January 31, 2011

More of my African Art

I've added two more paintings to my "Africa" portfolio. You can also view (and order) them on Imagekind.

"Township" (mixed media collage on canvas)
"Zebras" (white and black charcoal on blue paper)

January 28, 2011

Baseball in the Heart of a Vibrant Township

Update 2013: I wrote this story three years ago and Alexandra Baseball has come a long way since then. To keep updated about what's happening, make sure you LIKE the ALEXANDRA BASEBALL Facebook page, so that you can find out all about game schedules, awards, and other cool stuff like American MLB players running a practice for the Alexandra kids! 

Alexandra Baseball group picture with CODP Help Portrait

Is there baseball in South Africa? This was one of the first questions posed by our boys as we broached the subject of moving to Johannesburg late in 2009. Ever so gently we prepared them for the fact that most probably no, there wouldn't be. We were all resigned to the fact that it would have to be cricket (cricket!) from now on. Let me just say that we are still struggling to understand why it is  necessary to have matches last 5 days, and that maybe if you wouldn't give batters the option (option!) of whether to run or not, games might proceed at a slightly faster pace. But no one here seems to be disturbed by the fact that it can easily take 280 runs by one team before the inning changes.

Or maybe that is why baseball has gotten a foothold in South Africa. We actually did end up finding it, but not entirely where expected. I happened to see a blurb on a local website about the Alexandra Baseball Association and was intrigued to find out how baseball had come to such a notorious and historically crime-ridden neighborhood. Alexandra, you see, is a township. A place where, under Apartheid, the black population  of South Africa was confined to live. I can once again highly recommend reading Kaffir Boy - a great book to understand how life in Alexandra used to be, not so long ago, and in many ways not that much has changed. "Don't drive into Alexandra" is very likely the first advice you'll get after stepping off the plane in Johannesburg.

Street corner in Alexandra

I was curious, so I contacted Lucky, the founder of Alexandra Baseball. We met over coffee, away from Alexandra (he admitted later that he had walked for two hours to get there because he had no bus money) and he told me all about his league of about 180 kids. He started it several years ago and runs it pretty much by the grace of God and the help of a couple of friends, stringing themselves along with a lot of passion and a few strokes of luck, such as meeting me, as Lucky was quick to inform me (I now feel the heavy burden of responsibility on me!). He doesn't just see baseball as a pastime. To him, it is a tool for social change, something that might help these underprivileged kids make something out of their lives. They have passion and work hard. Going to practice every day after school keeps them out of trouble and stirs dreams in some to perhaps one day make it to the American Major Leagues. Lucky – who himself grew to love baseball as a kid when his mother worked in the household of Japanese expats – has the vision of growing and perhaps exporting the league he built into other, bigger townships, such as Soweto.

But the challenges are daunting, as I soon got to see for myself. After we had finished that first breakfast meeting, I drove Lucky back to Alexandra. After all, he needed a ride, and I had a car. Noooooo, a tiny voice was saying, but I'm glad I overcame it. Alexandra is a place you have to have seen. And the perfect way to see it is with your own personal guide! Sure, it is intimidating. The further you go in, the smaller the streets become, and the more people (and goats and chickens) are milling on them. If you don't drive boldly, you never move. Of course everyone around you is black, and you'll attract many stares (giving you pause to think how it must feel the other way around for most minorities). The many signs of decay - unfinished buildings, rubble lining the streets, red dust everywhere - are depressing to the suburban eye spoiled by perfectly manicured lawns. But there is also a certain vibrancy in Alexandra, something I've last experienced in Bangkok or Hong Kong. The streets are so lively. There is so much socializing going on, so much chatter, makeshift stalls of produce on every street corner. A place with so much hustle and bustle must be going somewhere in the world.

Alexandra Sports Complex
After my tour of innermost Alexandra, I was actually surprised when we arrived at the "Sports Complex." The field the Alexandra boys (and girls) practice on is actually quite pretty with a wonderful view, surrounded by trees and grass-covered. But it lacks everything else you'd expect from the most menial baseball park in the U.S. No fence, no backstop, no bases and no pitcher’s mound. This forces the team to travel across the Gauteng Baseball Federation all season, because no team will come and play on such a field. However, coming up with transport is another problem, since no one owns a car. Come game time, some taxi money is scraped together and everyone piles into a "bakkie." It is a sight to behold when an entire team including coaches scrambles out of a single car!

Despite these hurdles, the boys from Alexandra have had success against larger and better-funded clubs. Some of their top talent is already being wooed away by wealthier clubs with scholarship funds. The biggest need for them to continue operating, however, is more equipment. I've gone back to Alexandra a few more times and have met a number of players. Between them they share a few mitts and bats, and nothing quite fits as it should. After all, this league goes from age 7 all the way to 18. I've already donated what little equipment our boys had outgrown over the years, as well as an unused laptop computer to help the league with their communications, but there are 180 boys! With baseball still relatively unknown here in South Africa, it’s hard to find even new gear, let alone used. Luckily, Pitch in for Baseball, a non-profit organization in the USA, has agreed to donate a 250-kg pallet of helmets, gloves, bats, balls, and uniforms. This is wonderful news, except that there is a shipping cost of about US$2000 which they cannot cover. We are now reaching out in any way we can to raise that money.

I'm hoping that after reading this article you'll spread the word by forwarding it to others. Please email the link to this page to your friends or post it on Facebook. If you work in a South African company that might consider a sponsorship (for instance in return for a placement of their logo on the uniforms), please contact me. Or use the button below for a donation via PayPal (for now only in US$, as expected setting up the same in South African Rand is more complicated).

