Joburg Expat: March 2011

March 31, 2011

An Update on the Alexandra Baseball Project

Alexandra players with the old laptop I donated
Even though we don't have our equipment yet for Alexandra Baseball (shipping stuff to South Africa takes time, and, in a country that has produced Eskom, it also takes bureaucratic tenacity!), I wanted to take this opportunity to give you a status report.

A huge thank you to those of you who've helped out. We are now at over $1,800 or ZAR13,600, enough to get the equipment shipped and some more! I was stunned at the outpouring of support, first from a large number of Singaporeans - who, you should know, don't even play baseball in their country - and then from many of my friends back in the U.S. (who I had prodded to uphold our country's honor by catching up with Singapore).

This player will be happy to
receive some proper cleats!
We've also received generous donations from Germany, The Netherlands, Sweden, and South Africa itself, making this a truly international effort.  But the most humbling moment came yesterday, when I received a donation from Japan. Someone out there, in a country so full of misery at this moment in history, was thinking of somebody else's misery and decided to help. I was stunned in the face of such generosity.

Due to the surplus in funding over and above the shipping cost, I have decided to divert some of it to enable several players and coaches to go to the Interregional Tournament, which will be held from April 3-7 in George this year. I hope this is okay with those of you who've donated. Several Alexandra players had qualified to represent the province of Gauteng, but the lack of money jeopardized their participation. They are now very excited to be packing their bags, and are hoping to get a chance to be seen by some of the MLB scouts who are sure to make an appearance. The best of luck to those players and coaches Tedius and Ron who will accompany them, and thanks again to you, my readers, to have made it possible!

Coaching and administrative staff of Alexandra Baseball

Before I forget, make sure you LIKE the ALEXANDRA BASEBALL Facebook page to keep updated about what's happening - game schedules, awards, and exciting stuff like American MLB players training with the Alex kids.

March 29, 2011

Giving Back

Bing with some kids from the Kliptown Youth Program
I know I've rallied hard in the past month for donations for the Alexandra Baseball League, and I'm very grateful for the funding we've received to date (more on that in my next post). But I'm not the only one out there, and today I wanted to give credit to my friend Bing (who was very instrumental in rallying for a large part of our donations from Singapore), who is doing admirable work collecting and distributing supplies to various programs in the poorest townships.

If you have a moment, take the time to read her blog post on "Giving Back in South Africa." It is incredibly inspiring, and you will also find that she takes great pictures! Make sure you watch the little video of a performance given to her and some other donors by a youth program in Kliptown. It always amazes me how kids who have so little can be so happy and generous with their time. It really makes you reflect on your own values in life.
Bing's donations to The Door of Hope

March 24, 2011

Strong Mothers Strong Sons

I recently took part in a parenting workshop sponsored by Dainfern College, our kids’ school. It was facilitated by Megan de Beyer, a psychologist who has run a number of these “Strong Mothers Strong Sons” courses throughout South Africa and in California.

Although expat life and parenting are strongly intertwined for me (in a sense, one has strengthened the other), I’ve put more detailed notes about this workshop on my parenting blog, Desperate Mothers, for those of you who are interested. But just as a brief overview, here are some of the main messages (in Twitter format, if you will): 

  • Love your son as a separate person and a gift to you
  • Recognize your son’s ownership for his growth
  • If you keep your eye on the problem you will continue to bump into it
  • Parenting is relationship building
  • A good relationship with his family inoculates a boy against harmful behavior
  • Stop nagging and simply be present
  • Own your emotions
  • Accept that there is a place for laziness in your son’s life
  • Create times that are free of pressure and conversations that are free of judgment
  • Families who play together and pray together will stay together
  • Your son’s natural passion and creativity has to come from within him, not from within you
  • Don’t let your ego interfere with your parenting
  • Be honest about what you’re raising your child to be

To read the entire article, click here.

