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. You might also like:

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.
  • Kalahari.net: Online shopping, not as comprehensive but the closest you'll find to the equivalent of Amazon.com.
  • 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.

Applesauce is one of those items. How can an entire country not know about applesauce? A country practically founded by farmers (boers) no less? When I finally hunted down a jar of applesauce, it was no bigger than a small can of tomato paste, and the applesauce was indeed a sauce, very soupy. My kids have elicited dubious stares when they brought Motts snack packs of applesauce to school, which were leftovers of my former Costco overflow garage shelf. People just don’t know applesauce here. In the store section where I would expect it, all you will find is huge jars of apricot jam.

Other similarly elusive foods are baking chocolate, or even chocolate chips, which is especially disconcerting because there is no shortage of the most wonderful chocolate, my favorite being all things Lindt. Maybe South Africans don’t like to bake? Because I’ve also had to search for yeast at times. One thing I simply have not found is Pillsbury (or any) ready-to-bake cinnamon rolls. They were on Sunshine’s birthday breakfast wish list, but this year we had to make do with scones, which are really what Americans call biscuits. Biscuits here, on the other hand, are what we call cookies. And then there is a whole other category of cookies called rusks, which you will find an entire aisle of in every grocery store. They are very dry hunks of baked goods with a biscotti-like composition but not quite the taste, and are best eaten by dunking into your coffee liberally to soften up. Rusks, Biltong, and Boerewors - the South African's diet.

Meanwhile, I’ve started making my own applesauce. It is kind of sad that it took Zax’s insistent pleading, and my inability to find it anywhere, before I began such a basic and easy thing as making applesauce. Cut up a bag of apples as they are, cook in a bit of water with some sugar and a stick of cinnamon until they fall apart, then grind through what I only know from my German childhood as a “Flotte Lotte” (“Racy Tracy”? Not sure how you would translate that…) to get rid of all the peels and seeds, and voila, you will have an applesauce much better than you’d find in any store, South African or otherwise.

Note: I have since been notified by my good friend L.A. (I'm SO glad people are reading my blog!) - who took it upon herself to defend the honor of South Africa - of all the places to find baking supplies. Turns out that there is an entire store here at Fourways dedicated to the topic, called Kadies, which takes pride in being the "1st Retail Baking Supplies shop with our own website in South Africa." I officially apologize for any offense I might have caused to all South African bakers and will go and check out Kadies shortly. Maybe they also carry applesauce?


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.

Our latest troubles involve pretty much all our communication services. First our phone stopped working, and then 3 days later, of course over a holiday weekend, our Internet stopped as well. I’m very grateful I finally got my cell phone working, in the nick of time, or I’d be really cut off from the world once again. Our cable TV, which we’d just gotten up and running, was temporarily out too but thankfully revived by a neighbor who happened to come by and just started pressing buttons randomly, claiming she had no clue what she was doing, but she’ll now forever be stuck as the person I’m calling with cable problems. Anyway, when the phone service went out, we first thought it might have been cut off because we hadn’t paid our bill, which in all honesty we couldn’t because we’d never gotten one, neither online nor per mail. The latter not being terribly surprising, as we don’t seem to get much mail, period, which could be due to the fact that no one seems to be able to agree on what exactly our address should be. It looks different every time. We have no idea what town we’re even in, whether it should be Dainfern Valley, or Randburg, or even Johannesburg, and then sometimes we’re given some kind of Extension number, and the postal code varies too. Once again, your mail here generally goes to a nearby mailbox, not to your house, but nevertheless we sometimes have mail appearing on our driveway, tossed there by whom we have no clue. But the mailbox is most often glaringly empty. This mail situation has led to feelings of perverse HAPPINESS whenever a bill DOES appear in it.

