By Sine Thieme
One thing I loved about living in South Africa was that our lives suddenly seemed to be filled with adventure. In the space of little more than a year we became scuba certified and went on several diving trips, watched our teenage son hurl himself into the void off the world’s highest bungee jumping bridge, swam with great white sharks, rode on elephants, battled a bush fire, went on several safaris, one of them from a balloon, and paddled on the Zambezi river above Victoria Falls (being careful to stay above the falls).
This could be due to the fact that you always try to live more intensely when you’re an expat, knowing that your assignment will end all too soon, and wanting to explore as much as you can while given the chance. But I think South Africa has something special. South Africans love their country, they love spending time outdoors, and they love sharing their joy with others. From the day we set foot there we got swept up in this spirit of exploration and we didn’t slow down the entire time we lived there.
When we arrived in March 2010, in the midst of preparations for Africa’s first ever Soccer World Cup, I was very determined to methodically check off the typical post-move stuff before exploring the new world around us: open bank account, get phone, internet, sign school forms, find doctors, buy a car... However, it didn’t quite happen like that. Everything moves a lot slower in Africa than my efficient American housewife self could ever have imagined, often throwing two new problems in your way when you’ve just finally gotten rid of one. I remember well those early days, how I’d finally inched closer to getting that elusive traffic register number which is a prerequisite for buying a car, only to find out on my third trip to the registration office that I wouldn’t be allowed to register after all, since my husband was the one with the job and the visa. Or I’d wait – in vain - perched over the phone for the promised callback “just now,” only to be enlightened by friends later that “just now” in South Africa means “maybe,” at best.
Africa, it seems, was just as determined teaching me patience as I was determined to bend it to my will. Needless to say, I admitted defeat when I realized after more than a year that I was still carrying around with me the same dog-eared to-do list that I’d written the first day, without hardly anything checked off. The curious thing is that I was grateful rather than annoyed. It’s amazing how well life goes on even if certain things simply do not get done, or at least take a lot longer than you expect. Your power is cut off? Back home I would have been on the phone within minutes to complain to some person of authority. In South Africa, I shrugged my shoulders and went to read a book, fairly certain that eventually it would come on again. And when it did, I had great material to type up yet another story about the wondrous workings of South African bureaucracy.
Moving to South Africa can be very scary. At least up to the point where you actually do the moving. I remember googling South Africa and Johannesburg when the prospect of relocating first came up, and how shocked I was to find out that we probably wouldn’t survive the trip from the airport to our house. Every expat forum discussing South Africa tries to outdo the next one in terms of spreading crime horror stories, so that when you finally arrive there you are saddled with a huge amount of anxiety that takes time to shed, little by little, until you wake up one morning and realize you live in a beautiful place, a place you might never want to leave again.
Yes, Johannesburg isn’t the safest city, but that’s true for many other cities out there. Most locals will tell you that you just have to be “sensible” and I found that to be very true. You’re careful where you go at night and you keep your eyes open, but you also realize that the possibility of crime and bad luck can’t rule your life. There are so many positives of living in Johannesburg: The weather is beautiful year-round (I think Joburg, as the locals call it, must get 355 days of sunshine a year). The flowers are gorgeous, and though winters are pretty cold, they are very short. Domestic help is readily available. There is nothing in the world that quite matches an African sky at sunset. The people are friendly and fun-loving. And there are amazing opportunities to travel and explore, be it to nearby Pilanesberg to view the Big Five in the wild, to the snow-covered Drakensberg, to Cape Point at the Southern tip of the continent, to one of the best wine-making regions of the world near Stellenbosch and Franschhoek, to the beautiful wild beaches of Sodwana Bay and the St. Lucia Wetlands in the East, to the majestic Kruger Park, or to the parched sand dunes of Namibia. Southern Africa offers an amazing variety of landscapes, climates, and wildlife that you won’t easily find anywhere else.
What helped us settle in quickly was the wonderful group of friends we made. We had opted to send our four children to a South African private school, rather than an international one, and were admittedly anxious how that would work out in terms of friends. We needn’t have worried. Most of our friends were South Africans, with a sprinkling of expats, and we couldn’t have been happier. In fact, enrolling your kids in a local school is one of the best ways to truly experience a country, even if they might have more of an adjustment to master upon returning or moving on. What they learn in terms of a new culture far outweighs what they might learn academically. It’s a bit of a shock when you have to go from basketball and baseball to netball, cricket, and field hockey, but if you keep an open mind about it, you will be surprised how much fun it is (and – sacrilege - you might discover that rugby is indeed superior to football).
Another myth about Africa that I’d like to dispel is that it is a parched and hot place. Yes, the weather is mostly beautiful where we lived and there is a lot of sunshine to go around, but it’s such a dry heat that more often than not you end up being chilly as soon as you sit in the shade or the sun goes down. And when it does finally rain in the summer months, it can feel more like winter. I’ve been colder than ever before in my life when going on early morning game drives in a drafty safari vehicle, and our kids made fun of me because it took a really hot day before I as much as dipped my big toe into our beautiful pool.
One aspect of life in South Africa that is really hard to get used to is the extreme poverty all around you. Even though it has been almost twenty years since the end of apartheid and the advent of a true democracy, masses of people still live in mere shacks, crowded together in townships, with barely any access to running water and electricity. South Africa is so much more developed and westernized than the rest of Africa, and yet there is this huge discrepancy between rich and poor. Nevertheless, you will hardly find a place with more cheerful and friendly people than South Africa, and the energy and vibrancy all around you is palpable. Life seems to be painted in bolder strokes in Africa.
If we had listened to all the naysayers condemning South Africa for its crime rate, or if we had been discouraged by the ridiculous amount of paperwork you’re required to submit to obtain your visa, we might never have moved here. We would have been the poorer for it, as it was an amazing place to live. We can’t wait for the day we’ll be able to return for a lot more exploration.
Sine Thieme lived in Johannesburg, South Africa, with her husband and four children from 2010 to 2013. She continues to blog about expat life on Joburg Expat and has recently published her first book, Kilimanjaro Diaries, available from Amazon.