Please donate to my Alexandra Baseball Fund in US$:

January 26, 2011

Soweto Again

View of Soweto Cooling Towers

When my sister in law was visiting last October, she wanted to see Soweto, so instead of signing up for another costly tour (and perhaps having to wait again for hours for the correct van to show up) I decided we could just as well visit on our own. 

We were not disappointed. Our first stop was Mandela House ( S/ E, phone 011 936 7754, Mon-Fri 9-5, Sat-Sun 9:30-4:30, if you are a South African resident make sure you mention it as the admissions price is discounted), then the Hector Pieterson Museum (8288 Maseko Street, Orlando West, Soweto, 011 536 0611, open daily 10-5) which due to extremely hungry kids I had missed last time. I’m glad I got to see it. It’s a bit repetitive, but its scenes of what happened June 16, 1976 are unforgettable. It was easy to find parking everywhere we went, and I even had my car cleaned for R40 in the process. It sorely needed it from our trip a few days earlier to Pilanesberg National Park.

Entertainment at
Mandela House
In my mind, any concern of safety when going into Soweto is misguided. It is just like driving to any other place. Yes, there are probably corners you want to avoid – we didn’t visit the Elias Motsoaledi Squatter Camp this time. But images we might carry in our mind of armored cars patrolling Soweto because it was so dangerous are safely buried in the past. When you first enter South Africa, you will invariably be warned to never get lost and never stop for directions, and while this might be true for some places, it is not so in Soweto. When my navigation system had no clue where to find Regina Mundi Church (it has no clue about a lot of things – are you listening, people at Audi?), at which we wanted to take a quick peek on our way home, the street vendors at Hector Pieterson proved a wonderful resource to direct us there. Not one, or even two, but three flocked to my window, all topping each other with well-meaning explanations and gesticulations, all very different from one another and not entirely clear, but in summary their joint effort delivered us there safely.

Another must-see destination, though not technically in Soweto, is the Apartheid Museum (Northern Parkway & Gold Reef Rd, across from Gold Reef City, 011 309 4700, Tue-Sun 10-5, closed Mon). The order of displays is a bit haphazard, and I almost found the large Mandela exhibit – though very informative especially on Mandela’s early life, which I didn’t know that much about – a bit distracting, as it left us with too little time for the rest. But it was very educational nonetheless, and not vindictive, as could very well be the case. In fact, I found myself feeling a bit understanding of the Apartheid government after our visit there. When Nelson Mandela was arrested, he had received guerilla training in other African countries with communist leanings and had steered the ANC towards the reality of armed struggle. It is easy to look at the turn of events in hindsight and see him as the great man he turned out to be, but back then he did engage in dangerous sabotage and terrorist activities. I give the Apartheid Museum credit for not merely whitewashing over those facts.

For an account of our previous Soweto tour with an official tour operator, click here.

January 25, 2011

Don't Scream at Hippos in Pilanesberg National Park

Pilanesberg Game Reserve is only about two hours from Johannesburg (adjacent to Sun City) and a great way to view animals if you don’t have time or money for a stay at a game lodge. No bookings necessary, you just drive up to the gate and buy a day pass (it only cost us a total of R180). You can tour the entire game reserve in your own vehicle, with the warning not to get out of your car, which you should take seriously. 

We were reminded of that warning when we had stopped to watch some hippos sunning themselves beside a lake. I had opened the sunroof and angled my camera out of it for a better view when Jabulani and Impatience chose that very moment to have a fight over the window, which quickly escalated in a yelling match (it always does). You wouldn’t believe how quickly those hippos got up and stood facing us, menacingly, surrounding their young. It didn’t take much to imagine them charging the car so we quickly rolled up everything and backed up towards the road. Once there, I engaged in some yelling (and perhaps slapping, though I hate to admit it) of my own to get the kids to shut up and reflect on proper behavior around wild animals.

Hippos staring at us menacingly. They look fairly tame, but
hippos are the most dangerous animal in Africa in terms of
killing humans. Never get between them and the water!
First zebras...

...then giraffes at the waterhole

The rest of the trip went smoothly. In addition to the hippos, we saw elephants playing in the water, giraffes, rhinos, zebras, plenty of warthogs, including a huge one right in front of us and two of them going at each other, and your typical array of wildebeest, impala, red hartebeest, and nyala. The restaurant in the center of the park is perfect for more game viewing, as the waterhole it overlooks attracts plenty of visitors while you eat your lunch. We didn't get to see any lions, though the locations of lion sightings were posted on a map at the cafe. For perhaps even better viewings, you might consider leaving very early in the morning in order to hit the park at sunrise (it opens at 5:30 in the summer and 6:30 in the winter). Or you can spend the night at one of the lodges there, which I hear are very nice but once again not cheap.

All in all, another worthwhile day trip from Johannesburg, one I can highly recommend!

This article is part of Joburg Expat's What To Do in Joburg series. You might also like:

January 24, 2011

A Growing Blog - What Next?

The readership of Joburg Expat has expanded fast over the last couple of months and I'm thrilled to receive more and more questions from future expats planning a relocation to South Africa and Johannesburg in particular. Helping you with your decision and move was the whole idea behind starting this blog. It's also very cool to look at the world map and see where my blog is being read - still mostly in the U.S. and South Africa, but England is catching up, France and Sweden seem to be growing, and I'm always amazed when I get visited from places like Egypt, Malaysia, or Iran. But I suppose there are expats all over the world.

So I've changed the face of my blog a little to make it easier to navigate, and I've also signed up for those Google ads (mainly because they put their AdSense in my face everywhere I turned, and I was curious). But now that I've seen the first ad they've placed (and of course it had to be a singles ad, as they all seem to be) and how big and prominent it is, I'm having second thoughts. Maybe that's not the kind of blog I want to have.

