faster than them...?

But I also haven’t had any of those beautiful moments that sometimes randomly transpire between you and (after all) just another human being – the car guard, the homeless beggar always at your local station, the public toilet cleaner, whoever... when just a few kind words, or a generous tip, makes a visible difference to their day, their world. And all it cost you was what you would have spent on a cup of coffee... Even better when there is a simple exchange between you and someone from a completely different ‘strata’ of life, yet your shared humanity shines through, and forces you to pay attention to this fact.

3. Afrikaans roots

Ouch. It hurts even to try to write about this. Yes, I am bilingual, and spoke Afrikaans first actually. I grew up in a very sleepy, conservative part of the world – with mostly farmers’ children in my girls-only private (English) boarding school. I was so very happy when we moved away to the coast in my teenage years, to a co-ed school (surfers, what trouble they were!) and a somewhat more liberal community.

Too liberal, I would say in retrospect – wife-swopping and ‘swingers’ parties were some of the favoured local activities... Whereas the Afrikaans family values I had left, and the salt-of-the-earth people in those much-mocked ‘conservative’ communities, are the sort of people I would now prefer to have my child grow up around...

Of course I am very much going out on a limb saying this – since unadulterated ‘liberalism’ is so trendy these days, no one questions the links to our disintegrated family units and the general dysfunction of our society. I am NOT conservative, in general (or to use the Afrikaans term, I am NOT ‘verkrampt’). But I do believe in the ‘old fashioned’ values of commitment, fidelity, modesty, hard work, saving (not wasting, nor living beyond your means), hospitality and being part of a community of faith (accountable, teachable, contributing). 

These are the sort of values my Ouma, amongst others, imparted to me and my cousins along the way – and I see the joy and fruit of these values in their lives already. (Not to say these are not upheld in many other communities and cultures!)

South Africans may not realise this, but there is still a much stronger sense of what is now called ‘family values’ compared with other Westernised countries today. I don’t think many would disagree that this is a result of the strong Christian and mostly Afrikaans roots of the country. However, there are sadly the negative aspects of this, which led to ‘apartheid’ and other obviously undesirable outcomes! 

I just wish people could see there is a LOT more to Afrikaans (and Christian) culture than this. It should go without saying that all Afrikaners/ Christians/ South Africans are NOT racist. And even those that are, are no more so than many Americans/ Australians and others I have encountered worldwide. People are just people. Everywhere.

[For any of my readers who may be feeling quite nauseous by now, just consider for a moment how often everyone has to listen to what you believe - or rather, the long list of what ‘shouldn’t be believed in anymore’... and try to read this, alternative perspective for a change, too.]

Sadly, most of the people I interacted with in Cape Town were English, so I didn’t get to speak as much Afrikaans as I have been yearning for while away. However, Afrikaans music and literature have come such a long way since I grew up in South Africa! No longer just for our parents and grandparents generations – there is a lot of great music now and cutting edge literature, poetry and intellectual commentary (e.g. Antjie Krog – read her poems or critiques of SA if you can, even in English).

I feasted upon all of this – feeding that part of me that simply cannot exist or express itself properly outside of Afrikaans. Bilingual people will understand what I mean...

4. African ‘vibe’

Cape Town doesn’t really feel very African. Go to places like Durban (and Johannesburg, of course, but I am loathe to ever tell anyone to go there!) and you will experience a ‘vibe’ that is hard to explain or define, but undeniably AFRICAN. And I love it. I mean I don’t love it so much when it is the taxi driver trying to kill us on the road with his dreadful driving and aggressiveness; or when it’s the street urchins who would as soon steal your bag as throw a well-meaning sandwich in your face because they want MONEY! But there is that something magical and lively about Africa that gets under your skin, into your blood (hopefully not literally! Watch out for that HIV, that bilharzia, that malaria...)

I won’t carry on too much more about this here, but those who have visited or lived in Africa will know what I mean. Many find returning to other countries a bit ‘vanilla’, a bit dull and sterile, in comparison. I must say, I actually enjoy living in a place where ‘stuff WORKS’ (e.g. public transport, hospitals, local government...); I enjoy safety, a reasonable amount of peace and quiet, and even (god forbid!) cleanliness; I crave European literature, intellectual critique and culture, and love the Scandinavian mindset more than most; but even I really enjoy and miss the chaotic, colourful, crazy African vibe. Sometimes.

5. Beauty

Cape Town, and the rest of the Western Cape, is one of the most beautiful places in the world. It is also one of those rare places where you can live in a city, yet have very easy access to mountains, ocean, forests and winelands – all within the city limits! You can hike, walk, climb, swim, dive, sail... surrounded by breathtaking views at all times. 