Note: Megan de Beyer will be back in Johannesburg for another Strong Mothers Strong Sons workshop 10-13th June 2011 at St.Stithians. Please contact her directly at if you are interested in attending.

March 23, 2011

Not all eTickets are Created Equal!

"Can I have your credit card?"

This can't be good. I can see Noisette's face falling. We are standing at the South African Airways (SAA) check-in counter at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, on our way to a weekend getaway to Victoria Falls. Until a minute ago our spirits were great - a perfect cup of cappuccino this morning, kids all delivered to different friends, no traffic on the way to the airport - but now there seems to be a problem. Our e-tickets were booked using our American Express credit card, which Noisette - planner of all planners - didn't bring. And now the agent wants to swipe it. We offer her our whole range of different credit cards, South African and otherwise, but alas, she insists on Amex. We are sent to the ticket office, where we join another line.

My overriding feeling at this moment is not annoyance or anger - those are my dear husband's territory anyway - but relief. I am SO glad I wasn't the one who forgot the card (or rather failed to take note that it was even needed)! Whew! What's done is done, I am thinking, what do we do now?

Buy new tickets, it turns out. You can't just transfer existing tickets to a new card, which in my mind is as easy as pie. Remember, this is South African bureaucracy we're dealing with! So, to all you expats in South Africa out there, I give this advice: When you're travelling and booked your flights on an e-ticket, always, ALWAYS remember to bring the credit card you booked the ticket with! In fact, this is true in most situations. South African merchants insist on swiping your card due to all the fraud they encounter. For most of your online shopping you need an extra password to be registered with your bank (see ATypical Day in Africa for the intricacies of that), but that only works for South African credit cards. International cards always need to be swiped. We are so used to air travel in the U.S., where all you ever need is your driver's license to check in, that we forgot. Or, actually, it wouldn't have been a problem there, because one of us would actually have had the Amex card on us, but here in South Africa, afraid of crime (though nothing has ever happened to us), we have taken unneeded cards out of our wallets. The point is, we should have foreseen this problem.

We have no choice but to buy two entirely new tickets (at least they are the same price) and accept the agent's claim that we can obtain a refund via for the old ones, minus some vague cancellation penalty. The fact that he will not look into our eyes while he tells us this is not very reassuring. Noisette is fuming - partly because he is mad about the additional R4,500 expense, and, in equal proportion, because he can't blame anyone else. But I glance at him brightly and chirp: "Don't worry honey, it was much cheaper than a set of new tires for my car!"

By the way, I have been on hold with SAA the entire time I've typed this. My only success so far was to be given a new number which I was promptly disconnected from.

March 20, 2011

Expat Tips - Pool Care

So after months of preparations and paperwork you've finally arrived in your beautiful new house in South Africa. The sun is shining and your new pool is sparkling blue. But not for long if you don't take care of it! Trust me, I speak from experience. Our pool has gone through many stages of green, and not many things are actually quite so distressing as a green pool, even if it is winter and no one is swimming in it. We are one of those families who had never had a pool before, and I've learned quite a bit in the pool care department over the last year. So I thought I'd give you a few pool maintenance tips.

March 17, 2011

From Zimbabwe to Atlanta

When Noisette and I recently travelled back to the US, our itinerary brought as through the Atlanta airport. We hadn't been there in a long time and traded fond memories of our international student days, where every year, upon our return from Christmas in Germany, a huge portrait of the Braves' Terry Pendleton would greet us right outside immigration. His smiling face under a baseball helmet was to us the symbol of the United States.

March 15, 2011

Fried Rice in South Africa via Singapore

What I love about living in South Africa is the truly international group of friends we've made (in addition to all the wonderful South Africans). I can go out for coffee and have flavors of Spain, Austria, Kenya, Turkey, Holland, England, Belgium, America, and Germany in my conversation. And, thanks to my friend and fellow blogger Bing, I can now have flavors of Singapore in my food!