When we trekked to the nearest Telkom store after a weekend of being cut off, we were assured that our line was not suspended, and that a complaint would be logged, which would result in a technician being sent to our house. We paid the bill anyway, just to be sure. But four more days passed, and no technician showed up, even though after repeated calls we were assured that our request had been “escalated.” Instead, our Internet followed suit and stopped working as well. As you can imagine, I find this highly annoying, but the response by most South Africans whom I’m telling this is simply a shoulder shrug and “Welcome to Africa.” In fact, I’m told, I should be grateful that it’s just the phone and not the electricity, cuts to which could be imminent with winter looming and people turning on their heat in droves, which then overloads the system. Which brings us full circle, in that this is precisely the reason we’re here in the first place: Noisette’s company is part of that big Eskom expansion project building a bunch of new power plants. It was on the news a couple of weeks ago, when the U.S. refused to vote for (it ended up abstaining) a World Bank loan to South Africa financing more coal-powered plants instead of green technology.

Meanwhile, the phone saga continues. One thing we’ve found out about living here is to never trust the story you’re being told the first time, as it constantly changes the longer you probe. A point in case: No technician ever showed up, but after 6 days without phone service we received a call that it was now working again, which indeed it was. It very much sounds like someone, somewhere, flipped a switch to restore our service and that the purported technical line problems never existed, but what can you do? Call 10210 to receive a credit for the missed days of service, but I’m not really sure I want to spend any more time on hold with Telkom. As to our Internet connection, which supposedly had technical problems too, I am now told that it is simply not working because we reached our monthly data cap of 5 gigabytes. A limit? There is a limit? Yikes! But did I want to use our other account, the 3 gigabyte one, which still had hardly been used this month?, I am asked while contemplating the cap situation. What? Why would we have a second account? One that we never signed up for? But of course we have no idea what we are or aren’t signed up for, because we are not receiving bills! And our original account was initiated by our relocation company, which has since then been very much unavailable or unwilling to help, referring us instead to that Telkom number that lands you in infinite hold loops. But okay, since there seems to be another account with usage time left, let’s use it for the last couple of days until the new month. How do I use it, I ask? Another ID and password? Fine, what are they? And this is where my usually patient self starts losing its cool: They will not give it to me, since I’m not the account holder, Noisette is. Who, of course, leaves the house at the crack of dawn and comes back past 10 pm, and has absolutely no time or patience to be placing futile calls to Telkom, much less to accompany me and our two passports to the nearest Telkom store to sign over account privileges to me.

I’m not sure at this point what my course of action should be. It seems easiest to perhaps give up on the Internet. At least until the month is over. I’m going to go and read a book now.

July 9, 2010:

More recently, we've had a run-in with Eskom, the South African utility company. I was travelling with the kids - we are still on our World Cup break - and Noisette, who had stayed home, sent me an urgent text message wanting to know whether I'd paid our Eskom bill, as the house, upon his return from work, had no power. Mind you, this has happened before, but a quick survey of the neighborhood will usually tell you that no one has power, which greatly mollifies you. Shared misery is so much easier to cope with.

But this time it was just our house. A call to Eskom that evening yielded the assurance that our account was current and that it must be another technical problem. Another day of no power followed, until Noisette's second complaint with Eskom led to the revelation that our power had indeed been "disconnected due to nonpayment." It then turned out that this was done in error, so sorry. After two days, the power was back, but I am now greatly worried that this might happen when we're gone on home leave, with no one to find out and able to call. I don't even want to think about the color of our pool upon our return, or the smell from our fridge.

We are now waiting to be slapped with a reconnection fee of R700, which colleagues and friends tell us will be the next logical step.

By the way, we've had cuts to our water as well, the responsibility of which lies with the City of Joburg, much like trash removal. But this turns out not to be such a terrible inconvenience, as you can always grab a bucket and get some pool water to, you know, add to the toilet tank and such. And the one time I allowed myself to be annoyed by the lack of water, I was powerfully reminded the next day that you shouldn't complain, because things could have been worse. A neighbor's kid had left a tap open when no water was flowing, and when the water did commence flowing again at 2:00 in the morning, no one of course was there to turn off the tap. Oops!

