Friday, March 2, 2018

Impressions and experiences in South Africa

In this article, I want to share some of my experiences from my long stay in South Africa, almost 7 months in 2016 and 2017. I had a great time in country travelling around on weekends but surprisingly I enjoyed staying back on Joburg also as much. There was always a sense of warmth and liveliness which I felt every time I landed there, which is difficult to describe.

This article is not a comprehensive view of the country by any measure - I don't think its especially possible for SA given how complex it is. This is more of me putting together all the things I noticed and heard which were interesting but don't fall under any of the other travel headings.

I must say though that what I have seen is only a small portion of SA but it is some SA at least. Its not the real South Africa though, that is in the villages and townships where I never visited. So I don’t know how 90% of the people actually live. But I can say that the part I saw, the better part – I liked tremendously.

About the Cities

There are a couple of big cities in South Africa where a lot of the population is concentrated – Joburg, Durban, Cape Town and Pretoria, and after that the cities are below a million people. These cities are quite modern and look quite similar. They could be in Europe for all you know, with not much of local African touch in the cities left nowadays. All of them have English names, English roads, English parks and so on.

The cities do have their own short history, like Port Elizabeth, East London and so on. But they are missing the history of the local people. You can find an Oxford Road or Cotswold street or a Hyde Park everywhere, but there are barely any local names in these cities. What all these are, are some posh areas with beautiful bungalows and malls, and the rest of the population staying in townships which are tin sheet covered small houses crowded with each other. After the fall of Apartheid, it is all changing but it will take decades before this difference vanishes and for now, it stays as it is.

The rest of the country is quite spread out, with some more towns and then small villages all located very far from each other. At least I have heard that there are villages, but I haven't seen any.  When you are driving in the countryside, you see huge farms on both sides, some of them being farmed but a lot of them completely empty. Someone mentioned anecdotally (and there is no way I can verify this), the whites own all the farms and a lot of them have migrated out of SA. However, they still own them and chose to not farm them rather than give it to the blacks for farming. And so vast land lies uncultivated but for giving the benefit to the blacks.

The farms that still do have farming, its always the blacks working there. And when you are driving in the countryside, they are the ones who sit along the road asking for lifts, in the sun. Its never a white guy ever asking for a lift.


I think the people of South Africa are amazing. I love their zest for like, their liveliness and general happiness – it is quite in contrast to the Europeans I must say. I did interact a lot with the blacks, so maybe my view is biased. The accent, the enthusiasm in the voice – its all very infectious.

People are very polite and everyone says hello to you, and smiles at you. Also, everyone will always ask you ‘how are you’, expect an answer, expect a 'how are you' from you, answer it and only then start any conversation. I found this tough to get used to initially but now when I use it in London, people look at me weirdly 😊.

Also another interesting thing is that the locals address a woman sometime as mummy (if you are older) or sister. The sister part is fine, but I think mummy is too funny and weird! I was thrown off by that many times.

Dance and music is a part of the people of the country. Its very common to see people break into an impromptu performance when there is music. Whether its on the streets of Cape Town or Durban, or the airport – you should never be surprised to see music playing and some people joining in to join the fun. As I said, dance and music is in the air, and the genes!

African women’s hair is also very complex. I was initially impressed with how long everyone’s hair was and my friends turned up in different hairstyles every few weeks. Till I realised that it was fake hair and carefully braided in the different styles! It takes hours for each of the hairstyle, but is quite impressive that one can change their hair and their look so suddenly at any time. I do wish though that people were more comfortable with keeping their natural hair rather than having to straighten it to meet Western standards.

Rules are quite important in the country. Everyone follows them to a fault. And customisation is not the name of the game, which I used to find frustrating sometimes. Also, funnily they don’t allow driving licenses as ID for domestic flights. Only passports work – something I learnt the hard way!


The culture in SA is quite a mix of the original African culture and Christianity. Though I think a lot of the original culture is lost, especially in the young people.

Also in weddings, the family of the boy has to give gifts to the girl’s family! Earlier it used to be cows, but now you can pay cash instead of cows. Apparently, there is one ceremony which is basically the negotiation between the families on the number of cows that will be given! Also, nowadays, weddings have some 4-5 events including an African traditional wedding, a white church wedding and an official wedding in the court. So it ends up being a long multi-week/month affair.