My feel is that I'll wait a while and see where it goes. I'm one to scorn all online ads and inclined to think they don't even work, but maybe the reality is different. Please bear with me through this experiment, but I'd lovve to hear your opinion in the meantime!

January 22, 2011

My Top Expat Tips

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to finally write a “Tips for Expats Moving to South Africa” post, so I thought I’d better get on with it before January is over. Here it is (scroll down for details about each item):

  1. Get your visa/work permit/study permit as early as possible
  2. Get a local bank account set up
  3. Get a Garmin
  4. Apply for your very own Eskom account
  5. Order adapter plugs and one or more transformers
  6. Make and carry several certified copies of your and your spouse’s passport
  7. Buy a cheap prepaid phone
  8. Get an international drivers’ license in your home country
  9. Research internet providers that offer uncapped service
  10. Consider buying a good four-wheel-drive car with trailer hitch and/or rack for rooftop tent.
  11. Unplug your computer and modem during thunderstorms
Thanks to those of you who've already added suggestions for this list! Please keep checking for future additions.

  1. Without some kind of residency permit/visa while living in South Africa, you’re not actually a real person. You may eat and drink and sleep in this country, but many other activities particularly those involving any government agency will be like the forbidden fruit. Typically, your spouse or the one who works will get the permit/visa first, but that is of no use to the other one who actually has the time to apply for a bank account or cell phone or buy a car (and, one might mention, needs the car to go apply for the cell phone and needs the bank account to pay for the car). When you first get here it can feel like one big catch 22 where one thing depends upon the other, and I’ve described such a situation in A Typical Day in Africa. The visa (not the tourist visa, mind you, but the one you have to apply for before entering SA) is the key to everything. A visa is also often the prerequisite for the kids attending school, so you will be well advised to start this process and follow up often while you’re still in your home country. Keep pestering whoever is applying for the visas on your behalf (usually the company’s human resources or legal people) as you will have a much easier time once you’re here. (*** This is all much better explained in a more recent blog post, Applying for a South African Visa. The regulations have been changed since this first post was written, i.e. you no longer can enter South Africa on a tourist visa and then apply for the residency permit. You are only allowed to enter the country with the proper visa, i.e. a work visa if you are working, or student visa for  your children to go to school. There are some other changes too, so please read the more recent visa post. Thank you. ***)

  2. You need a local bank account. South Africans hardly ever use something as antiquated as checks, and most every service you receive (phone, electricity, gardening and pool, book order for the school, music lessons, etc.) is very conveniently paid via Electronic Funds Transfer (EFT). Internet banking works very well (once you’ve jumped through all the hoops the bank will put in front of you when you first register for it and provided you do not reach your internet cap before the month is over, see below) and paying my bills (and now even my kids’ allowances) via EFT is one of the pleasures of living in South Africa (don’t laugh!). You will also find that foreign credit cards are sometimes difficult to use because of the huge risk of fraud, so you will need a local credit card for certain transactions (or for all transactions if you want to save the exchange and transaction fees). I wouldn’t worry too much about which bank to use, other than making sure they have good ATM coverage, particularly in a safe shopping center close to you. Their fees are fairly similar and quite high compared to what you might be used to.

  3. A Garmin is a must-have. You don’t want to get lost in some unknown area and stop for directions. But I’m not just using the generic term, I would actually get the Garmin brand. It is by far the best. We’ve brought ours from the U.S., equipped with the latest South African software, and it finds everything. Our built-in navigations systems – one by Mercedes, one by Audi – on the other hand are only distinguished in their clunkiness, one worse than the other. There is a slew of roads they don’t recognize at all, or if they do, they can only find a range of house numbers from, say, 1-99, which is not very precise to say the least. You can’t search them by the name of the establishment, which is often the quickest or even only way to find something. Garmins can also be bought here, of course, but I think they’re cheaper in the U.S., even when adding the cost of the local map. Plus you’ll want to have it right away. The cheapest Garmin here costs about R1,100, so you can figure it out.

  4. You can read up on all my Eskom escapades under Bureaucracy but I think this post best sums up the need for an Eskom account under your name. Go to the nearest Eskom office and apply, but remember to bring – you guessed it – your passport with your permanent visa, and a copy of the lease agreement and maybe also your last bank statement if you are so lucky to have already received one. I also suggest you find out your billing cycle (i.e. which day of the month does the invoice go out) and make a note in your calendar to check your meter a few days prior and call in that reading. Eskom will use that reading and you will be saved from any nasty surprises.

  5. If you’re coming from Europe or any 220V country your life will be much simpler. But you’ll still need adapter plugs for your electric appliances . Since many local appliances also only come with Euro plugs, you will need adapters for pretty much everything, and you can buy them here at places like Builder’s Warehouse, but they never seem to fit very well, so I would bring them from home. We bought a whole box full of VCT VP110 Universal Travel Outlet Plug Adapter for South Africa at Amazon and have been very happy with it. I would also get a few power strips with extension cords, since South African houses have few outlets to begin with, and none at all in the bathrooms. If you’re coming from the United States or any other 120V country, you’ll be well served with a step down transformer (or several), unless you’re just planning to buy everything new. It won’t be cheap or perfect (some appliances, especially ones that generate heat such as espresso machines and blow dryers use too much power and/or have too much of a power surge when you turn them on to be practical with a transformer), it will be heavy, it will take up space on your kitchen counter, and it will hum. But still we found it a cheaper solution than replacing all your electric machines.