March 12, 2011

School, Leadership, and the Power of One Man's Words

Having lived as an expat family in South Africa for a year, we have been very happy with our choice of school. Whereas I've previously written about the pros and cons of South African schools versus international ones, today I just want to sing the praise of our kids' school here in Johannesburg, Dainfern College.

It's not so much a matter of South African versus International, IB vs Matric, or even Private vs Public (though it does probably help if you're not so much constrained by test scores and government mandates). Like in any successful organization, it's a matter of good leadership, and Dainfern College has plenty of that.

Our kids seem to have more of a purpose, sort of a glimpse into the future and what they want to become. I've never before had such a strong sense of why we're sending our kids to school, and it doesn't actually have much to do with academics. Yes, you send your kids to school because that's what's done, but here I actually want my kids to go to this particular school and can't wait to see how they come home each day and how they've grown in subtle ways. And the funny thing is, they are more relaxed than ever before, with less stress and more free time.

Founder's Day 2010 at Dainfern College

How is this possible? I'm sure there are many reasons, like a powerful vision for the future versus a mechanical adherence to curriculum, a sense of community between the prep school and the high school, the focus on well-rounded students and life skills, the involvement of the headmasters who are walking the grounds every day, encouraging the students, all of whom they know by name, etc. etc. But to me what stands out most in terms of bringing it all together are the weekly assemblies and other occasions where the entire school is addressed.

We don't go to church very often, but a Dainfern College assembly always has me walking home with a new sense of purpose and satisfaction, like you would after a good sermon. Whether a motivational speaker is brought in or the kids perform a skit, there's always something to make you feel good, some message to reflect upon, and lots of singing. Most often it will be Mr. Webb, the senior prep headmaster, telling you a story that will make you laugh or cry but most certainly reflect upon a value like working hard, being kind, or not giving up. And, unlike church, you will not drift off, because he is talking about your kids, the most interesting topic on the planet to any parent. Assemblies are completely optional for parents, of course, but you'll find yourself wanting to go to more rather than less if you're a parent at our school (unless you get put on the spot by the headmaster and must come up with something you're thankful for in front of 400 people).

And the messages are getting through to the children. Last week Tuesday, the eve before the start of Lent, Impatience was talking about what she wanted to give up for the next six weeks. Mind you, our family of one Catholic and five Lutherans has never before observed Lent, though we have talked about maybe someday perhaps wanting to try it, at a convenient time. But Impatience, it turns out, had listened intently to Mr. Webb at assembly that morning, who had talked about the idea of Lent, probably not so much in a religious sense but from the perspective of appreciating what we have (I wasn't actually there but I can hear it in my mind). By the end of dinner, our little 10-year old girl had convinced a teenage brother to give up Xbox and a father (by name of Noisette!) to give up chocolate, all in all six of us who would give up something dear to us. I'm not claiming we'll all be successful, but so far we've mastered four days.

If one man's words can change six people's behavior for at least four days, surely they have the power to change the world.

Dainfern College - beautiful grounds

Sports at Dainfern College

Interhouse Swim Gala 2011

For more information on Dainfern College, also see this article in Independent Education.

March 10, 2011

Getting Closer on Alexandra Boys' Dream

Slowly but surely we are getting there, with the help of so many of you. Thanks to all of you who have already donated to support the baseball league in Alexandra! We now have close to ZAR 5,000 (about $700) and I only need ZAR 2,000 more to pay for the shipment of the bats, helmets, gloves, and catching gear donated to us by Pitch in for Baseball. If I can find just 20 more donors for $10-$20 each, it will be enough!

Last Sunday I went to a game played by the U16 team. As you can see above, they are a happy bunch. Even though they looked a bit ragtag with their mismatching socks and belts, they were the better team that day and won handily against the Marks Parks Mustangs, 12-7. I saw some excellent pitching, batting, catching, and base running (the latter a bit too aggressive for my heart rate but it worked very well most of the time).

