African Journal - Report 7
Pretoria, late September 1999
Time is flying here in South Africa. My time to leave is coming up quickly now. It is quite amazing what routine can do. Since my last report, not much has changed in both of my jobs here.
I'm still teaching at the school. In typically African fashion, all the plans to upgrade the PC lab have not been implemented yet. I'm sitting with the same equipment, some of which is passing out on me, trying to make the best of it all. I was recently promised money to upgrade, but then it was withdrawn again. Nothing new, in other words. I actually doubt that new stuff will arrive before the end of my stay here. And once I am gone, only God knows which way the situation will go. I'm not indifferent to that fact, but I've also realised that there isn't much I can do. If I'd stay here for much longer, I'd plough more energy into pushing and shoving the project ahead. But since I'll be gone so soon... Frustration is slowly but surely setting in.
At Outreach, things are slackening. Since my boss Pat left, I haven't had much direction. Basically, I'm looking for schools and teachers in need of training myself, so I can set up workshops and keep myself busy. Before, whenever I'd come in, Pat would have a big to-do list for me. I'm missing the drive a bit. But I don't have either sufficient insight, vision, or energy for the project to take a leadership role. Also, there is lots of tension in the organisation, and more people might leave soon. In many ways, Outreach is a sinking ship until a good captain takes over. Whether that will happen, no one knows.
My spare-time has become both more individualistic and more "local". All of my previous Dutch housemates have left by now; I'm sharing the kindergarten with only one other guy from Holland (Good news is that, because he has come, I can stay here until the end of the year! No more moves!).
Consequently, I am spending a lot more time in Atteridgeville township. I am getting more used to the township way of thinking, and I am understanding many things much better. I feel very comfortable there, also. In a way, Att/ville is much more of a community than the area I live in (Sunnyside) is. In Att/ville, everybody knows everybody, in Sunnyside, many people don't even know their neighbours. If I go visit somebody in the township, almost all the time they will offer me a drink, and often food. Everyone is so hospitable. There is no hostility towards me, but usually friendly curiosity (at worst indifference to the "Lekhoa" (White man). People hang about, visiting each other, chatting and sometimes singing. The whole place buzzes at night, people are out on the street.
In Sunnyside, to the contrary, there is a lot of tension. It is a mixed area (about 50% black, 50% white), but people don't mix at all. Whites stick to whites, and blacks to blacks, and everyone is suspicious of each other. It's quite sad.
Sure, there is a lot more crime happening in the townships, and some of the stories of violence, rape and child abuse are horrific. But I haven't been personally affected, and the area of Att/ville that I am in often is pretty wealthy and rather safe. So I'm spared that face of Att/ville. I really feel that my time spent with my black friends is a lot more "real" and "African" than my time spent with whites, be they locals or foreigners.
One thing that bugs me still is the rampant materialism that prevails, especially in the townships (the rural areas are still not that bad, and more focused on traditional moral values like honouring your elders, worship the ancestors, etc.)
Sure, on the one hand one can understand that many people are still living in relative poverty, and the ones who have made middle or upper class have not been there for long. So having a TV (or two, or three) does matter more to them then to people from the West who've been growing up with this stuff for decades.
But still - with the majority of township people, most things here are "raw and simple". You have money, you have a nice car - you are somebody. If you don't, tough luck. Pretence and bragging is widespread. ("If you don't praise yourself, nobody will do it for you..."). Things like personal development and growth are pretty much laughed on with most people.
Same straight rule applies to relationships, especially with young people. If a guy takes out a girl, he'll pay for everything. In return, she'll sleep with him. Basically, it's quite straightforward prostitution. It's not really up to her to decide. He pays for her - he screws her, as simple as that. It seems to be a mutually accepted principle. That's one of the reasons why many guys are prepared to protect their "investments" (their women) with guns if necessary. Since true love is much talked about, but never really made a prerequisite for a relationship, many girls simply go with the highest bidder. Hence the fact that close to 20% of the kids between 15 and 25 are HIV positive.
I haven't really been able to cope with the way relationships work out here; consequently I've been single since I came here. I doubt that will change. Pity, though...
I've started looking beyond SA. One thing that I'm planning now is not to come back to Europe straight after I finish-up here; I want to trek through Southern Africa for 2-3 months before going back. Sounds like a good idea, exiting, and it may be a while before I can get a chunk of time like that off easily.
Afterwards, I'll be up for grabs in the job market. I'm doing research now, on whom I want to work for, in what field, etc. Then I'll go out and bother my "ideal employers". If anyone knows a cool company, maybe working in web stuff or other high tech, and that has a warm and personal work environment, let me know.
Before all that, I'm off for 2 weeks of holidays with my mom and brother through SA end of this month. I'm looking forward to that!
