Bad Things

In an earlier post, I waxed somewhat rhapsodic about the changes I noticed in and around greater Johannesburg. But that’s not the whole story.

What has NOT changed about South Africa over the past thirty years is that you always have to differentiate between standard of living — which remains high, and has improved for countless millions of Black SA citizens since I left — and quality of life, which was bad when I left, and absolutely sucks now.

I challenge anyone in South Africa not to have been a victim of crime, or else not know someone in their family or a neighbor who has. (Even I fall into this category: my own elderly mother was once the victim of an armed home invasion in broad daylight, wherein she had to plead for her life. She was lucky in that they only emptied the place of all her valuables.)

Crime is everywhere. Every house is a fortress of high walls topped with barbed wire or electrified fencing, and every neighborhood has its own (mostly unarmed) security force because the “new” South African Police Service (SAPS, no kidding) are pathetic in their inadequacy and inefficiency. A 911-type call in the case of a violent crime results in a two-hour police response, if any at all. Petty crime such as a bag-snatching or pickpocketing gets an official shrug of the shoulders. Walking alone through even suburban shopping centers after dark is not just perilous, but foolhardy in the extreme — akin to doing the same in 1970s Bedford-Stuyvesant in New York.

In a city blessed with arguably the best climate in the world, you have to drive with your windows closed and the a/c going; and late at night, in just about every neighborhood, a red traffic light has to be treated like a yield sign.

Where I’m staying, in a gated compound, my friend lives in a very pretty townhouse which has this view:

…and has a covered patio:

Out there, you can eat al fresco about eleven months of the year, day or night. Here’s the rest of the picture, however:

That security gate is kept closed day and night, within a gated compound with 24-hour walking guard patrols.

Every store, even in a mall, has a security guard or two at the entrance, all office buildings have airport-style security at the entrances, and parking lots are filled with hi-viz jacketed “minders” who (supposedly) look after your car while it’s parked, for a small fee.

Johannesburg taxi drivers (more of which in another post) have adopted a typically-African response to the competition in the form of the Uber taxi service: if they catch an Uber driver picking up a fare on their “turf”, they shoot the Uber driver dead and “invite” the fare to get into their taxi instead.

That’s crime, and I’m only scratching the surface. Any current South Africans could give you still more, if you have the stomach to ask them — and I’m describing the situation in upper-middle-class Johannesburg suburbs. What it must be like in poorer areas like Soweto or Alexandria must beggar description.

Now let’s talk about government, or what passes for government.

Under apartheid, government was inefficient in a First-World kind of style: endless lines to (say) get a driver’s license renewed, surly bureaucrats behind the counters — anyone who’s recently been to the DMV will be aware of this phenomenon.

Now, the South African bureaucracy has become Third-World style: endless lines, but with no guarantee of a satisfactory resolution.
“Your license is still being processed.”
“When can I pick it up, then?” will be met with a shrug, and
“Next!”
There is no recourse, no appeal, no avenue to seek redress.
A friend of mine qualifies for a British passport, as both her father and her husband were British-born citizens. Unfortunately, the UK bureaucracy demands all sorts of SA “origination” documents (birth certificate, etc.), not all of which she has available. So she applied for the originals or certified copies thereof… nine months ago. And she has no idea when or if she will ever get them — calls to the various bureaus are met with complete ignorance of her request, despite the recital of a “request number” for tracking purposes issued when she made the original request.

Here’s another one. Most of the major highways around Johannesburg are toll roads. There are no toll booths or tolltags issued, however: cameras record the cars’ registration plates, and the owners are billed by mail. Another one of my friends has had over $300 of tolls billed to him, and he just ignores them. To this day, he’s never been harassed by the toll authority.

Another example: a law will soon be passed which makes homeschoolers responsible to the local education authority in terms of curriculum, hours of study, etc. (similar to that of places like New York state). Failure to register would, according to the law, result in an inspector calling on the homeschooler’s house, with the authority to arrest the delinquent parent and place the children in foster care. When I mentioned this to a schoolteacher over here, she just laughed. “The inspector will come out to the house, sleep in the car for a couple of hours and then report to his superior that the homeschooler sent in the registration documents, and they must have been lost in the bureaucracy. By the time the education authority finally reacts, the kids will be at university.”

In a country which used to supply power to the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa is facing rolling brownouts if not massive, week-long blackouts because the monopoly utility supplier ESCOM has run out of money, has little chance of getting more, and the likelihood of bonds being approved to pour yet more funds into the black hole of inefficiency [sic] is nonexistent, absent the intervention of a foreign state (step forward, China). The money, by the way, is earmarked for maintenance, which has been largely ignored for over twenty years, which is why the electricity supply is on its last legs. So where did the money go?

Silly rabbit, this is Africa. The presence of governmental corruption, which recently resulted in the removal of arch-kleptocrat Robert Mugabe from office just a few hundred miles north, is perhaps even worse south of the Limpopo River.

Getting anything done requires an endless series of “accommodations”, “considerations”, “gratuities” and all the other little euphemisms for bribes. This has percolated down to the lowest level: arrival at a driver’s license testing facility can result in the question: “Test or purchase?” Don’t even ask what happens at higher levels, where the stakes are higher and the sums of money exponentially larger than the R2,000 (about $150) for a driver’s license.

