Howzit, and welcome to Suth Efrika.
We are a land of delicious wines and terrible beer. Where we pay poor people dirt to guard our cars and pretend it’s employment. Elephants and lions. Mall culture and overpriced chai lattes. Where you can escape the cities in an hour and find yourself in the most beautiful places, and meet the kindest people. And elephants and lions. Our president is an alleged rapist, and our police force murders people who complain that they are still being oppressed two decades after independence. Did I mention elephants and lions?
We love the outdoors, and hate the people with degrees who run away to Australia, Canada, and the UK, then tell everyone the country “just isn’t safe (read: for white / rich / educated / privileged people).” We have some pretty amazing history, and some that is dark as night. But we mostly choose to ignore it and pretend that the tyranny and overthrow of apartheid was as morally straightforward as Star Wars. We are experts at things that involve meat and beer, and distracting you (and ourselves) from anything uncomfortable. Also elephants. And lions.
Welcome to South Africa. We’re a little bit completely fucked, and here’s a guide to making yourself properly unwelcome.
Understand, before we start, that we’re quite good at living in denial. Like, really good. Superstars at ignoring reality, really. To make the whole freedom thing work without having the country explode mostly comes down to South Africans having an incredibly keen ability to repress any kind of nascent conflict. So to piss us off, you need to be persistent.
Any of the below strategies for enraging us will be met with some kind of noncommittal shuffle in the dialogue as we reach out for something innocent to distract you. Like how cool our country is for tourists (we are really, really cool for tourists). Or how you really can’t make generalisations about a nation as diverse as ours. I mean, we do it a lot. But you aren’t allowed to.
To successfully piss us off, you must not allow this evasion. Keep pushing the issue until — like a besieged laager — we have no more small talk to deflect you with. If you are skilled enough, you’ll be able to watch us move from uncomfortable to slightly miff to properly angry.
Right. Got it? Here we go.
Make the Danny Archer (Denni Acha) voice.
Seriously bru. Tell me “This is Africa.” Or some shit about “coming here with your leptop computer and your hend senitaazer and hoping to make a diffrins.” Or anything about “fokken prawns.” Just try it.
We have dozens of different accents, from fossilized 1960s BBC English through to a form of lyrical screaming endemic to the Cape. But all that anyone seems to cast for in movies is a kind of flat Afrikaans that it’s then assumed we all speak, and will find screamingly funny.
So when I come pick you up from the arrivals terminal at the airport, tell me how I sound nothing like a South African and persistently quote Blood Diamond and District 9 at me. Or tell me I sound exactly like it. See what kind of a turn our friendship takes.
Push the domestic politics conversation.
We are aware that, with a few notable exceptions, our national leadership makes the Bush administration look like an entirely honest collection of well-intentioned do-gooders. But pestering us for our thoughts on politics — or worse, trying to explain it to us — is a non-refundable one-way ticket to Angersville.
Depending who you talk politics to, you might be treated to a delicious use of the euphemism “they.” As in “they are just messing up the country.” Or “things were so much better / simpler / more moral before they took over.” Possibly — if you are playing to an older audience — they may tell you how things went downhill in Rhodesia back in the ’80s.
If this happens, you are talking to a Racist™. Congratulations. We have a huge problem with racism, but by popular consent very few actual racists — so you’ve excelled in identifying one. Tenaciously interrogate them to find out who they mean when they say “they,” and keep probing until they blow.
Point out how we treat the poor.
We’re a really unequal society. The fourth most unequal in world rankings. The other three are basically statistical anomalies. We worked really hard at it for decades.
On one end of the spectrum lie the wealthy — black and white — in suburban fortresses, behind electric fencing and violent private security companies. On the other are the majority poor who live in often horrible conditions in townships and shantytowns.
Wealthier South Africans will sometimes refer to those townships or squatter camps in asinine, politically correct moments as “locations” or “settlements” (for some truly Kafka-esque reversal of colonial history). And employ people from those areas as household servants, gardeners, or nannies at wages that can range from fair to human-slavery-level illegal. Many South Africans will still refer to a 42-year-old gardener as a “garden boy,” or a housekeeper as “the girl.”
We’ve mostly found that the best way to deal with this morally compromised state of affairs is to ignore it. So we really, really dislike it when you point out that we’re doing so. Or worse — imply that we are somehow complicit in exploiting the poor.
