Joburg Expat: A Typical Day in Africa

December 19, 2010

A Typical Day in Africa

Today was a very ordinary day, nothing special, and yet in a way it was typical of life here in Africa.

First, I had coffee with another expat friend. I find myself often having coffee with friends. There is less rushing, and people seem to have more time for coffee breaks. We traded expat stories, and as always it left me feeling much better about my lot, because she really is in a pickle.

Somehow the Department of Home Affairs has been sitting on her family’s permanent visas, and, as I’ve said earlier on this blog, NOTHING happens in South Africa without your permanent visa. You cannot open a bank account, you cannot get the infamous traffic register number which you need to buy and register a car, and you cannot get a cell phone. Just imagine for a second if they took away your money, your car, and your phone – that’s right, life comes to a standstill. Which may not be altogether bad, but a hassle nonetheless. Her husband has undertaken several trips to said department, standing in line for hours, only to be sent home again each time to produce yet another important document. Not a list of documents, mind you, just one, until such time as you return with the requested piece of paper, only to be chased away again because something else is missing. That’s why I suppose there are places here where you can just go and buy such documents for a “fee.”


I left the café very energized due to my caffeine intake and the knowledge that we DID have our visas, and set out to the pool supply store. What was typical Africa about this errand was the fact that although we have a pool service, our pool has been completely green three weekends in a row, only because the people who service it don’t show up when promised. I call, they swear they will come, and nothing happens. Yes, yes, I can hear your snide remarks about this particular complaint – she has a POOL, for crying out loud, and she manages to gripe about that? It’s true, and I do enjoy it, but no one wants to swim in a green pool, so I just decided that I’ve had enough of waiting around for other people and that I should be able to do this myself, with the help of a bucket of chlorine and Google for questions. I left, weighed down with many bags of sachets, bottles, and tablets, and briefly wondered if having to spend a fortune on chemicals will save me any money, but we shall see. At least now I feel like I’m doing something.

Then I had to go to the bank. Noisette had brought some Euros from his last Germany trip, and wanted them in the bank. I had been nervous all morning carrying this stack of bills with me (where to put it? In my purse? Leave it in the car? I had settled on my pants pocket, making for an uncomfortable and quite unlady-like bulge while sipping my coffee), so I was very happy to safely arrive at the bank. But as soon as a stepped out of the car, it hit me with force: I didn’t bring my passport! By now I should know these things – nothing happens at any kind of official place in South Africa, especially when money is involved, without a passport (including Visa!), and perhaps even 30 pages of your lease agreement. But the bank is not exactly around the corner, so there was no going back. Instead of the teller, I went straight to the lady who’d been anointed our “private banker,” due to which honor we’re not quite sure. She accompanied me to the teller, and sure enough, a passport was what was required, but given her vouching for us, our passport copies deposited with the bank would suffice. Although there were some probing questions about where so much money came from and how it arrived in the country, and at some point I began to see my chances of success dwindle, let alone maybe being arrested for illegal money trafficking. But in the end it was agreed for the passport copies to be produced, and my banker dutifully climbed all the way back upstairs to her posh office and retrieved said copies. No such thing as looking anything up on the system. This took about 30 minutes (and I was beating myself up because I had committed another cardinal sin – left the house without my Kindle!) during which time the foreign exchange teller was typing away furiously at her keyboard and stamped at least three different forms with authority.

After just one more errand I was glad to be on my way home. Sputtering along William Nicol, having to stop at every single one of the twenty-seven red lights, or robots, rather. Despite the fancy name, South African traffic lights are at the bottom of the totem pole as far as traffic lights go. No synchronization whatsoever, no priority for main thoroughfares, God forbid no adjustment for peak traffic hours, and no waterproofing. Yes, that’s right, they leak. When it rains, many of them go out (along with the telephone lines, it seems), but this gives rise to a miracle: Everybody comes to a perfect stop and politely waits his turn, in a very orderly fashion. A black taxi might have barreled along the shoulder and squeezed by ten cars seconds earlier, but now it is standing there like everyone else. There is absolutely no cheating at the broken robot.

As I was low on gas – petrol – I decided to stop at the gas station – garage – on the way home, and buy biltong at the adjacent butchery while filling up. I don’t know if I’ve told you yet, but getting gas, normally a hated activity for me, is a pleasure in South Africa. You never have to leave your car, everything is done for you, much like it was in Europe or the U.S. about a hundred years ago. Your tank is filled, your windscreen wiped, your oil and tire pressure checked, all for a small tip (I usually give R5). You pay by handing the attendant your garage card – a specific card only to be used at gas stations, which you must apply for when you open your bank account – and he comes back with a slip to sign. Except this time it didn’t quite work out that way. Upon pulling up at the pump, I was regretfully informed that there was no more Diesel. It had in fact been out for the last three days. Nothing for me to do but limp home on an empty tank and try again another day.

That was it. Like I said, nothing fancy, but typical for Africa, where such things take three times as long as they should, and where you never quite complete what you set out to do. 

6 comments :

Bing said...

Hi Sine, my husband and I are from Singapore and we've just moved to Joburg for his work. I stumbled into your blog and had a great time reading your posts because so much of what you have experienced is causing me to tear my hair out too! Haha.. I just wanted to say Hi. =) I would love a fellow expat friend here.. write me! bing@storyofbing.com

Sine said...

Hi Bing, thanks so much for touching base and I'll definitely write you an email. I'm glad people like you are finding my blog and have similar experiences. Would love to hear more! By the way, you'd probably laugh about the things I wrote while we lived in Singapore as expats in the late 90s...

Stephanie said...

Hi Sine!

Thanks for following the blog!

My husband and I had such a chuckle while were were reading about your "typical" day! We've done all of the things you listed and it's reassuring to know your days are just as crazy as mine!

Sine said...

Hi Stephanie - I just peaked into your blog again and you've had some great adventures as well! I loved the lion kill video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oeZ-UGZle04&feature=share if anyone wants to see) and I had a chuckle about the female lion doing all the work. What, exactly, does the male contribute other than sitting down to his meal?

Sine said...

Oops! meant to say "peeked" not "peaked."

W. A. Jeffrey said...

Never makes sense to me why the require a permanent visa for so many things when a) a sizable percentage of those employed in important occupations are in the country on temporary visas of one sort or another, and b) it can take up to 2 years to get a permanent visa.

They whine about economic growth all the time yet much of what the government does inhibits economic growth and makes SA needlessly uncompetitive. Insane!