There are some 10 or so main tribes in South Africa – Zulu, Xhosa, Venda, Swati and so on. They all have some of their own cultures but now there is a lot of mixing and differences have reduced. The status of women in the society is not too bad either. They work, drive and lead an equal life, at least in the cities.

The two most powerful tribes of SA, the Zulu and the Xhosa have quite a difficult relationship till now. Apparently, they had a different view of dealing with the Afrikaners and that has led to long-standing differences. Even now, there is a lot of politics between the two tribes, so much so that even today, in the state of Kwa-Zulu Natal, where the Zulu are in majority, they would not treat a Xhosa with too much respect. I heard anecdotally that in the state hierarchy, it’s the Zulu on the top, then Indians and even the Whites and Afrikaans people comes above the Xhosa. I found that quite funny but sad too, that till today the people of the country are divided in some ways, which ends up benefiting some of the outsiders.

I heard a very interesting tit bit which I am not very sure of but wanted to share anyways. One of the Venda tribes has a surname which matches one of the Jewish surnames of the lost tribe. And this tribe till today follows some of the traditions which are similar to the Jews. So could they be one of the lost tribes of Israel??

The Indians from SA are different from the Indians from India. After being away from the country for centuries, they have developed their own culture. Most of them live near Durban and a few in Petermaritzburg. They have a typical South African accent, and speak ‘Durban’ as my friend put it. And have developed a local Indian dish called ‘Bunny Chow’! They also have some names which are not that common in India, like Chetty, Moodley and so on.

However, they still follow the festivals and culture from India, celebrating festivals like Holi and Diwali, Navratri, wearing Indian clothes for weddings, watching Hindi movies and some of them even speak Hindi even though the younger generation does not. Its interesting to see how as an Indian, you would connect in some ways and in some not be able to with people who left your country so long ago.

You can see the influence of Britishness everywhere, especially with the names of streets and the number of parks in the cities. The British as well as the Dutch made the country their own, and you can see which were the British and which the Dutch spheres of influence. Also because of that I think, there is the same fascination in SA for London and the UK as I see quite often in India. The rest of the world on one side, London and UK on the other😊.

Politics and business

South Africa has one of the most complicated histories and complications. I must say I have read the wiki page a couple of times but I still get confused with the whole British and Dutch interactions, the Boer wars and how Apartheid came across. So am not going to write about.

I am just going to mention a few things I noticed. One of course is that corruption is a big part of the country though it has not been accepted by the people. They still protest against it, unlike India where it almost been accepted. The whole Zuma - Gupta scandal is quite popular anyways. I credit Indians to have exported such levels of corruption to the country😊.

But there are lot of other aspects which are already there. For example, to get out of a traffic violation, you need to give the cop 50 ZAR and that is good. They even have a service at the airport where you can get faster through the immigration queues. But it does not seem like a valid way – it feels more like the employees know everyone around in the airport and just take you to the front of the queue! Its definitely convenient but basically shows how you can get around the rules in the country.

And there is something about getting a SA visa which makes you feel that they think the whole world wants to get there and never leave!! It takes a month to get an appointment at their visa center, and they give only 3 month visas at a time! If you want to get an extension, you have to get a detailed medical examination done - all of which I found very surprising.

Also, there is a lot of entrepreneurship in the country, or at least was for many years. There are lot of companies which have a global presence but are headquartered in SA. The reason for that is during the sanctions of the apartheid times, given how isolated they were, there was a huge drive to build companies to service its needs. And when the sanctions lifted, all these countries looked outwards, did acquisitions and flourished.


Racism and talk about it is such a big part of South African life, its surprising. Specially coming from the western world where you have to be politically correct the whole time, it was quite uncomfortable for me initially to talk about it.

Racial differences very much exist in the society. Even though everyone seems to have mixed in well together, it is going to be decades before it becomes truly mixed. The Blacks are still mostly poor and live in townships which are not the best parts of town. The whites have the massive bungalows in the posh parts of town, multiple holiday homes along the sea and Kruger and Garden routes and so on. They still have the best jobs and own all the assets in the country.