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.

American iPhones will not work here. Apple puts some kind of special lock onto them, so that they will only work on an AT&T network, to protect AT&T’s exclusive rights. HOWEVER, there is a way around that, which I will explain here and which, as you might have guessed, has led me on another wild goose chase yielding plenty of blog material. Of course, I could just simply go out and purchase a new iPhone cum plan, as they do have those here, but I am cheap and quite unwilling to dish out R3000 if there is another way.

Please forgive me if the technical details are not entirely correct. I’m just trying to explain it the way I understand it. Even in the U.S., some iPhone users who don’t want to be locked into AT&T as a provider, or who’d like to use apps that are not “approved” by Apple, go through a process called “jailbreaking” their iPhone. It is also referred to as SIM-unlocking. This is what you have to do if you want to use your existing iPhone here, instead of having to buy a new local one for R3000. There is code for this out there that you can download yourself, or, if you’d like to play it a little bit safer, you can take it to a place that will do it for you (but you should be aware of the fact that in either case by jailbreaking your iPhone you will forfeit any warranty claims you might have, and will also forever have to steer clear from any upgrades, as Apple puts new and improved locking code into each upgrade so as to thwart potential jailbreakers, making this a neverending cat-and-mouse game).  I chose the latter route and landed in a Joburg suburb called Cresta in an office that looked like the upstairs of Bill Gates’ garage. The lady from our relocation company had dug up this apple authorized reseller called AppleCart, and about two weeks into our move I ventured there on a rare day that I had a driver, as I was still without a car then. The place was in an entirely residential neighborhood, recognizable only by a large apple symbol on the outside wall, and after being buzzed through several security gates, I was led past the pool and upstairs where there were some desks, a few people, and tons of computer equipment. And, at first sight, Bill Gates himself, in his younger years, who proceeded to tell me about the intricacies of SIM-unlocking. I did not accomplish much on that first visit, as it turned out that my iPhone had the latest update installed, which the hackers hadn’t found a way to crack yet. (This confirms my lingering suspicion of upgrades in general – hardly anything good ever comes from upgrading!) But it wouldn’t be long, I was assured, maybe 2 more weeks.

In the meantime, I proceeded to research phone plans, as in either case, with or without iPhone, I’d have to get one of those. This proved to be very frustrating, as no one really seemed to be able to explain them well. In a nutshell: There are several cell phone networks in South Africa – Vodacom, MTN, Cell C, and Virgin Mobile, with Vodacom being the biggest with the most stores. I chose Vodacom, just because I was tired of having so many options, and a brief foray into an MTN store left me even more confused. But most providers have similar plans. When you get a cell phone with any of them, you basically have two options: 1) Getting a prepaid phone and reloading airtime via ATM or most supermarkets, and 2) Signing a 2-year contract with the advantage of lower (but not THAT much lower) rates. There are myriad options ranging from about R75 (for perhaps 30 minutes airtime) to over 1000 minutes, with additional SMS and data bundles. Option 2 can be further divided into 2a) Top-Up, where you can no longer make calls after reaching your monthly limit unless you top up your account with extra cash (that’s what I got for the kids), and 2b) Contract, where you will be billed the out-of-bundle rate for any additional minutes beyond your plan. When selecting a plan, you should always start with a rather low number of minutes, as you can always change it upwards, but not down.

That’s really all you need to know. Don’t be confused by all the package deals. Some phones come for free when signing a contract and some cost extra money which you can then pay upfront or monthly over the contract period. What I would suggest (and what I should have done) is to buy a prepaid phone that can later be changed onto a contract, once you’ve figured out what you want to do. That way you have a phone from the start, which you really need, especially since landlines are a bit shaky. It will also be easier from a paperwork perspective, as the phone company won’t be worried about you meeting your 2-year contract obligation. Or maybe you do NOT have an iPhone and it just might be possible to buy a new SIM-card and put it in the one you already have. But even then there is some paperwork involved. You can’t just go and pick up a new SIM-card like a bunch of bananas.