This pitcher is one of the provincial players we're trying to
get sponsored for a tournament in George

You can't imagine how wonderful it was to see a baseball game again! Yes, we've actually given cricket a chance and I've dropped my somewhat condescending attitude towards it, but do you know what's really missing in a cricket game? The satisfying "plop" of a ball caught in a mitt, and the "dzingg" of a ball well  hit. Those were the wonderful noises greeting me as I arrived at the game when the kids were warming up.

Warming up - I was too busy taking pictures, but will join the fray for sure next time!
High Fives in the dugout
What probably thrilled these kids the most last Sunday was the small following they suddenly had: Myself, three of my four kids (whom I admit I'd bribed with a trip to McDonald's on the way), and my friend Bing from Singapore with her husband, who also came to take pictures and wrote a story on her blog. You have to remember that they usually have NO ONE watching their games. Every Sunday, the coaches scratch together some money for a taxi, which most likely is crammed to the hilt way over the legal limit (I wouldn't be surprised if both the U13 and U16 team that day had come in one taxi), and take the kids to game day, where they often will also have to come up with some food for the players if the different games stretch over the entire day. There is almost no parental support. However, as Coach Tedius Ncube assures me, if we can cause a bit of a stir and show that this team is good and has some legitimacy beyond Alexandra, more support in the local community will follow.

I hope I've inspired you to support our cause. A small donation will go a long way, but there are other ways to support the Alexandra boys. You might have equipment at home that you're no longer using, or, if you live here in Johannesburg, you might be able to come cheer at a game. I'll be posting a game schedule on my blog when I have it.

Coach Tedius, the engine behind this club, with one of the players

You might also want to read: Baseball in the Heart of a Vibrant Township.

March 9, 2011

Stone Art from Zimbabwe

This is another ode to South African street vendors (see previous post about the iPhone skin). Remember my story some time back of  the dresser with wicker baskets that I ordered from a street vendor? And the metal birds? That entire market, on a street corner in Bryanston where Main splits from William Nicol, is run by industrious Zimbabweans, who I've found extremely trustworthy and easy to work with, and they offer fabulous prices.

They also sell beautiful stone statues, one of which Noisette gave me for Christmas. Or rather, given that this is Noisette who thinks of Christmas present exactly two days before Christmas, he didn't quite give me a statue but a certificate for one. We went and looked at what they had, and both liked the figure of three women, sort of abstract. But we liked another kind of stone better, and a statue where some of it would remain rough, not polished, and before we knew it we had placed an order for the statue how we pictured it.

March 8, 2011

Traffic Update

This just in: The robot at William Nicol and Broadacres coming out from Dainfern is now fully functional!

I like to chalk it up to my persistent efforts to complain, but of course it might also be pure coincidence. After all, it was out (or, like I said, half out) for over three weeks.

Anyway, my latest action in this regard was to send a letter to the editor to one of the local newspapers, The Star, I think it was Friday last week (see email and response below). They, in turn, promptly replied to me that they had forwarded my letter to the Joburg Roads Agency, and I was slightly annoyed by that, as I had wanted them to print my letter, not forward it to the very people who had already not been responsive. However, maybe a complaint coming from a newspaper carries slightly more weight? And I'm glad to see that South African newspapers seem to be very prompt and responsive. Like I said, it did the trick, and the traffic light was working again by the following Monday.

Coincidence or not, I'm happy we can now all drive a little more safely (though not any faster, as witnessed in these photos).

Typical morning rush hour in Johannesburg

Minibus taxi passing us on the left shoulder and squeezing back in

Ample time for snapshots while stuck in traffic - love this recycling concept!

My correspondence with the Star:

From: Sine Thieme 
Sent: 04 March 2011 11:38
To: starnews
Subject: Letter to the editor: Broken Robots
How can Johannesburg call itself a “World Class City” when the average driver goes through at least three broken robots on any given day?