Joburg being a working class city still seems a lot less but I have heard that Capetown is a lot more racist even now. A few black colleagues of mine mentioned that if they would call a restaurant, they would not get a booking. But a white friend of theirs calling at the same time would! I can’t even imagine how it would feel to live in your own country like this. But I think still the positivity around is very impressive.

I also heard a lot of people stating their views that they thought the whites should have left when they got freedom. They should not have stayed on, owning all the assets. It is almost as if they have freedom only in name, but definitely not any economic freedom.

To anyone visiting SA I would say, it’s a lot more open place to talk about race and racial differences than any other place I have visited. And people make fun of themselves as well as the others. I have heard people say about themselves – this is how you recognise a black person’s house, this is the typical furniture he would have and so on. But it seems a lot more easy to talk about it than it actually would be, and sometimes it is easy to not see how much pain there would be underneath this positive exterior.

Living in South Africa

Living in SA is grand and luxurious if you have the money. Good infrastructure and roads everywhere (and I must say one of the cleanest public toilets I have seen anywhere!). Huge houses with pools. Beaches and wildlife and mountains and greenery. Its got everything. To top it off, there is the awesome weather which is great the whole year around.

There is a lot of beauty everywhere you do. KZN and Durban beaches, Limpopo with its mountains and Kruger, Garden Route with the mountains and the sea. It all sounds so heavenly. There are enchanting vistas wherever you go, and sometimes its so tough to capture it all in words or in pictures either.

There are also a lot of activities everywhere, whether its bungee jumping, para sailing, shark diving, quad biking and so on. Anywhere you go, there will be a few things to do in the outdoors. I think its because of the great weather that people love and can be outdoors a lot more than other countries.

People here love to enjoy life, chat and gossip. And generally smile and be happy all the time. Braai’s are quite common, to sit outside in the good weather, make food, and eat and chat. Isn’t that the idyllic life all of us want? Of course, there is a lot more underneath. But at least on the surface, it’s the ideal life.


Safety is definitely not the best point of SA. If you are careful enough, lock your cars when you drive, keep your purse in the boot, not go to unsafe areas alone or at night, you should generally be ok. Unless of course you are unlucky. But overall, its not as bad as is made out to be. In fact some statistics also say that Paris is more unsafe than SA, but I need to check that to confirm😉

That being said, I did once see a direction for a gun safe in a hotel, so I do think there is something to the bad safety reputation SA has but it is not as bad as it is made out to be. In fact I heard that this image has been created by a lot of the rich South Africans who have been leaving the country since Apartheid fell. And they are rich and influential, and creating this image of SA as a massively unsafe place not fit to live. It is nowhere as what I imagined before I went there. In fact, I know of a lot of stories where expats did not want to shift to SA, but once there, they and their families love it so much that they don’t want to leave it anymore. So as I said, it is definitely unsafe but not what its made out to be.


I was very impressed with the driving in SA. The roads and infrastructure was very modern and well kept. And the driving sense is amazing, people drive without aggression. Public transport is limited though, we rarely saw buses on the highways, and most people drive. A lot of the driveways accept e-tags which makes it easy to drive. I did notice an unusually high number of broken cars on the highways though, all the time. It might be the sun and the heat, and old condition of the cars, but something I noticed.

Tips for travelling in SA

I have already mentioned a lot of the tips in the countless articles before. A few here overall for travelling around the country

1) Rent a car and drive around. The infrastructure is great for driving. And the drives make you see a part of SA you would never see otherwise, the bare lands and the rich bungalows, the green and the desert, and so on
2) Whenever visiting the national parks, stay inside. You can book through the Sanparks sites. The site isn’t great, but it’s the best place to stay
3) The cities have much less to offer than the countryside. Stay outside the cities to enjoy the real life. Even in Cape Town, stay somewhere near Pringles Bay. You will experience much more that way than otherwise
4) For vegetarian Indian food, go to Raj. The restaurants has branches everywhere touristy and the food there is lovely!
5) Be careful how much food and drinks you order, the restaurants love to serve huge portions all the time!

I gush about SA so much that it might appear that I love it more than London. And that’s the part about home. I miss the politeness of SA and the weather all the time.  But as much as I may love it, it is always nice to be back at your own place. Of course the fact that you don’t need to watch your belongings 24*7, and you can walk out of your house and walk wherever you want to does help. And London is still home, and as they say – home is where the heart is...

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