It is impossible not to fall in love with Cape Town, or nearby Stellenbosch and Franschhoek, among many other picturesque towns nestled in highly fertile wine and fruit yielding valleys at the feet of yet more majestic mountains... And this is just a small sampling of the variety of beautiful landscapes to be found in the Western Cape, let alone in the rest of South Africa! It really is ‘a world in one country’, as the tourism marketing slogan used to say...

This beauty feeds my soul, my poetry, my writing... It was very, very, very difficult to say goodbye to. There are many other beautiful places in the world of course, but for some reason we humans tend to respond in a deep way to some places – they become our ‘emotional landscapes’ (to use Bjork’s term slightly differently). 

Yet alas, as in any relationship, beauty is not enough. If you were dating a stunningly beautiful woman, who frequently gave you the cold shoulder, wasn’t really interested in getting to know you, blamed you for all the pain inflicted by her previous lovers, chipped away at your self-esteem and identity (sometimes for the sheer fun of it), stole from you, even tried to kill you... You would eventually feel the time had come to break up and go your separate ways.

6. Space

Space! This one is somewhat particular to our situation I think. We lived in a house on the side of the mountain in Muizenberg (a suburb of Cape Town, but slightly removed, on the peninsula) – which meant we had sweeping views across False Bay, with mountains covered with fynbos surrounding us on the other 3 sides. Wonderful. Not over-developed and suffocating as I usually find urban living.

This is especially important to someone like me (I grew up around farms and fields of sunflowers remember!) - and much missed now that we have terribly noisy people living right on top of us, hardly any privacy and the noise of construction nearby all day long. And this in a semi-rural part of New Zealand, 20km out of Auckland!

The ‘space’ I enjoyed in Cape Town was of course the result of the mountains and other natural spaces referred to above, which most cities do not have, or have not preserved. Cape Town has the same greedy property developers and complicit local government as everywhere else; and is overdeveloped in other areas – or underdeveloped, as in the overcrowded ‘informal settlements’; but the mountains form a physical barrier in some places that no one has any choice but to respect!

7. 'Bietjie wyn virrie pyn!’ 
('bit of wine for the pain', a ‘Cape coloured’ saying) 

I cannot tell a lie. I will miss the Western Cape’s ample supply of good quality, affordable wine... a LOT. I have had good wine in Australia and New Zealand, but they are far more expensive... Of course I have also had French and Italian and Californian wines – which everyone raves about. But again, far more expensive.

Honestly, the Western Cape wines are severely underrated. I have no idea why this is. There is such a huge range, and so many world class estates and wines (many consistently winning awards worldwide), so I can’t understand why they are so little known in this part of the world. I especially miss my favourite organic wines, as there is nothing like the range and quality of organic viticulture in Australia or New Zealand yet. Again, I have no idea why?

This is perhaps the most superficial of reasons to miss living in a place, but this is my list, and I think wine (in moderation) is a perfectly legitimate contender in a list of things that make me happy!



And so, in closing, I can only say with the ooooooold Afrikaans song:
“O Kaap, o Kaap, o mooiste Kaap, Jy maak my hart weer baie seer
Jou Ghantang kom mos altyd weer en weer” 
- Waterblommetjies, Laurika Rauch

[Translation really kills this, but it’s along the lines of:
 “Oh Cape, oh beautiful Cape, you make my heart very sore ...with a longing that comes time after time...” 
– see the full song at http://www.laurikarauch.com/?song=waterblommetjies and risk the (dodgy) google translation if you must]

What I loved about living in South Africa, pt1


After my last blog post, it might seem as if the decision to leave South Africa was an easy one. It seems I have only criticism and scorn for the country of my childhood and family. This really isn’t true. I do believe you should be able to honestly critique your own country, your own background and origins though.

It’s like being able to love your family or friends completely, yet still see them for who they honestly are – imperfect, fallible human beings. Sometimes even downright annoying... as we all are. And yes, sometimes we even need to head out into the world, leaving them behind for time, because we need a bit of ‘space’ to grow (this usually happens after leaving school).

In other words, I am not trying to say that one country is better than another, just different. Since countries are made up of people, it’s not surprising that they will not be perfect either - and anyway finding your way in the world is a constant negotiation between your own needs, and those of others around you.  Often, it’s less about ‘right and wrong’ than it is about finding workable compromises, or about how much you are willing to sacrifice of yourself to please others (most would agree that sacrificing your very identity or sense of ‘self’ may be going a bit too far in any relationship).

