Joburg Expat: July 2010

July 26, 2010


It is 8:30 on a Saturday morning, and our family of six is ready to go on our first tour of Soweto. It doesn’t sound like much, but this is quite an accomplishment! Not only getting everybody out of bed and out the door on time, but overcoming all sorts of grumbling – from the typical suspect, Zax, who does not particularly enjoy family outings and can sense an “educational trip” from a hundred miles away, but also, more surprisingly, from Sunshine, who has lately taken to throwing herself on the floor of her room and yelling “I’m not going anywhere!” Jabulani was grouchy but ready, and Impatience, who loves packing, was busy stuffing a “purse” with all sorts of useful things like biltong, water bottles, at least four card games, and a battery of books.

We arrive on time at the Palazzo Hotel at Montecasino, where we will be picked up by a Themba Tours bus. Rather then setting out on our own, we have chosen this tour (R450 per adult, kids half price, for a half-day tour, but there are a series of other tours on offer as well, including “Soweto by bicycle” which also sounded intriguing to me), partly because of the convenience of a personal guide, but also, I admit, because “going into Soweto” has such a dangerous ring – at least to our white ears. I’m not sure what I was expecting - scary figures lurking at every corner? Shootings? Road blocks? Burning cars? As it turns out, Soweto is nothing of the sort, but more on that later.

Soweto cooling towers featuring bungee jumpers
First, you will have to bear with me as we endure one more lesson on African time, because we have been waiting for half an hour, and still no bus. The one that was there when we arrived has left, full of another tour group, whose guide kindly called the office and confirmed that his colleague is on his way, “arriving in two minutes!” What he fails to confirm, however, is where his colleague is headed, which turns out to be an entirely different hotel all the way across town. But since we have learned not to take “two minutes” at face value, at first we just wait, without knowledge of this complication. Impatience’s purse has come in handy, as the kids are happily playing cards while devouring our only food. Another bus arrives after half an hour, which we happily board, but we are informed that it is not for us but the 9:00 group. Since it is 9:15 and the 9:00 group nowhere to be seen, we propose what seems the obvious – we get this bus and the 9:00 group, whenever it shows up, can take ours. However, this plan meets firm resistance, which results in Noisette, who has now predictably lost his patience, herding us back to our car so that we can visit the Apartheid museum on our own, but as we are leaving the parking lot, our bus driver waves us down and promises, promises, to take us immediately. We all board the bus, again. While Noisette is parking the car, again, the driver informs me that we will just wait very briefly for the other people, and then leave. Oh no, I politely tell him, you don’t know my husband. We are either leaving now or there will be a tantrum. This somehow impresses him and we do leave, without further delay. Not on the tour yet, it turns out, but to meet our designated driver, who is racing from the place he was erroneously sent to meet us at. This is purely an effort to divert us from our fuming outrage. It works, as always - you are happy just as long as you are moving, anywhere. We make a brief stop to switch vans, and finally, at 9:40, are on our way. Not a minute too soon – I was sensing imminent revolution from my family.

Hector Pieterson Memorial
While we are driving along the highway, Loyd, our guide, treats us to a quick history of Soweto, where he himself has lived all his life. Soweto stands for SOuth WEstern TOwnships, a name that was officially adopted in the 1960s for the sprawling accumulation of townships where blacks and coloreds were more or less banned to live under the Apartheid government.  According to Wikipedia , Soweto today has a population of 1.3 million, but Loyd puts the number at closer to 4.5 million. Once you see it, you’ll know why it is nearly impossible to get an official count. On June 16, 1976, the struggle against the injustices of Apartheid was propelled onto the world stage, when the police brutally tried to quell student protests against a new government initiative to require education in Afrikaans rather than English. Hector Pieterson, a 13-year old schoolboy, was one of 23 people killed that day, which has become known as the Soweto Uprising and is today commemorated as Youth Day in South Africa. In the aftermath of the uprising, Soweto became a sort of power central of black resistance, and its history is inextricably linked with the history of South Africa and its rise to become a democracy in 1994.

