We took a trip to South Africa during July 2009, primarily to visit family, but also to do some sight-seeing and to show our kids some of the beauty of South Africa.
Here are some of the impressions that I got about South Africa…
Let me first admit that we didn’t travel through all of South Africa. We were exposed only to a small part of South Africa and only for a few weeks. This also means that we were tourists who did not have to experience the realities of making a living in South Africa. Therefore my impressions are not comprehensive.
That being said, here goes…
South Africa is hosting next year’s Soccer World Cup. Other than the stadiums that are being built (some completed, most not…), South Africa is in the process of upgrading most of its major airports.
When we visited South Africa two years ago, Johannesburg airport seemed to be a mess, and we waited more than an hour to get our luggage. There was also lots of construction going on. All that seems to have changed now. The airport is beautiful, with several restaurants, and it all seems to function quite efficiently. This time we waited no more than 15 minutes for our luggage.
Other airports that we visited also have lots of construction going on. As with the stadiums, I hope that all the airports will be ready to go by the time that all the tourists flood to South Africa for the Soccer World Cup.
The single thing always strikes me most when we visit South Africa is how many more Rands South Africans have to cough up to pay for the same items. When we lived there (1996 and before), a R100 note was a rare thing to have in your wallet because you seldom needed that much money from day to day. Nowadays they seem to fly out of wallets like bees from a hive!
In my day, you could buy a Spur burger for around R10-R15. Now you’re looking at R40-R55. There are plenty of other examples. Granted, South African salaries have risen quite dramatically too, at least for some. Many people now earn R25,000 per month instead of the R25,000 per year that I made as an engineer at the SABC.
My Spur example above suggests an annual inflation rate of about 12%, which is double the official rate of about 5.5% over the past 8 or more years. I might be wrong about this, but I get the feeling that South Africans’ cost of living has increased by much more than the 5.5% per year suggested by the official inflation rate. (Here’s an article that may support that point.)
South Africa still has a big problem with crime, as evidenced by secured housing complexes, burglar bars covering windows, metal gates covering doors, electric fences on top of 8ft concrete walls, etc. Then there are the stories that locals tell of relatives or friends that became victims of crime, and then people simply telling you how bad the crime is.
The crime is not equally intense all over South Africa though. People have to be very vigilant about their safety in big cities like Johannesburg and Pretoria, but things seem to be somewhat better in many rural areas. This is one reason why I prefer to spend most of our time visiting relatives on farms.
I must also admit that during our time in Cape Town, which does have issues with crime, I did not feel threatened, nor did we have any problems when we visited the Waterfront, Table Mountain, and Cape Point. I suppose it helped a lot that we visited mainly tourist spots and were surrounded by lots of other people at all times.
I am hoping that the criminals aren’t licking their lips at the prospect of thousands of Soccer World Cup tourists next year, or that the South African government is making plans to contain this problem. And, of course, life goes on after the Soccer World Cup… the government has to do something about the crime!
People in the Service Industry
Our experiences with people in the service industry have been very good. I’m talking about waiters in restaurants, operators at tourist attractions, SAA flight attendants, etc. They have all been friendly and provided good service with a smile. This was our experience on previous occasions as well.
The South African border agents at the Rietfontein border crossing into Namibia did a thorough job while being friendly, contrary to their Namibian counterparts who didn’t seem to like us at all.
I think this is a very positive thing for South Africa!
What can be said about beauty of South Africa’s nature that hasn’t been captured in millions of photographs? We took a trip around the Cape Peninsula, and it is still simply stunning! The same can be said for the Baviaanskloof mountains.
We did however drive through Pretoria on one occasion. We drove from Menlyn Park to the Loftus Versfeld area, and from there to the Johannesburg airport. The area around Loftus, in particular, looked neglected to me. I don’t remember it that way when I lived in the area in the late 80’s. I suppose it is merely one city out of many.
Prospects for Young People
I got the strong feeling that it is tough for a young white person to find employment in South Africa’s formal sector these days. One friend even said it in so many words. Others have said that if white kids can’t join a family business, or get lucky and start their own successful business, that employment could get tough for them.
None of the people I spoke to were encouraging their children to leave South Africa, but I also got the feeling that at least some of them would not be shocked at all if their children announced that they were planning to leave.
For non-white kids, things ought to be as good as the country offers. Policies such as BEE favor non-whites, not only those who need employment, but also those who have their own businesses.
Despite all this, South Africa’s unemployment rate remains high, which affects everyone, and I’m certain that this plays an important role in the high crime rate.
Some people have their own good reasons to think that South Africa is doomed. Based on my limited experiences, I don’t think this is necessarily true. There are positive things that offer hope.
There are however a few issues that the government will definitely have to address soon, or else they will continue to drag the country down. It will all depend on whether the government has the will and right people to do it.
I am hoping that they do.