My ability to successfully negotiate my way through one country’s culture or systems, yet struggling to do so in another is obviously also a result of the many different worldviews we all have, and of our vastly differing expectations, personalities and preferences.

However, countries are also quite clearly in different stages of growth – and I am not referring to ‘development’ here, in the sense it has come to mean today, although this may be a part of it. I mean in the much broader, deeper sense: a country that enables most of its residents to pursue the best possible life they can live, needs to find that place of balance between the different, often clashing, needs of various groups or types of people. This is about more than building roads, bridges, hospitals and schools (although most countries don’t even do this anymore, thanks to neoliberalism).

To the extent that a country (read: government, culture, civil society, education system...) serves only one or some groups, it is not meeting its primary purpose, its reason for existing in the first place. Everyone should feel a part of the community, the culture, the society, the country. Everyone should have a feeling of ownership, a voice, a stake, a part to play... Everyone should feel they belong, they are valued, they are served by the policies and processes ... and that they can also contribute according to their gifts, resources and personality.

For a more detailed discussion of why I feel this is not the case in South Africa today (and why I personally felt unable to be ‘a part of’), read my previous blog posts – especially my ‘community’ series, and the series after the Marikana massacre, explaining my shock at the indifference of most South Africans to this crazy event (or events, since there was a lot leading up to this, and ongoing violent protests there and around the country still).

If you have read any of my other blog posts, you will know that I really wanted to be a part of the much-needed changes in South Africa. I wanted to be part of the solution - not just perpetuate the problems (by living in a privileged bubble and turning a blind eye). Unfortunately, this desire was not fulfilled in quite the way I had hoped, or of course I would still be there – this was the main reason I left a very comfortable, easy lifestyle in Sydney in the first place.

However, I have since come to feel that perhaps some of these battles are not mine to fight, or that my contribution may be more welcome, even more appropriate, elsewhere. This is not said without some bitterness, I must add, at the message received loud and clear from Africans today – “you are white, therefore you do not belong here. You cannot tell us how to fix things. This is all your fault anyway. We are happy to have your money (give it now!!) - but not you...” If you think I am exaggerating, you haven’t been paying attention to the media, government or speeches by popular African intellectuals.

On a more positive note, I am also now a new mum, with another life to consider – that of my daughter – and doing my best for her future outweighs any ‘responsibility to contribute’ that I once felt for South Africa (especially having been one of the unfairly privileged by the previous socio-political system of the country). Sorry.

(Having said all of that, I still have some ideas I would like to try from overseas – e.g. ways of leveraging the goodwill and resources of a ‘first world’ country and directing them to places like the overlooked ‘coloured’ communities of the Cape winelands. I have not ‘given up’ on South Africa, or on helping if I can – I just don’t want to live there anymore. For now.)

I am still processing a lot of my feelings regarding my time back in South Africa, and little seeds of hope for what I can set my sights on next are only just starting to appear... There is still some ‘unfinished business’ I would like to write about, especially regarding gender equity, what it means to be ‘white’ in Africa, and the African attitude towards animals. However, then I need to ‘move on’ (and start writing about issues other than my ‘angst’ over South Africa). 

Before I do any of that though, I really felt I needed to balance my recent blog post about the decision to move from South Africa with this further explanation, and with the list of things I loved about living there, which follows shortly.

Why share all of this (i.e. ‘who cares’)? Well, I happen to still believe in the potential for growth and learning – in South Africa, and other countries with massive waves of people leaving their shores for a preferred future elsewhere... I may have decided that I cannot stay and continue to fight all of these battles myself (for now), or perhaps to try to contribute in other ways, from a different home base... But that doesn’t mean others can’t or won’t continue to fight the good fight over there (and my challenge to anyone still living in South Africa would be this: there are many wonderful people doing great things...find them, join them...)

My hope is that having these sorts of conversations will contribute towards the learning and growth of those who ‘stay behind’, as well as encouraging or affirming ‘those who have left’...and possibly eventually informing those who have the power to make some of the changes countries like South Africa (post-conflict or traumatised cultures) need to make to build peace, build community, build a preferred future together. All of us have personal stories to share, which can enrich our collective understanding of concepts like ‘belonging’, ‘Nationality’, ‘culture’, ‘ownership’, ‘contribution’, ‘security’ and ‘place’...

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Brick walls, culs-de-sac and closed minds

I can’t say I am sad to see the back of 2012.

One absolutely mind-blowingly amazing thing happened – I gave birth to the most gorgeous little girl in the world (and I am not at all biased, of course).