  6. As I’ve said before, you will need your passport for everything during the first few months, as it is the universally accepted form of ID for foreigners in South Africa. But since you may not want to carry it around everywhere, I suggest you get some certified copies made (of the main page and the visa page) and carry those instead. You can accomplish this easily (and, if I remember correctly, at no cost) at a local police station, though I think those certified copies expire after a certain time. Another useful tip is to enter all your family’s passport numbers into your cell phone, so that you can produce them anywhere upon request.

  7. As I said above, applying for a cell phone is another one of those things you will need a permanent visa for, at least the kind where you have a 2-year contract. However, I find that I initially fretted way too much about plans and rates and special offers and whatnot, and waiting (to this day, after 10 months, I still haven’t figured it out) to have my iPhone jailbroken so I could use it. My advice is to buy a cheap prepaid phone right away, and worry about a long term plan later. The rate difference actually isn’t all that big, and the bureaucracy of buying a prepaid phone is much more manageable. Of all things, you will need a cell phone most urgently, especially since your Telkom home phone (if you even choose to get one, more on that later) will take some time to be installed. Just to receive contractors and other visitors into your estate, you will need to be able to answer the phone when security calls you, and having no phone for the first few weeks was a serious drawback for me (it drove Noisette crazy when he’d receive a call in the middle of a meeting whether it was okay to let Lucky Tshabalala into the estate).

  8. I’m still not sure if an international license is in fact needed, as I’ve been told conflicting stories, but my experience so far has shown that you do get asked for it when they stop you. You will get asked for many things (including “coffee” as I’ve mentioned previously!), and the more you can produce, the better your chances of escaping without a fine/bribe. Although most cops I’ve encountered so far seemed to prefer my U.S. license for its nice credit card format similar to a South African ID card. So my advice is, if you didn’t get one, don’t fret about it. But if you haven’t moved yet, since it surely can’t hurt, and I think it only costs $10 or so at AAA, I suggest you get the international license, something you can only do in the country your regular license was issued in. It will only be valid for one year, and technically only in conjunction with your regular license, so your real license is what you actually have to make sure you keep current. You can’t simply get a South African license, that much I have found out.

  9. I’ve mentioned before that we got talked into using Telkom as our internet provider without knowing that it has a 5 gigabyte monthly cap (recently raised to 9, but still). There are plenty of uncapped internet offers out there, like mweb, afrihost (or click here for a pretty good comparison), but once you’ve signed a 2-year Telkom contract you’re sort of committed. You’ll also want to make sure you pick a provider with some kind of reliability – trust me, when things are NOT working out, you’ll at least want to be able to complain about it on Facebook! If you do get uncapped internet allowing you to Skype as much as you want, I wouldn’t even bother with a landline. It is not very stable and most people here use their cellphones for all local calls.
  10. You may not be the outdoors type, but South Africa will invariably try to convince you otherwise. As we’ve discovered, all-inclusive type vacations in Africa, whether to a tropical beach or a game reserve, are not cheap by any means, so that sooner or later you will want to venture into the bush toting your own gear - in a trailer, on a roof rack, or both. This is the one place where all-wheel drive is not merely a suburban fashion; in fact it is the only way to explore entire countries like Mozambique by car at all. You can rent trailers of all types and sizes here at every street corner, and rooftop tents are very useful too, especially after you’ve heard tales of angry elephants or curious lions. You’ll also want to have a car you’re not going to fret over in terms of scratching by thorn bushes or worse.

  11. While I haven't had any bad experience with Joburg's famous lightening yet, I have heard from plenty of people who have. A friend has "lost a laptop, printer and three modems from lightening" and is "pretty certain it's coming in through the phone line." Surge protectors don't help, so the most sound advice I can give is to always unplug everything when a storm is approaching.

Typical Joburg thunderstorm
Those are my expat tips. If you think of all of the above ahead of time, you will settle into your life in South Africa very easily. And now for some fun with one bonus tip:

12. Paint your house number on your trash can in big bold letters! Find out why by following The Dustbin Saga here and here and here and here.

January 21, 2011

The Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre of De Wildt

An excellent half-day excursion from Joburg is a visit at the Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre near Hartebeesport Dam. We recently toured it while my brother and kids were in town. Not only did we come home with many new impressions and facts to digest, we are now the proud adoptive parents of a young cheetah named Valiant. We didn’t quite bring him home, in case you’re wondering (Noisette has not particularly embraced the cats I’ve brought home in the past, so an entire cheetah might have seriously challenged our marriage), but we did adopt him to help pay for part of his food and medical care.

De Wildt is actually not only dedicated to breeding and studying cheetahs, but a whole host of other endangered animals. In addition to petting a cheetah (no doubt the highlight for the kids) we got to observe the feeding of wild dogs and drove by cages of vultures, hyenas, honey badgers, caracals, and African wild cats, as well as some free-roaming ostriches and impalas.

Could those legs be any longer?
Here are some of the facts we learned (I hope I remembered everything correctly):