There is a robot coming out from Dainfern onto William Nicol that has been “half” broken for almost a month. One side shows green while the cross traffic’s light is out, then the cross traffic’s light turns green while your light turns off. No repair crew, nor any police to direct traffic, has ever shown up.

Needless to say, this is extremely dangerous. You can’t have robots with green on one side and NOT RED on the other. I almost got hit by a car there yesterday while trying to turn onto William Nicol. When I called Joburg Connect to report the robot, the person on the other line was extremely unhelpful. It took three tries to even report the robot, but of course no one could tell me if and when it would be fixed.

Surely a “World Class City” would have a better system and act more quickly to protect citizens and visitors alike?

Sine Thieme

Sent: Friday, March 04, 2011 11:46 AM
Subject: FW: Letter to the editor: Broken Robots

Dear Sine

We have forwarded your complaint to Johannesburg Road Agency (JRA).
Please let us know of the progress or the lack thereof.

Kind regards

Yasmin Palani & Anna Cox

March 7, 2011

What's the South African Alternative to

I know this is not what you're expecting to hear, but the answer is: Street vendors.

Yes, there is, but it is not convincing. The prices are high, the selection limited, and I don't even want to know how many packages get lost in the black hole of the South African Postal Service.

My "tacky" new pink iPhone cover
But you know how you tend to always end up on Amazon after fruitless efforts to find a particular item in multiple stores? And you wonder why you didn't check there in the first place? That's exactly how it is here with street vendors (the ones South Africa fear mongers will warn you about). After finally getting my iPhone to work here in South Africa (see previous post), I immediately borrowed Zax's iPhone "skin", one of those rubbery covers that would have kept the glass from cracking had I had one when my phone was new, until such time as I could buy one for myself. But, as so often in South Africa, my simple plan to go to "Look and Listen" in Fourways Crossing and buy one there didn't come to fruition. Turns out they only have iPhone 4G covers, not 3G, since that is such OLD technology.

I searched through at least five more stores with the same result. I was pretty much resigned to the fact that they didn't exist in South Africa, but then, as I was driving home from Sandton City, where I had even had no luck at the huge new Apple Store, I idly glanced over at one of the ubiquitous street vendors, and what did I see him carrying? A big cardboard sheet with a range of cell phone cases pinned to it. And lo and behold, he had iPhone 3G covers. Not exactly what I wanted though, so I kept going, and only three vendors further up the road I found what I wanted. Not quite the quality of Zax's cover, to be sure, but good enough for my purposes (Noisette thinks it's very tacky looking), and so effortlessly obtained (if not exactly cheap for about $10 - these vendors never carry - or never admit to carrying - any change, so your bargaining power is somewhat restricted). In fact, I resolved right then and there to drive up to the nearest street vendor the next time I can't find something, and place my order, to be picked up a few days later. I'm sure it will work like a charm. I won't be expecting much of a warranty on anything, but as it is very hard to return anything bought in South Africa, even at a regular store, it doesn't make much of a difference.

March 6, 2011

I Finally Got my iPhone Working in South Africa!

In a testament to the somewhat slower pace of African Time, I was thrilled to get my American iPhone working here in South Africa after less than 12 months! (In fact, today is exactly our 1-year anniversary as expats in South Africa, March 5, 2010 was our first full day here - click here for my very first blog post about moving in). I had previously blogged about whether or not your iPhone will work in South Africa, and I'm afraid I really don't have much new information. Yes, it will work, IF you succeed in jailbreaking and SIM-unlocking it, so that you can use your Vodacom (or MTN or Cell C) SIM card in it. Sounds easy, but that bit of hacking actually proved to be fairly complicated in my case (they say it depends on the version number and what hacking code is out there).