What is the paperwork, then? Funny you should ask. I don’t think anybody knows what exactly is required, but rest assured that whatever you do bring won’t be enough. Let me tell my Vodacom story before I get back to my iPhone odyssey:
Day One: After weeks of agonizing over phone plans (should I get 240 minutes? Do I get an additional SMS bundle? How many? Does that include international SMSs? What about data?) I felt I was ready to brave the Vodacom store. I dutifully waited in line and was thrilled to see that the next available rep looked fairly smart and friendly. I told him which phone I wanted (a Samsung Jet) and which phones the boys wanted, and we proceeded to fill in the blanks on the contract. Name, address, etc etc. He also needed a copy of my passport and our lease agreement for proof of residence, which I both had. I had been lugging my passport around for weeks for that very purpose, as nothing happens in this country without you showing your passport. Same goes for the lease agreement, all 38 pages of it. So far so good. But then he wanted to see the last 3 months of our bank statement, which is kind of tricky if you’ve only had said bank account for less than a month. I had been told that our platinum check card would be sufficient, but obviously that piece of information had been wrong. As the banks were already closed at the time, I reluctantly left my friendly attendant with all the paperwork and promised to return the next day, not before asking if there was anything else I still needed to bring. No, I was told, just the bank statement.
Day Two: Bright and early I arrived with a printout of all our bank transactions so far. There were quite a lot of them. What we lacked in length of time we made up in pure numbers. Mostly money leaving our bank account.  It seemed to make him happy. But then he frowned and said that “they” – whoever was approving my phone contract in some back office – needed a financial guarantee, since I was unemployed, and who would my guarantor be? My husband of course, I said, and even – ha! – produced HIS passport. That was duly copied as well, but of course it turned out not to be sufficient, as we now needed an employment contract that stated he would actually be there for the 2 years of the contract term. Anybody who’s ever worked for an American company knows that they don’t do employment contracts. We did, however, have some kind of vague offer letter, but guess where that was? Not on me, that’s for sure. I don’t typically carry our entire file cabinet around with me. If I even had one – at the moment it was probably somewhere on a ship rounding the Cape of Good Hope, and all the new papers we had accumulated here were piled in messy stacks around the house.
Day Three: Let me just say, if I didn’t have my Kindle and the New York Times on it, I would have gone crazy. What I haven’t mentioned before is that each time I entered the Vodacom store, there was a long line of other people in front of me and I had to settle down to wait. It was either watching cricket on TV, or reading the Times. When I finally was helped again (Friendly Attendant was off that day but had thankfully given all my paperwork to a colleague and even explained the situation to him), Noisette’s employment letter did seem to please the powers that be, but only for a brief moment of bliss, because it was then decided my passport needed to be looked at closer, especially my South African visa. I sensed doom descending, as I knew what was coming: Due to a “backup at the Department of Home Affairs” the kids and I hadn’t been issued a permanent residence visa yet, just a temporary one. Well, that changes everything, I was now told, only permanent residents are allowed to have phone contracts. What? So even though my husband was guaranteeing payment of my phone contract, he couldn’t do so if I didn’t also have permanent residency. Weird. And I have a feeling on a different day that rule might have been different. But there was nothing to be done but ripping up the entire contract and writing it again, this time with Noisette as the applicant instead of me. I was already prepared to go home yet again to have him sign it, or perhaps even drag him in personally, kicking and screaming, but strangely I was then allowed to sign the entire thing, with MY signature under HIS name. VERY strange. But I wasn’t going to argue. Because here I was, after nearly a month in South Africa, being handed  my new phone!
Meanwhile, my iPhone story continues. After the promised two weeks, I called the apple dealer again about jailbreaking. Yes, I was told, my upgrade was now jailbreakable, please do come out and bring it to them. A pure pleasure, as by now I had my new car, the registration of which is another story. I dropped my phone off with the friendly lady – Bill Gates was  not present that day – and was assured it would be done in two days, at which time I would be called. Just so you know and won’t waste time waiting, in case you ever come here to South Africa, no one EVER calls you back. They really don’t. They all take down your information with the greatest sincerity, but they Will. Not. Call. Back. So, after about a week of waiting, I called to inquire about my iPhone. Oh yes, I was told, it is done, but unfortunately the guy who did it is currently in Cape Town, so you’ll have to wait until after the weekend. Hmm, I was thinking – is my iPhone IN Cape Town with him, or is it somewhere at his place where no one else can get to it? Either way, it sounded a bit weird. But I’d been waiting for so long, a few more days didn’t seem to matter. Except that when I called back Monday, the story had slightly changed in that he actually was NOT able to jailbreak my iPhone, and that it would take another 4 weeks until this upgrade was breakable, and did I want my phone back in the meantime?