-          Cheetahs can accelerate from 0 to 80 km/h in 3 seconds
-          It takes them 8 meters to come to a complete stop from running at 100 km/h
-          Cheetahs can also turn at a right angle, using their tails for stability, when running at 100 km/h
-          A Cheetah’s speed comes at the expense of strength, leaving him very vulnerable to bigger predators; he will only eat what he has killed, but it is often taken away by lions, especially since a cheetah gets so overheated from the hunt that he has to wait up to 40 minutes before he can start eating
-          Cheetahs often live in a sort of symbiosis with honey badgers. Apparently, cheetah babies are born with a pale patch on their backs that makes them resemble the honey badger. Unlike the cheetah, a honey badger mother will go to great lengths to protect her young, and even avenge their death, if, say, a lion kills them. They are known as incredibly fierce animals. She will inflict serious injuries with her strong claws, which the lion will remember, and perhaps forego the next meal of babies. Thus, cheetah babies have a slight benefit from their resemblance to honey badgers.
-          Cheetahs are the only cats that do not retract their claws; instead, they function like spikes when they run and their feet are actually more like that of a dog
-          Vultures mate for life and are important in reducing disease (by quickly eliminating large carcasses), but their large wingspan makes them extremely vulnerable to power lines; De Wildt houses a number of vultures that can no longer fly and have to be fed to survive
-          While looking very bloody, a kill by wild dogs is actually very swift and fast and perhaps more “humane,” if that term can be used for what happens in the wild, than that of, say, a lion (who can take hours to “strangle” prey)
-          African wild cats are endangered because feral house cats will mate with them and thus dilute the blood lines
-          The caracal is endangered because farmers take up his space and then kill him for stealing livestock, instead of opting for the much better alternative of getting an Anatolian sheep dog to protect their flock
-          Caracals can catch birds in mid flight
-          Cheetahs are ticklish, which is why you should pet them with your flat hand!

If you’re interested in a tour of the De Wildt, you should call ahead (012 504 9906) or go online to make a booking.

Getting up close
Valiant, our new pet away from home!

This post is part of the What To Do In Joburg series. You might also like:

January 20, 2011

A Typical Day in South Africa (Take Two)

This is the difference between March of 2010, when we were “fresh off the boat,” so to speak, and January 2011, by which time we have become quite settled in Johannesburg.

Back then I was occasionally foaming at the mouth about the stupidities and injustices of South African government agencies, such as Telkom (much of which you can read about under the “Bureaucracy” tab). Today I’m more prone to breaking out into uncontrolled laughter, such as I did this morning. Nothing has changed, of course, but that is precisely why it is so funny.

Yesterday afternoon, what was bound to happen, happened: We reached our monthly internet cap of 9 gigabytes. This has been a problem before (and I strongly encourage all new expats to opt for MWEB or something with uncapped internet instead of Telkom), but usually on the 29th of the month, when we could wait it out. But today is the 19th! We used to blame our internet troubles on Zax’s xBox Live addiction, but that subscription has actually run out this month. The culprit must be just our regular internet usage, a couple of online videos here and there, and maybe to some not so small extent this blog! I used to monitor it more closely so I could see it coming, but somehow the Telkom “usage reports” have not been working for some time.

No problem, I thought, I will just use the “purchase top-up” option on the Telkom website. Now you might think that there is irony in purchasing more internet usage over the internet when you’ve just run out of internet usage, but that is actually not a problem. After all, we are progressive here in South Africa! Your usage is divided into local usage and all the rest (with pretty much everything we do falling under “all the rest” even if we access a local website) but the local usage has no cap and does allow you to access the Telkom website. So far so good. But of course it didn’t end there. I tried to purchase 2 more gig using my credit card, to no avail. I finally figured out that it wouldn’t work, because South African banks recently instituted a new security scheme, whereby you have to first register for an additional password for whenever you use your credit card online. While I laud this precaution (having been an almost-victim of financial fraud to the tune of 10,000 Euros – see my Postal Service story in that regard), it is a big headache for the simple reason that it doesn’t work. At least not for me. I’ve already been through endless sessions with my bank to try and get this password set up, without success.

What do you do when you can’t do it online? You use the phone. So I called Telkom’s internet help desk (0800 500 200 if you’re interested). However, that of course is not staffed after 7:00 pm, so we all had to wait until today. When I called them this morning, I was happy to get through to a representative without a long wait. He asked me all my personal details to make sure I was the person I claimed, and then informed me that I couldn’t simply top up our account over the phone, I would have to create a temporary account instead, with a new password and everything. Sure, a hassle, but also maybe with its advantages, as I could keep this new account a secret in our family and make the 2 gig last until the end of the month without having to share. See how devious I have become? But alas, here comes the inevitable, and I admit I should have seen this coming: I would not, I was informed politely, be able to actually order up this new account, since I AM NOT THE ACCOUNT HOLDER! Of course. Such a case of Déjà vu. Noisette is the account holder and the only person with the power to actually deal with Telkom. The same as last March, and the fact that I haven’t been able to drag him to the Telkom store to remedy the situation in almost a year of living here is what makes me sit back and laugh.

Such a little item on your to-do list (or arguably one that shouldn’t be on there in the first place) becomes such a chore here in South Africa!

January 18, 2011

Rain, Rain, Go Away!

It has been raining and raining in Joburg the last couple of days. South Africa is a semi-arid country. I guess we are in the non-arid half of semi-arid.

Big rivers are flowing through the streets. Slightly smaller but still impressive rivers are flowing through our garage, where we have been playing musical chairs trying to move our stuff away from the rising tide. The upper floors aren't faring much better, as we can see new water stains on the ceilings (shoddy construction does not seem to be unique to Overland Park, KS, where our tenants inform us of the exact same stains every time it rains). Mounds of red dirt have been washed into intersections, and new potholes are emerging at an alarming rate.

The good news is that I have not had to water our lawn in over a month, thereby drastically reducing our City of Joburg bill. And it's also true that when the sun does come through, it dries everything up so quickly you can't believe it has ever rained. But I'm just wondering about this climate. We were told this is NOT normal. That it usually only rains in summer for about half an hour each afternoon when there are thunderstorms. But from what I can tell Joburg has had this kind of rainy season for the last several years. The hottest summer month we've had was in October before the rains started, which was technically only spring.

It feels like we're living in London with all this drizzle. I'm thinking of buying an umbrella.

But in the grand scheme of things, we still have lovely weather in Joburg!