March 5, 2011

My South Africa

A friend recently forwarded me the text of a speech given by Jonathan Jansen, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State, entitled "My South Africa." It is a wonderful homage to all the good in South Africa and you'll find it printed below. Just for some background, Jonathan Jansen was the source of big controversy not too long ago, when one of his first acts in Bloemfontein was to decree racial integration at student dormitories. What followed was a big uproar around the country, when a video surfaced, made by four white students, in which they mocked the concept of integration and severely denigrated the black housekeeping staff. Those students eventually faced trial but Professor Jansen announced that the university would withdraw disciplinary charges in order to promote reconciliation. This gesture, in turn, drew the ire of the ANC (governing party in South Africa).

March 4, 2011

Broken Robots in Joburg - a World Class City?

This is an update to my previous post where I mentioned the broken robot coming out from Dainfern onto William Nicol. It has been broken for over three weeks, and nothing has happened. Initially I assumed surely someone most have reported it and I just waited for it to be fixed. But no one has even shown up to direct traffic. What's worse, it isn't just broken, as seemingly happens to Joburg traffic lights after every rain, in which case such traffic lights revert to blinking, as they should, or sometimes they are completely turned off. In either case, drivers treat it as a four-way stop and it usually works fine. However, in this case, the traffic light is only HALF broken. It shows green on one side when it is out for the cross traffic, and vice versa. Plus, it isn't an intersection that leads itself to be treated as a four-way stop, as one road is a main road with very fast traffic, a main artery between Joburg and Pretoria, whereas the other road is a small neighborhood road.

Green light to turn onto William Nicol

Now the light to turn onto William Nicol is out

March 3, 2011

DOs and DONT's in Joburg Traffic

DO beware of potholes; they're everywhere, and they're deep. And new tires, if you'll remember, are expensive!

DON'T be afraid of the street vendors; they often have something useful to sell - even if it's just entertainment - and I've never had any bad experiences.

DO stop at a light (robot) that's not working, as in that case it reverts to a four-way stop. However, I've lately struggled with the robot coming onto William Nicol from Dainfern, which is HALF-working. It is either green or out, making this very hazardous if you assume it's your turn after stopping briefly, but it's actually green for the other side. If you think this would get fixed after a day or two, you are mistaken. It's been like this for weeks, but maybe no one has actually reported it because you don't want to waste your time with another government agency.

Robot/traffic light on "green" CROSSING William Nicol

Same robot on "out" while "green" for traffic ON William Nicol 
DON'T get distracted by the sights you see, wondering whether the guy or the stuff will fall off first.

DON'T follow a Toyota minibus taxi too closely; they're prone to brake and pull over very suddenly.

DON'T get annoyed by those same minibus taxis overtaking you off the road on your left; that's just the way it is.

DON'T bribe the cops but rather insist on a regular ticket; you'll almost always get off, in fact, you probably didn't do anything wrong in the first place. See Have You Brought Anything for us Today.

DO purchase a car with smash-and-grab protection or retrofit it afterwards.

DON'T drive up closely to the car in front of you at a robot at night; you want to leave enough space as to not be blocked in. I've never had a any problems with this but you do hear stories. Telltale signs of smash-and-grab danger spots are bricks and/or shattered glass laying around, and I've also seen signs for "hijacking hotspot" on the way to Hartebeespoort Dam. 

DO watch for the blinking green arrow on a right turn; it is easy to miss and then you'll have some angry people behind you.

DO keep 2-Rand coins in your car to tip parking attendants; they're at every shopping center and even though they'll likely wave from behind your car where you can't see them to "help" you get out of a parking space, they'll be very grateful for your money. They're also supposed to guard your car and will help you load your groceries in your trunk (boot).

For more on traffic in Johannesburg, click here.

March 1, 2011

US Consul General's Cocktail Reception

One of the perks of living as an expat in a major city such as Johannesburg is that you get invited to the annual cocktail party at the US Consul General's house. You just don't get these opportunities in Overland Park, Kansas!