A slight taste of bitterness
I've seen some of the ugly face of things here during the last two weeks. Firstly, I finally found a girl here in Att/ville who doesn't seem to be materialistic, who's smart and fun to talk to, and stunningly beautiful on top. And she likes me. Congratulations, you say? Well, not quite. I had to find out that the rules here are different. She's got an ex-boyfriend who disagrees with the "ex" part. She says she's broken up a long time ago, he says "fuck you, you don't leave me, bitch". The disagreement matters because he'll see any new guy as a rival, and a challenge to his "manhood". The fact that I am white doesn't make things easier ("the whites are taking our women away..."). The spicy twist to that is that he tends to express disagreement with bullets; he once shot a guy and a woman in their bedroom because he considered her to be "his" woman. And that while he was in a committed (for whatever "commitment" is worth here) relationship with someone else. "I touch you once, you're always mine". Anyway, he never served time in jail for the crime. He got out on bail, and is now working for SA Correctional Services - that's right, he's working for the department that's running SA prisons. He's never been convicted, and is running around freely.
Consequently, I backed off. I don't call, I don't visit. And I'm furious inside that some thug prevents me from getting to know someone I like. But I love my life too much to make any wrong moves. There are many people here who are quick at hand with violence. In fact, it's the most accepted form of conflict-resolution. Even my friend's mom (a teacher, with two degrees, smart woman) tell me "why don't you beat him" when I once moaned that he irritates me. What ever happened to "sit down and talk things over"?
Just this morning, I saw how quickly violence can hit you. I was walking down the street, when 10m from me two thugs (a white guy and a black guy - hail the "New South Africa") sprayed pepper spray in the face of another bystander. They tried to rip his wallet from him, he ran away, across the road - and straight into a police car that was driving by. He flew 10m trough the air on the impact. They transported him off full of facial bandages and stabilisers, and I wonder whether he'll make it.
One moment you walk peacefully on a public shopping boulevard, with hundreds of people around you, safe at 10am in the morning. Next moment you're on a stretcher praying that you'll live to see tomorrow. All just like this. And best of all, the two thugs walked away from the scene without any hurry, never to be seen again. Nobody would make an attempt to stop them. Understandably -- who wants a bullet in their head? I saw them, I was an immediate witness, and I didn't either. And the police didn't bother all that much about taking my statement. They see that stuff so often, no money was taken, he ran into the car himself - 99% chance that they won't even investigate.
Once you see stuff like that, you start to understand what makes people pack up and leave. And this incident was comparatively minor, and I wasn't personally affected. Once you find yourself on your knees, a gun in your mouth, begging the gangsters to take anything they want but please, please don't pull that trigger... If you live to tell the story, the next phone call you make is to the movers. Or to the more expensive private security company. That's if you're lucky enough to have the money for these options. Otherwise, you talk to the gun dealer next door. Welcome to your own private war scenario.
I've been considering looking for a job here. The last two weeks have discouraged me quite a bit. Yes, SA has a lot of raw energy, and it is sure not boring. But the form the energy takes all too often - violence and aggression - I just don't want to copy with. Maybe living in a "safe and boring" European or US town won't be quite such a challenge. But it is sure better to your mental and physical health.
...same day, 3 hrs later:
I've just heard of another case at my school here. Last Friday (I wasn't there), a suspended student came into the school with a gun. He had a list of people to "deal with" on him. Apparently, he was holding a grudge against the school, and some teachers, for letting him fail for the 3rd consecutive year.
Fortunately, a student tipped off the staff, who called the police. The gun got smuggled off the school premises before the police arrived, but the student got arrested eventually. He's sitting in jail awaiting trial, and the school will be opposing bail because we wouldn't be safe here with him around.
Things like that I've only read in the papers so far, but I'm realising just how real they really are.
There are many things that I'll miss when I leave SA, but I reckon all I have to do to make my departure easier is to think of incidents like the one above.
The trip with my mom and brother was great, we all enjoyed the beautiful landscapes and nature of South Africa, just like good tourists should. They want to come back some time, there's so much to see still. Especially lions, whom we didn't get to spot in the parks we visited.
There's a bit more than one month of work left, and no big changes are expected. At school, we'll have exams, so it will be no more teaching from 8/11/99, and at Outreach, things are slow, also. I'll have a birthday braai tomorrow, the first party I've thrown in a long time. I hope to catch up with all the people I've gotten to know here. Interestingly, few of them will be under 30, it will be quite an "old" party. Guess I'm loosing touch with my age-group... *smile*
Once I put down the tools here, I want to go travel big time. Initially, I was planning to be back in Dresden for Christmas, and do the Millenium thing in Berlin. But I've changed my mind - I'll go backpack through Southern Africa instead. In december I'll check out Namibia, then I'll do Xmas and Y2K somewhere, and then I'll go up" Zimbabwe, through Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, Zanzibar, and back down through Mozambique. Guess it will take about 2 months, all by public transport. I'm really looking forward to that!
After that, I'll be full-time job-hunting. I'm looking for a job, preferably in a small, fast-growing high tech company. Something like an Internet company, perhaps.
More generally, it looks like this: I've been doing some jobseeker's exercises, and the
fields I've come up with that I'd like to work in are: high tech and/or
business/politics/economics, combined with lots of intercultural exposure. Combine that
with work like analyzing/problem-solving/consulting and training, and a bit of creative
work. Throw in a warm and personal work environment where I'll be challenged at the same
time, and you have my dream job. If you know anything like that out there, please drop me
a line, will you?
I guess this will be the last report from SA, unless dramatic things should happen. Keep well, and you'll hear from me!