January 17, 2011

A Face Lift for Joburg Expat

I spent the last weekend getting deeper into this blog's HTML code than I ever wished for, as I much prefer to research and write content, but some work needed to be done. As Joburg Expat has grown over the past year, it has accumulated a huge amount of tags or labels from Afrikaans to Impala Poop Spitting to Zulu which were displayed in one huge unwieldy word cloud down the right side. I felt the blog was getting too cluttered to be useful to new readers.

Anybody who uses Blogger most likely shares my frustration about the lack of categories. And no, categories are not the same as labels you attach to a post, much as some people want you to believe that. For instance, if I want to have Bureaucratic Hassles as a main category, and Eskom, Telkom, City of Joburg, and about twenty others as subcategories which then point to the respective posts, I can't do that in Blogger, whereas in Wordpress I could. However, I'm stuck with Blogger and actually quite happy with some other features, so my only choice was to use the label functionality and some hacks I found to make Joburg Expat more organized.

I'm quite pleased with the results. You will now find a few main categories such as Expat Tips, Schools, Travel and Around Joburg as tabs along the top, from where you can link to any of the posts with that topic. As I didn't have unlimited space there, I've also listed some further common South African expat topics down the right side, such as Crime and Security, Weather, and Domestic Help. As for all the other tags, I've now added a "search this blog" box in the top right corner that should help you find stuff nicely. And of course you can still search through all my posts historically by clicking on the relevant month in the archive. Oh, and I've also added an FAQ tab along the top which is still very much under construction and to which I'll add in the coming months. Your questions/suggestions are always welcome!

If you're interested into how you can create those tabs along the top using Blogger tags (essentially transforming a group of labels into pages that in turn link to the posts with those labels), I recommend the following post by a Blogger colleague.

January 15, 2011

In the Emergency Room

How good are South African hospitals? That question is bound to be near the top of your list if you’re considering an expat assignment in South Africa, or any country for that matter.

I don’t consider myself an expert yet, but we are starting to accumulate more data points in this respect. It was barely two days into the New Year that we rushed into Life Fourways Hospital, 3 adults and 7 kids in tow. We had driven three and a half hours straight from Madikwe Game Reserve near the Botswana border, where we were privileged to see the most dangerous animals up close without incurring the slightest scratch. Instead, it was a vicious night stand that came in the way of Sunshine’s forehead when she was jumping on the bed with Jabulani (I should tell you that those two have a history of travel-related injuries, or rather, injuries inflicted on Sunshine by Jabulani right before departure). There was a lot of screaming, the sight wasn’t pretty, and we knew stitches were needed.

We had opted for Life Fourways rather than the Rustenburg Children’s Hospital, because it wasn’t that much farther to drive. After the initial gush of blood, Sunshine seemed to be okay for the moment and we preferred to be closer to home. We didn’t regret it. As was the case when I was there last April for tick bite fever, we waited less than 10 minutes to be taken in. There was a brief debate about trying to find a plastic surgeon, but as it was vacation time and could have taken more than another day to locate one, we opted for the attendant ER physician instead. He did a superb job on Sunshine’s stitches, all the while relegating me to his life story of considering a career in the US and spending several years in Canada instead, part of which I unfortunately missed as I had to take a quick break to lie down. Yet it is I who has to go through these experiences with our kids every single time, as Noisette can stomach them even less and had taken off after barely dropping us off.

Not only was Sunshine stitched up in less than two hours, we also had my nephew looked at for a persistent fever (by the same doctor, who at the same time also attended to a bee sting, drug overdose, dehydrated infant, and broken foot, from what I could gather) and bought the prescribed antibiotics. I don’t think you could have gotten better and certainly not faster care in any American hospital. Sunshine’s stitches were taken out five days later, and now, after two weeks, you can barely even see a scar. Oh, and the cost of her treatment? R1350 or under $200. It would probably pay for us to reduce our health insurance to catastrophic coverage only, at these prices.

Given the recent healthcare debate in the U.S., I cannot help but draw a comparison. If indeed a private South African hospital provides the same level of care as its American counterpart – I admit that much more data is needed for an in-depth analysis and sincerely hope that our family won’t be providing any more of such data – then why is the same treatment so much more expensive there? I suspect there are several causes. The high cost of a U.S. education would be one. Maybe also the cutting-edge medical research, much of which still seems to be spearheaded in the U.S.  But at least a substantial part of the cost difference must be caused by malpractice insurance, which the medical profession in no other country I know of has to deal with to such a degree as in the United States. Stoking death panel fears? Ridiculous and unforgivable. But malpractice reform is a worthy goal that should be part of a streamlined and affordable healthcare system.

Note: I will not even attempt a critique of South African public healthcare, which – judging from the lines you frequently see in front of public clinics and stories you hear of striking personnel and neglected patients – is nothing to be envious of. The above took place in one of the number of private hospitals you will find in all the major population centers, the only type of hospital you’ll ever set foot in as an expat in South Africa.

January 14, 2011

Education - An Example of the Class Struggle in South Africa

As an expat living in South Africa, you cannot escape daily images of the stark contrast between rich and poor. You will cruise comfortably in your big car past lines and lines of people patiently waiting for a minibus taxi they will be crammed into 15 apiece. You will drive by the shacks of Diepsloot on the Northern outskirts of Johannesburg and marvel how so many people can live on such little land, often using homemade building materials for their makeshift shelters, feeling slightly guilty about your spacious, walled-in home with manicured lawns and a swimming pool.

But I just came across another, more subtle example of this divide, highlighting the still deplorable state of education in this country.