Hostels in Kliptown
Our first stop is Soccer City, which we’ve already seen at night in all its glory of a World Cup game, and it’s not actually in Soweto either, so we don’t linger. The Welcome to Soweto sign is only a brief photo stop as well, and then we make our way into Soweto. This is actually considered the “wealthy” section, and it does indeed look very middle class – tidy houses, walled in (but interestingly no barbed wire or high-voltage lines to be seen), and lush, green gardens. Nothing, in my mind, is a more telling sign of wealth than the presence of plants. The greener, the higher the trees, the richer. To those of us who imagined Soweto as more or less a collection of shacks, this side of it comes as a surprise. We drive by a high school, pretty playgrounds, a huge shopping center all steel and glass. But right next to all that, in Kliptown, we see one of Soweto’s uglier sights, the hostels. These are long rows of gray barracks resembling prisons, which were built in the days when migrant workers from the countryside (what people here call “homelands”) arrived in the city to work at the mines and needed temporary housing.

The most striking contrast is evident when we arrive at our first real stop, the Elias Motsoaledi squatter camp. Lean-to shacks, as far as the eye can see, built from anything that might make a wall or a roof, red, dusty dirt everywhere, not a blade of grass to be seen. Loyd hands us off to another local guide and we begin walking. Zax, clearly alarmed, wants to know if he can stay in the van, but we don’t let him. The younger ones don’t seem to mind, and Sunshine soon has a throng of little boys following her. We visit a preschool where normally twenty children are crammed into a hut. But today no children are present, except one screaming baby having its diaper changed. I cannot help but notice the swarms of flies and imagine what it must be like in the heat of summer. There is no state funding for this kind of school, we are informed, so I slide the only money I happen to have in my pocket, a R100 note, into the donation box. We are then invited into someone’s house, trying to squeeze into the kitchen all at the same time. I’m squashed against an ancient refrigerator but soon realize that it is merely used as a cupboard, since there is no electricity. Stoves and lights are fueled with paraffin. Water taps and toilets are outside and have to be shared throughout the community. The bedroom next door features two beds, which somehow is enough for this family of eight. We take some pictures, thank our hostess, make another donation, and retreat. Noisette quietly informs me that he is running out of money, as he has also donated his largest bill to the preschool. If you are planning a trip into Soweto, make sure that you best bring lots of small bills for all the people who will want your money. No one told us about this, but I'm sure with a little more forethought I could have come up with it myself. At any rate, Noisette distributes all his coins to the little kids who’ve surrounded him and then we flee back to the parking lot, where our toothless guide asks for a donation of R50 per person for the community. All we have left is one R50 bill, and we are punished with angry stares, but there is nothing we can do. Plus, we feel better for having contributed the largest share to the cause of education, hoping that it will actually be used for the kids.

Whatever money you bring to Soweto you will leave behind
Back in the van, it becomes evident that the kids are getting hungry. I am peppered with “how much longer” and “this is stupid.” I admit I have not properly thought this through. In my mind, there would have been a collection of street hawkers selling the local fare at every stop, but surprisingly this is not so. Plus, we have no more money! There is nothing I can offer other than promises of “soon,” and so we move on to Freedom Square, where the Freedom Charter is engraved in stone under a cupola. It is a collection of principles adopted by the ANC for the new South Africa, a sort of mix between the Declaration of Independence and Preamble to the Constitution, proclaiming “The people shall govern!”, “All shall be equal before the law!” and much more. It is all the more impressive knowing that it was drafted in the 1950s, way before any of this was actually written into law. We are serenaded by a recorder-wielding local with the South African National Anthem, which brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it, for its beauty and for the sense of improbability of its ever being written – in three languages – in the first place. As more songs follow, we grow more and more uncomfortable for our lack of money to tip him with. So we set out in different directions, Noisette in search of an ATM (“cash converter”) and me to find toilets. We are both successful (imagine, the people in Soweto bank too!) and are soon spending freely again, since there is a seller of local crafts whom the kids have spotted.