To this day – and it has now been 4 months that we’ve lived here – I am still without iPhone and missing it terribly, but, on the upside, probably saving lots on airtime as all I’m actually doing with  my Samsung Jet is making and receiving phone calls and a few texts. I’ve never been able to get the exchange server working on it, although it is advertised that it should. And it is terribly clunky compared to the iPhone – just to send a text message you have to press seventeen buttons. Going back to have Bill Gates look at my iPhone once more has been on my list for months, but I find that I’ve adopted a bit of the “welcome to Africa” spirit where things seem less important after a while.

If you are a newly arrived expat in search of a phone plan, and if all the above is still confusing to you, just get what I got, I find it plenty sufficient for my initial needs and you can always upgrade from there: Talk 130 for myself, giving me 130 monthly minutes and costing R315, and Topup 75 for the boys, costing R75 each. I wouldn’t worry about SMS or Data bundles yet, as you can’t buy them at the same place anyway but rather over the phone, and it’s nice to see your first monthly invoice to have an idea of how much you are actually using.

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!
  • Boerewors - That which goes on a braai (a really long coiled-up sausage)
  • Eish! - Gosh/bummer/ouch/no way – fits in most “welcome to Africa” situations
  • Good’n-you? - Answer to Howzit (I've often felt a bit awkward when I only say "good, thanks" and then get "good thanks" back automatically, even though technically I didn't ask "and you?")
  • Howzit? - How are you? 
  • Izzit? - Oh really? (which sounds funny to us in a dialog such as "I'm planning to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro," and "Izzit?" as the response)
  • Ja - Afrikaans for yes
  • Just now - Technically this means soon; but in reality not very soon at all, definitely not immediately, might not even be today
  • Kit - Uniform (athletic)
  • Naartje - Tangerine/clementine
  • Shame - You’re kidding/really – hard to translate but used often, like when you’re telling someone an endearing story and they cluck sympathetically on occasion
  • Side - Team
  • Stoep - Patio
  • Takkies - Sneakers/tennis shoes
  • Yebo - Zulu for yes
One last thing on language: I’m very impressed what an effort South Africans make to pronounce words correctly, as opposed to Americans who in my experience quite liberally anglicize most foreign words. For example, even English-speaking South Africans pronounce Gauteng (the province Johannesburg is situated in) the correct Afrikaans way, where the “G” sounds like the “CH” in the German word “Nacht”, making it something like “Chaoteng”. “Haoteng” would be the next best thing but not quite right. Even more difficult to pronounce is the clicking sound Zulu and other native languages incorporate, like in the word Xhosa. That is pronounced “Khosa” preceeded a clicking of the tongue. And again, if, say, a white South African gives you directions through the towns of Kwa-Zulu Natal, you will feel quite inadequate in the face of so much tongue-clicking!

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My 43 Favorite South-Africanisms
"Just Now or Now Now"?