It is the story of my domestic’s son, let’s call him Themba for “hope.” (You might recall that I named my domestic Sibusiso for blessing, but it turns out I picked a male name – I am hereby rechristening her Sibongile for “we are thankful”). Sibongile had been ecstatic about a month ago, when she showed me a text message she got from the local high school in her township, informing her that Themba was admitted to grade 12. Although born here to South African parents, he had been educated in Zimbabwe and completed school there last year, returning to Johannesburg in hopes of further education. His best avenue on that path, Sibongile had decided, was to repeat the last grade here to improve his grades and gain a modest scholarship or “bursary” to what I imagine is some kind of community college. But the school here wouldn’t take him last year without a report from the Zimbabwe school, which that school was late in issuing. So he spent an entire year, essentially doing nothing, waiting to be readmitted to school. Which Sibongile’s text message said he was, as of last month.

She went out and bought his uniform and supplies, happily sending him off to his first day of school yesterday. Not an hour later, he called, telling her that he was sent home because the school didn’t have the transcript from the previous school. This already got me going – what kind of a school official sends a student home over missing paperwork? Paperwork, mind you, they should already have in their records? Surely they should have made sure the paperwork was in order before the first day of school, and before sending a message of acceptance. But this is South Africa. I won’t even say “this is Africa,” because bureaucratic stupidity seems to be a hallmark of South Africa alone. As there was nothing to be done, Sibongile and I set off in my car to retrieve the missing record from her house. Taking the taxi would have taken much longer, so I offered her the ride and perhaps some moral support. Nothing irks me like being told “it can’t be done.” We found the record, drove to the school, Themba in tow, took note of the long line of other parents waiting in the front office, and walked straight to the window. A brief conversation in Zulu followed, the record was looked at, stapled to Themba’s file, and he was told to report back to a certain teacher. Problem solved, right?

But I should have known better. Not an hour after we returned, Themba had been sent home again, this time because the provided record was “insufficient.” As by now the school day was close to being over, Sibongile decided to go back to her house after work (she lives with us during the week) so that she could show up at the school in the morning to sort things out. I chastised myself for not being more assertive on her behalf. I should have insisted on speaking to the headmaster right there, instead of taking the filing of the document as an affirmation. I now remember even looking at the record in question myself, and having my doubts. It was a thin sliver of paper, listing a school name and some subjects marked either “ordinary” or “ungraded,” the latter turning out to be a more flattering version of “failed.” This, Sibongile assured me, was mainly due to almost an entire year worth of teacher strikes in Zimbabwe, so that the students couldn’t sit for their exams. Also, there was no mention of the subject of math at all. However, all these complications didn’t seem insurmountable, and I had full confidence that by today everything would be back to normal.

As of now, the situation is this: The school insists that it cannot place “overage learners” into a grade if there is no record of their prior achievement. Since Themba’s record does not list the actual grade level he completed, it is not sufficient. The fact that he is only overage (19) because the school didn’t admit him last year, but assured him he would be taken this year if his record was produced, and that he was officially accepted into this school months ago, making his mother believe everything would be fine, doesn’t seem to have any bearing, even though it seems grossly unfair. This is what Sibongile found out this morning. She has lost all her defiant battle spirit from yesterday, telling me that “all the joy has gone” from her. Themba is at home, devastated, and the only course of action seems dubious at best: A sister knows of an affordable private school who might take him, allowing him to accumulate a record, which he could a few months from now hopefully use to transfer back to the (free) township school he wants to attend.

I wasn’t going to give up that quickly. After all, I’ve passed my apprenticeship in South African bureaucracy by my dealings with Eskom.  So I picked up the phone and asked my way through to who I think is the principal of the school in question (not an easy feat in and of itself, since the school has no landline and cannot be found in any phone book, a single cell phone carried along hallways of screaming students its only connection to the outside world). He basically confirmed the story and, when I wasn’t giving up easily, got hostile and just hung up on me. 

Since then, I’ve been busy. I’ve called the Gauteng Department of Education, all ten numbers, to no avail. Voice mail, then more ringing, but no one picking up. What kind of country is this? An entire provincial government department that cannot be reached?  I sent them an email, which I have no hopes of ever being answered. I then sent a letter to a newspaper, the Mail and Guardian, and I called another newspaper, the Star, where I was advised to keep calling the education department and that they might print a story if I continued to get nowhere. Something at least. So I continued to call my list of 10 numbers, and after another hour of this succeeded in getting a live (live!) person on the line. She wasn’t the right one, of course, but I tried to keep her on the phone as long as possible to extract the most amount of information possible, knowing I would never get such a chance again. She gave me three names and numbers, all of which were either wrong or landed me in voice mail. You get the picture. I’m not going to go into more detail, but I spent the last two hours calling the most improbable numbers and speaking to the most unhelpful people, who essentially gave me the runaround between the school, the district office, and the department of education. Each one is insisting that the other is in charge, and I have accomplished nothing. And I’m going to venture onto politically correct thin ice and admit that after all these calls I caught myself perking up when a new contact didn’t have an African name. But I did track down a person who claims she will handle an appeal if I fax her the questionable report so that she can examine it. However, that document is now en route with Themba and Sibongile’s sister to God knows where, and of course a copy doesn’t exist.

With nothing else to do at the moment, I cannot help but reflect on the lessons from this. Sure, the school officials are being needlessly rude and indifferent, but they might not act entirely out of line. There probably are rules concerning overage learners, and even though somebody dropped the ball and left this poor family hanging, they can not simply admit an ineligible student.