Other than that, however, and even in part due to that, it was a very difficult year – stressful, tiring, challenging, demanding…all those sorts of words. And at times heart-breaking.

Why? Well, a few reasons – some of which were simply the unsurprising results of being a new mum: adjustments in my own selfish little world, and my marriage (reasonably new, at 2 years); sleep deprivation; various anxieties (big and small) about whether I was doing the right thing; and often feelings of isolation and loneliness (despite having a loving, involved husband to share the journey with).

But we also packed up our lives of over 3 years in Cape Town, South Africa, to move back to Australia, via 3 months in New Zealand. With four animals and all the logistics that involved (quarantine arrangements, import permits, freight companies, millions of vet visits, etc.). With the aforementioned sleep deprivation. With the little whirlwind that was a newly crawling bubs, unpacking everything as fast as I tried to pack it… With numerous frustrations along the way, involving bureaucracy, estate agents and other modern day evils...

And with the completely predictable doubts and sadnesses one feels when deciding to leave the ‘mother’ country… As well as (here’s the really heart-breaking bit) the gnawing feeling that all many people hate you for ‘voting with your feet’ and leaving the country they feel you should have more loyalty and love for – even if it has become an environment so fraught with political and social issues that its hard to understand what one is being judged for, other than being willing and able to ‘seize the day’ elsewhere...

The decision to move countries is never an easy one – there are always trade-offs, nowhere is perfect, and ‘the comfort zone’ (or even just ‘the known’) is always more attractive than change. But in the case of South Africa, there is also a disproportionate and completely unfathomable amount of judgement and guilt-tripping that is experienced by ‘those who have left’. People’s responses usually contain implications (or overt accusations) of racism, of pessimism, of shallowness, of selfishness, of short-sightedness, and my favourite always: a lack of patriotism (what a quaint, 20th century word – terribly useless and even dangerous in today’s world).

Discussing or deciding to leave South Africa always feels like one of those ‘don’t drink the kool-aid’ moments to me. Part of me wants to say ‘so sorry, I just can’t see myself fitting in here anymore - it's probably just me’, while another wants to shout ‘for goodness sake, don’t take it so personally!’ People move countries all the time. This is the 21st century. The fact that we live in a globalised world, with physical and cultural lines completely blurred, and information/ communication networks making distance or location almost meaningless ‘these days’… is so well-known and accepted that it is actually boring to have to say it.

I don’t see myself as South African (nor Australian). My reasons for leaving the country of my birth (again) are many, complex, personal…and tangled in an emotional ball in my stomach that makes it hard to even discuss. With anyone. Even my beloved husband and I have very different ways of explaining or justifying this move. And that’s okay. It’s allowed.

We are all allowed to have different parameters for happiness and security… Different places meet our needs and hopes in wildly different ways. How boring a world if this were not so. And how overcrowded would be that one place everyone wanted to live in.

My experience of South Africa in the last 3 years or so was unfortunately not the sort of place I want to live in anymore. I don’t feel ‘at home’, or as if I ‘belong’ anymore. In fact, I now doubt I ever did really ‘belong’ there, upon re-examining many of my memories of childhood and early adulthood spent unintentionally clashing with the opinions and practices of those I was surrounded by. 

This was clearly summed up for me in the unquestioned and oft-repeated assumption that being South African is about 'braaivleis and rugby' - even the so-called 'heritage' day is now commonly referred to as 'National braai day' (a 'braai' being a barbecue). Well, I don't eat red meat, for ethical reasons mostly based on sustainability; and I can't understand how a bunch of men chasing a ball around the field can be turned into something of a religious experience!

There is a fundamental ‘disconnect’ (a favourite word of peace studies lecturers and writers!) between the mainstream culture of the country today, and my own – both my unconsciously acquired heritage or childhood foundations, the expectations that are the result of my ‘socialisation’; and the intentionally ‘created’ culture I want to live in (as adults, we can choose and modify our cultural inheritance in many ways – through our studies, chosen circles of friends and travels, for example).

Since I only have one life, I see no reason to spend it in a place where I don’t feel connected, understood or valued as an equally legitimate member of the society to those of other political, social, intellectual, racial or ethnic groups. More importantly, my daughter has only one life, and I intend to give her a future filled with hope: basic personal security and freedoms, as many opportunities as possible, and a foundational belief in gender equity!

Whereas in South Africa, personally and professionally, all I experienced on every level, at every turn, were culs-de-sac, brick walls and closed minds.

So, looking forward to 2013 and OPEN DOORS, OPEN MINDS and NEW STARTS!!!