Stained glass window, Regina Mundi church
Lasting image of Soweto Uprising
Our next stops are Regina Mundi Church, where many political meetings were held when they were officially banned during Apartheid (and various bullet holes attest to the danger of those very meetings), and the Hector Pieterson Museum, which was erected near the site where Hector Pieterson was shot in 1976. Unfortunately, I only get to take a few pictures outside before I spend our allotted 30 minutes in search for food for the kids, who are by now in open revolt. We venture across the street to find a local restaurant serving kotas, also called bunny chow . This is a pretty strange sandwich stuffed with French fries (yes!) and bologna and pink ketchup which succeeds in filling us up but will not be on my list of “must-have South African foods.” The kids are appeased, however, and I vow to return on my own to learn more about the Soweto Uprising.

Mandela House
We approach our next and final stop by winding our way through the throngs of a funeral procession, down Vilakazi Street in Orlando West toward Mandela House. This is where Nelson Mandela and his family lived from 1946 into the 1990s. Mandela didn’t really spend much time there himself, if you consider that he spent 27 years of his life in prison, but his second wife, Winnie Mandela, continued to live there on and off with their kids, becoming a prominent political figure in her own right. Nelson Mandela briefly returned after his release from prison in 1990, but soon the public attention became too much and he moved elsewhere. The house, built of red bricks, survived several fire bombings and shooting attacks during the height of what local blacks call “the struggle.” It is now completely restored into a museum. Amazingly, tiny Vilakazi Street in Soweto boasts to be the home of not just one but two Nobel Peace Prize winners, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.
Mandela House

Just around the corner from the Mandela house we conclude our Soweto tour at The Shack, a local shebeen. These are gathering places formerly banned but now regular pubs, where the men would pass around a calabash or wooden bowl of local beer while holding meetings. (Soccer City stadium is modeled after a calabash). We are treated to a taste of it, but a taste is all we need, thank you very much. It is a milky concoction brewed from fermented sorghum, sold in paper cartons with the admonition Don’t drink and walk on the road, you may be killed”  printed prominently on one side. Loyd is apparently used to his customers not wanting to linger over the calabash, and very soon we are leaving Soweto behind, heading back to our world of green yards and security fences.

All in all, it was a very worthwhile trip. Our guide from Themba Tours was excellent and offered a wealth of information and personal history. I hope that the kids will retain bits and pieces of it, if only to see what privileged lives they lead. Soweto is definitely not the cesspool of poverty and crime one might imagine, although we did meet people who live in utter poverty. It offers a lot of history and a sense of community seldom found in our suburban estates. We felt completely safe and welcome at all times and I would have no reservations about going back on our own – to explore more of it, to visit people who live there, to attend a cultural event, such as the upcoming Soweto Wine Festival in September, to take books and supplies to the preschool we saw, or, perhaps, to take Zax and Impatience bungee jumping off the Soweto cooling towers!

This article is part of Joburg Expat's What To Do in Joburg series. 

July 20, 2010

School Uniforms revisited - Pros and Cons

As I predicted, McCullagh & Bothwell, the school uniform store, has been a second home to us over the past few months (with Woolworth’s, the grocery store, possibly being a runner-up). They already greet me by name when I show up. There is always something else to be gotten (and almost always during afternoon rush hour). Special socks for hockey. A track and field top that is different from the regular PE shirt. A netball skirt. School gym bags (first just one, thinking they could be shared across the different days, then two, then three with the addition of ever more after-school activities). More PE shirts, to replace lost ones. A school jacket (“Mom, I NEED one for tomorrow’s soccer game!”). Then, of course, the winter uniform.