I recall a most interesting chapter in the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell discussing the difference between privileged children from educated families and underprivileged kids. He describes a study where a group of families of very different backgrounds were followed for a certain time period and their every behavior recorded in order to determine what factors contribute to the achievement gap. The outcome is revealing: It is not only a difference in education that privileged children are receiving, but something more intangible – a sense of entitlement and importance, lending such kids an assertiveness in dealing with the world at large that helps them advance. It is fostered by constant encouragement by the parents to argue one’s case, to stand up to adults and state one’s opinion. 

I was actually very glad at the time to be told that all that arguing Noisette and I are having to endure might actually be good for something! In any case, this study found that lower-class children do not have such a sense of entitlement (a term I’ve actually come to view as negative but apparently there is a positive side to it), that they tend to be much more submissive and quiet, thinking they have no right to speak up. It is not a matter of intelligence, or race. It is simply a learned skill that underprivileged children lack. 

Why am I telling you about all this? Because I think Themba’s school experience highlights the findings of this study. It starts with Sibongile not asking the Zimbabwe school for better documentation. Or asking the school here for an official document of acceptance. Or never asking to speak with a person of authority. Her dealings consist of an entire web of acquaintances and partial knowledge and heresay, and the concept of doing proper research and asking your way through to the person in charge is entirely alien to her. And is it any wonder? When not too long ago you had no rights whatsoever and could land in prison just by not carrying an ID with you? Yes, the South African bureaucracy is formidable, but if every single citizen would stand up and fight for their rights instead of simply giving up, it might have been forced to improve a long time ago.

Formerly, when Nelson Mandela was still locked away on Robben Island, there was the Department of Bantu Education, run by whites who were quite happy to maintain a largely uneducated black population as cheap labor (an excellent account of the many injustices of that education system can be found in the book Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane. 

Today, post-Apartheid, there seems to be a Department of Uncaring Education indifferent to the struggles of South Africa’s underprivileged masses.

January 11, 2011

A New Year in Africa

It makes such a big difference whether you are a new arrival in Africa, or whether you've been there and done that last year, a returning expat so to speak, though we haven't really been away. It's a new year, and everything seems so easy all of a sudden here at Joburg Expat!

The kids are going back to school tomorrow (finally moving up from those grades they've lingered in forever, it seems), so I've been cruising around the last few days getting things gathered and taken care of. Everything dropped off my list like clockwork. Haircuts for the kids at Chop It, no appointment necessary and in and out in 10 minutes: check. New school uniforms for Jabulani (moving up to grade 7 and needing long pants and blazer) and Impatience (not needing anything but wanting the newly designed skirt and blouse) at McCullagh & Bothwell: check (though Dainfern blazers were out and a new patch needed to be sewn on, but even that as promised within one day including a call to inform me!). A few last missing school supplies at Walton's: check. A case of Mulderbosch Chardonnay at Boot Leggers, though not at all on my list but conveniently spied next door to Walton's: check. Renewal of PO box rental due before February 1 at Dainfern North post office: check.

This last one was the most amazing - where I previously had to tote lease agreements and passport copies and other important papers documenting and detailing our life, all I had to do this time is bring the renewal notice that was in the mail, and boom - renewed. We seem to have graduated to insider status in South Africa! Oh, and before I forget - the first Eskom invoice of the year has fluttered in, and NO MORE INTEREST ON OVERDUE ACCOUNT CHARGES!

It seems to be the most promising new beginning.

January 7, 2011

Gold Reef City

Whew! It is a balmy evening in Joburg and I'm glad to be finally sipping wine with my feet up after an entire day at Gold Reef City. This was our first excursion there in the nine months we've lived here, seven kids in tow. It was a pleasant surprise. Even though I generally find amusement parks extremely tiring and would much rather spend the day poolside with a good book, this one I can recommend.

Ferris Wheel
First off, it is very modern, with beautiful landscaping, and not in any way dated like some other parks I've been to. Also, the rides are so well built around each other, sharing the same space, so to speak, that only small distances have to be bridged with a minimum of walking. You can easily cross from one end to the other in 10 minutes. The entire place resembles Disney World, but on a much smaller scale and with a theme of - fittingly - gold mining. In fact, the park is built around an old mine shaft which you can even take a train into. There is a central town square with shops and restaurants, surrounded by a host of rides,  a 3-D movie theater with special effects, an animal farmyard, a hands-on science center that is quite good, a train museum, and the obligatory Ferris Wheel (a fast one!). A hotel is enclosed within the park, and you will even find a casino next door (or, for the more culturally inclined, the Apartheid Museum across the street). The rides range from the very scary (Anaconda, Tower of Terror) to the wet (Raging River Rapids), nauseating (UFO), and child friendly (everything in Kiddies Corner).

Tower of Terror
Almost no queuing at the Wave Swing 
The best part is the price (we paid R1,120 or $165 for nine people and parking was free, plus the food prices in the park are very reasonable as well). The worst part were the lines. At first I thought this was due to my infinite wisdom of choosing December 27, a holiday, for our outing, but I've since heard that it is almost always this crowded. As a result, it seemed like we spent most of the day waiting. In perhaps the perfect combination of African patience and English queuing, South Africans seem to have no compunction about waiting one and a half hours for a two-minute ride on the Anaconda. While this might be a character virtue, it doesn't work out well in self-limiting the overcrowding of an amusement park. But since the park was so easy to navigate, it was also easy to split up into different groups, so that those who insisted on plunging (face downward, mind you!) from the Tower of Terror could go and settle in the line, while the other - saner - half of our group had fun with the lesser-crowded attractions.

All in all, a great summer holiday outing!

Contact info:
Gold Reef City Theme Park
Tel: +27 11 248-6800

open Wed-Sun during school year
open 7 days a week during Gauteng school holidays and public holidays except Christmas

View of Joburg from the Ferris Wheel

Miner's Revenge