So ask how much so-and-so pays their servants. Whether they know the name of the person caring for their child. Or whether it’s ever occurred to them that their given names might not actually be ‘Beauty’ or ‘Innocent.’ Keep pushing through the bullshit and excuses and you will eventually strike gold.
Provoke a Cape Town vs. Johannesburg argument.
Joburg is the beating economic heart of the country. It’s where around 80% of the country’s money gets made, most people go to make a life, and where your plane probably touched down. Jo’burgers pride themselves on the hustle and bustle of city life, reckon they are probably responsible for paying for everything, and love making jokes about Cape Town being a city of stoners and smoothie-drinking, organic-salad-eating hipsters.
Cape Town has the mountain. And wine farms. And is utterly fucking glorious all year round except for a horrible rainy spot in June / July. So they tell the Johannesburg people that it’s just jealousy speaking, and that they are a generally emotionally stunted folk who are actually only in Joburg to earn enough money to allow them to retire in Cape Town.
This argument is old, intractable, and great fun to watch. It also involves no sustained effort on your part to stoke. Get a local from each city out for drinks together and ask which is better. Just make sure you have a boatload of time on your hands. Having anyone from any other city present can further produce a form of three-dimensional anger when they are told that — for all intents and purposes — their city is irrelevant. It’s like watching a lived-out version of that pithy quote about what happens to the grass when elephants fight.
Ask questions about apartheid as though it were not a distant historical fact.
The Germans don’t talk about the war, and white people don’t talk about apartheid as though it was a thing many of them actually lived through. There’s a joke about it being impossible to find a white person who voted for the National Party. Because jokes are funny, and mean we can agree to just pretend that everyone over a certain age was just innocently drinking ideological cool aid.
Across the races, nobody ever collaborated with the state, or profited from the status quo. No sir. Everyone believed in the struggle, or was a part of it somehow.
So if you don’t want to ever be invited to Sunday lunch again, ask who voted for the old government, served in the army, or generally thought there was nothing wrong with a world full of “whites only” signs.
Tell us how you “know” South Africa from the time you spent in Cape Town / Jeffreys Bay / a township.
Or use the word “whiteness.” Combine it with anything remotely liberal that you learned in your Critical Race Studies course at university. Use words like “invisible privilege,” “shame,” or “guilt.”
Be sure to point out how the children of white people benefited from apartheid. Or how government largesse since 1994 has spawned a class of obscene nouveau riche out of touch with the moral and ethical debates in the country.
Really, please tell us all about the uncomfortable problems we have to live through unresolved on a daily basis, and how you think we should solve them. We had no idea whatsoever, and would absolutely love your learned opinion.
I mean, it’s not as if we are invested in living in a privileged delusion or anything.
For expats, ask when we left.
If you meet us in Canada, Australia, or the UK, and we’ve been there for a while, hassle us about being unpatriotic. If we left just before or after 1994, suggest that it was because we were probably not able to cope with the loss of privilege that apartheid afforded us.
Expatriate South Africans can be a sore point for those who stayed behind. Particularly when, for example, our public health system is a rampant disaster while hospital-fuls of Saffer doctors arrive in the UK and Canada to set up shop. Point this out. Ask whether we are thinking of returning to South Africa one day, and why we’ve been away so long. Listen carefully for references to “they,” and follow up with probing questions.
Assume we share the views of your expat Saffer friends.
The problem with getting up the nose of expat South Africans is that there are a sizable number in foreign lands who really, actually are unreformed Racists™ who left around 1994 because they didn’t like what a free country meant for their privilege. The kinds of people who happily talk about what “they” (see above) are doing to the country.
We hate it, then, when you come to visit and think that we really are a nation of “them,” and people who hate “them.” The more you persist with this perspective, the more abrasive you will become.
South Africa is like a big, dwarven mine with depths full of racist, historic mithril. Except we’ve mostly learned not to dig too deep, and to ignore everything that feels like a difficult moral question.
So thanks, Gandalf, for deciding to descend into our fragile social shafts with your conversational dynamite. Now piss off.
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Richard lives and works in South Africa, exploring as often as possible the strange and unknown places that his continent is so rich in. What stories of far flung places and mischief he is able to trap and bring home are mounted on his blog. Where the Road Goes.
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