So, for all those parents – myself amongst them – extolling the virtues of school uniforms, you should also be aware of the drawbacks. 1) They are expensive, especially in our case with just one supplier to choose from; 2) they are often poor quality – my boys have permanent blisters on both heels from their stiff black dress shoes; 3) There always seems to be something missing during our out-the-door morning rush; and 4) they have to be ironed! I ironed more in the 1st month than I had in the 5 years before that. (Luckily, ironing has now fallen under the jurisdiction of our domestic worker, who is much more accomplished and efficient in that department). Oh, and I almost forgot 5) When your 13-year old has to wear a tie and blazer to school every day, inevitably there will be stains of white-out, ketchup (tomaaaaaahto sauce) , and God-knows-what on the tie, and the blazer will regularly miss buttons. They just pop off and your child will have no recollection how that happened, and you will patiently sew them on again about once a week (or, in my case, not-so-patiently thrust the sewing needle in your child's hand to teach important housekeeping skills).

Not that we had a choice regarding uniforms. But here are some pointers for other expats:
  • Not all articles have to be bought at the official uniform store. The logo shirts and pants do, but shoes, for instance, just have to be of the “school shoe” category and can often be found more cheaply (and perhaps better quality) somewhere else. Edgar’s, a department store, has them, or some of the bigger Woolworth’s. Walking through a shopping center like Fourways Mall to see what’s available is a good time investment. Or, if you have a chance before even leaving for your assignment, you could bring them with you (black lace-up shoes for the boys and typically black closed-toe sandals with buckles or Velcro for the girls – your school will have a list of the exact requirements for each grade and gender). Shoes are expensive in South Africa (it’s not easy to find kids’ tennis shoes for much below R700 which is almost $100), so buying several pairs ahead is a good idea. "School shoes" is also a category at Amazon with great variety and affordable prices.
  • Don’t buy too much of everything. You’ll end up back at the store a gazillion times anyway, so you might as well start slow and see what you need. In our case, one dress per girl would have been okay, considering the washing machine is pretty much in constant use anyway. And you don’t really need a lunch box in school colors, even if it is on the list. The girls’ pink backpacks seem to be just fine too.
  • Check if your school has a second-hand store. Ours does – I can’t believe no one told me about it until we’d been here over a month! – and you can find items in decent shape there, at a fraction of the cost.
  • Label everything, even shoes! Then give your kids a sermon on the virtues of looking after one’s stuff, or you’ll forever be buying replacements. You can also order sew-in or iron-on name tags at the uniform store.
  • If your kids are close in age, as ours are, they can share some of the items that might not be needed every day.
In summary, I think uniforms are a good idea. They make the kids appear more, well, uniform, and they always look neat (or smart, as they would say here, whereas what we call smart is clever). Parents of girls especially will appreciate that there is much less debate about who is wearing which brand, and pleas like “Mom, I absolutely have to have a North Face jacket like Emily!” are a thing of the past. Come to think of it, in our 6 months here I haven't bought a single piece of non-school clothing. Which might explain why you haven't seen any blog posts on department stores and such - sorry ladies, I'm not a shopper!

Altogether, you definitely buy a ton in terms of school uniforms (I mean, how can a 13-year old lose his pants??? I think the only item we haven't lost yet is the tie!). But you'll probably make it up on other clothes, especially here in South Africa where the climate doesn't require much winter gear. And the decision making process in the store is oh so simple, when just about the only choice you're left with is whether to pick white or blue hair clips!

July 16, 2010

Great Info about South Africa and Johannesburg

While I take pride in occasionally making you laugh about my escapades as an expat in Johannesburg, there are other, much better researched sources of information out there. There is no reason for me to re-invent the wheel, so please visit the following:

  • Jozikids: Wonderful resource for anything related to kids or family life in and around Johannesburg, such as schools, things to do, parties, babysitting, sports, and classifieds.
  • Corporate Relocations:  Great information on South Africa in general and relocation related issues, with a great FAQ section (had I checked there, I could have saved myself the trip to the drivers' license office, although it made for great blogging material, soon to be posted).
  • City of Johannesburg: Another good resource for events in Johannesburg and all sorts of other information (this is where you can report potholes and out-of-order traffic lights, as well as request new dustbins - but don't hold your breath on the delivery!)
  • Gumtree: The equivalent of Craigslist, also available for Cape Town, Durban, and Eastern Cape.
  • Bushbreaks: By far the best website I've found for finding and booking game lodges in Southern Africa; organized very well, has great overviews of the different game reserves, and offers friendly service and good discounts to boot.
  • Online shopping, not as comprehensive but the closest you'll find to the equivalent of
  • Movies4Africa: Online movie rental, the equivalent of Netflix. (Note: As of November 2010, this service was discontinued. But there are numerous corner video stores to choose from.)

I hope you'll find these links useful. If you live in South Africa and have anything to add, please let me know!

July 15, 2010

Dustbin Saga - Still Going Strong!

Do you remember my dustbin saga? I won't blame you if you don't, as it's been a long time, and I myself had quite forgotten about it. To refresh your memory, the last I wrote was that finally, lo and behold, we got our new dustbin, after which the municipal workers promptly went on strike, improving our situation somewhat from smelly bags collecting in our garage to a smelly bin overflowing outside of our garage. But the strike, too, passed, and we've lived happily ever after.

Until today, when I was getting my hair cut - for the first time since moving here! - and received a call on my mobile phone from the security gate: "I've got a man delivering a new dustbin for you, can I let him in?"

"Huh?" was my initial reaction, trying to piece things together while the hairdryer was blowing into my ear. But then it became quite clear to me: What so miraculously had appeared on our driveway, right within the promised 7-day time frame (that should have made me suspicious right there!), was not the promised PIKI TUP delivery, but rather our own, presumed stolen, trash can, returned from the neighbor whose maid must have accidentally taken it to their house and kept it for several weeks - despite us asking around on both sides - and didn't bother telling us about it.

Just so you know, I checked the records, and my request to the City of Joburg is dated March 30. Today is July 15. It took them precisely three and a half months to deliver our new trash can. Just a wee bit longer than the promised 7 days!

So now we have two dustbins, at a time when we have no more moving boxes and a weekly recycling service. Maybe we should keep the extra one in reserve? But I think I'm rather inclined to give it to our maid  who was very impressed I got the new dustbin so quickly, while she has been waiting for her promised delivery for 3 years.

Searching for Applesauce in Johannesburg

I’d like to shed a few more thoughts on local food, or, rather, the process of acquiring it. It’s the weirdest things I have trouble finding here in South Africa. I wouldn’t have been offended if there was no Nutella, or lemongrass, or Tahini, or any kind of ethnic food. Yet those things are surprisingly easy to find in most supermarkets, while other items I consider staples have been on my iPhone Grocery IQ app for months, without any luck.

July 10, 2010

Welcome to Africa!

Although this happened sometime back, I thought I should record some "Welcome to Africa" moments:

April 28, 2010:

We’ve been here for almost two months, and once again we seem to be in the moving backward phase of “one step forward, two steps back.” In my mind, it was just a matter of checking things off my list, even if it went slowly, until we’d be settled and everything would be perfect, and I could focus on my “real” life again and actually do productive things – writing this blog, for instance, which one could argue is not all that productive either – but it is now becoming clear that this was wishful thinking. The trash episode should have been a harbinger of things to come.

July 5, 2010

Will My iPhone Work in South Africa?

If you don’t have an iPhone, this might not interest you, but you might want to read on anyway, as I will also try to explain the myriad cell phone plans on offer in South Africa and what’s needed to register your phone.
The short answer to the iPhone question: no. But if you’ve been reading my blog, you will know that I am not able to give short answers. So brew yourself some tea and sit back for the lengthy explanation.

July 2, 2010

From Babbalas to Yebo

Having been in South Africa for 4 months, we have greatly added to our dictionary of South African expressions, so here is Part II on my Language entry (click here for Part I):
  • Babbalas - A hangover
  • Biltong - Dried meat, like jerky – grows on you!