This, I think, is why the economy is improving: it’s because business owners simply ignore the bureaucracy wherever they can, betting (or hoping) that the governmental inefficiency will never catch up to them, or only catch up to them after they’ve made their money; and that they will either be able to pay the fines, or have hidden their money so well that they can survive State-mandated insolvency. Local lore abounds with stories of people who have closed their businesses just short of government inspection, and simply re-opened the businesses under a different trading name, on different premises a day or two later. And even that eventuality might well be avoided by a couple bribes of sufficient size to the right people.

Once again, I’m scratching the surface of the corruption issue — it’s what I’ve learned in only a single week here.

As I write this post, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) is holding elections for a new leader. The previous asshole, Jacob Zuma, was forced to resign because even for South Africa, his incompetence and corruption were too much to bear. His potential successor will be either his ex-wife — rumored to be worse than he is — and Cyril Ramaphosa, a one-time union leader and socialist whose election will probably herald a boom in the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) and a renewal of confidence from the rest of the world in South Africa’s future. (A one-time socialist is viewed as a potential savior of a capitalist economy. Go figure. But hey, the same could be said for Ossi Angela Merkel; and look how that’s turned out.)

I would like to bet on old Cyril getting the job, but my natural cynicism makes me think that Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma will win it in a walk.

Because in any situation where the choice is between horrible and unspeakable, Africa always wins.

Changes To The Republic

One of the good things about not having seen South Africa since 1986 is that the changes that have come about are massive — no slight incremental ones, just vast ones.

The best thing that’s happened is that everything happens in English — no more mandatory English/Afrikaans nonsense — and even in Pretoria, the most Afrikaans of cities, you’re served in English even when the store employee is Afrikaans. This is a good thing because nothing divides a people like not having a common language, and it is appallingly inefficient to have to do everything twice. Afrikaans is still spoken in conversation, and even the English-speakers still scatter Afrikaans phrases into speech if the term is best expressed thereby. (We do it too with other languages, e.g. using a German word like schadenfreude because no similar word exists in English; and a mischievous Afrikaans term like stokkiesdraai works so much better than playing truant.) On the whole, however, English has become the de facto language of not only commerce (which it pretty much always was) but of government. It’s a massive change, and a very good one.

Johannesburg has grown beyond comprehension. The decay of the city center into a Third World hellhole has meant that expansion into the outer areas has been almost geometric. The population of metro Johannesburg, when I lived here, used to be about 1.5 million; now it’s nearly 4.5 million; and Greater Johannesburg (what used to be called the Witwatersrand) has gone from about 3.5 million to 8 million. Along with this has come traffic, lots of traffic: at midday, the freeway system (which is excellent — better than that of Dallas or even Chicago) looks more like Los Angeles than anywhere in Africa. The major roads are (amazingly, to me) uniformly excellent — much better than in any U.S. city, and where Dallas tries to get by with an eight-lane highway bypass, Johannesburg uses twelve lanes on its N3. Also, instead of concrete slabs, Johannesburg freeways are seamlessly tarred, which means a smooth, almost silent ride. The surfaces are very well-maintained, and it’s only the small suburban streets which are showing their age.

Those massive highways are needed because another amazing change has been the explosion of commerce and industry along the Johannesburg – Pretoria corridor. Where once they were two distinct cities, with vast areas of open veldt on each side of the various freeways connecting them, the highways between the two cities now look like those between Los Angeles and San Diego or Dallas and Fort Worth: hundreds of factories, warehouses, townhouse developments and office complexes. The little town of Fourways, north of Johannesburg, which was once literally just that: a four-way intersection of two 2-lane roads with a shop at only two adjacent corners, is now a dead ringer for Plano, Texas, with several highway interchanges and a plethora of office complexes and housing developments — and Fourways has now blown over its boundaries and the development has moved to the area known as Midrand — in my time a couple of warehouses and a cement factory and gravel pit — which now looks like any exurban area in the United States such as Thousand Oaks or San Jose, in California. Even my old hometown of Bedfordview, once a sleepy little suburb which fed Johannesburg with a diet of middle-class workers, is now a town in its own right with several large shopping malls and a couple of restaurant-rich complexes which, when I visited one, was filled with diners. Which leads me to the next point.

None of the above would be possible in a Whites-only environment. When I lived here, South Africa had an economically-active population of about 6 million people (out of a total of about 30 million). Now the economically-active population is, at a rough guess, about 25 million (out of 40 million). The emergence of a large Black middle-class means that Johannesburg can truly call itself a proper city at last. None of the restaurants or businesses could exist on a White-only clientele, and a full 40% of the diners at the Turn ‘n Tender restaurant in Bedfordview (where I had lunch yesterday) were Black: well-dressed suburbanites driving late-model BMWs, Land Rovers and Mercedes, as well as VWs, Renaults, Citroëns and Toyotas. And as I sat there eating my lamb stew (pic below), a black family was sitting in a Bentley as it purred past on its way to the exit.

I expected that the annual inflation rate (officially 12%, but actually around 15%) would have rendered prices to be on a par with (say) the U.S., but not so. A good-sized 4-bedroom house on a quarter-acre in a Plano-type neighborhood will run about $300,000. I don’t know if salaries have kept up, but I suspect not; which means that the relative price is probably closer to $500,000 — which makes it very close to U.S. levels. Still, I’ve been heartened by the evidence of Black families owning houses in the well-to-do neighborhoods — also on a par with Plano, at a rough guess.

Those are the good changes I’ve found. Tomorrow I’ll talk about the changes which have jarred me.


Aside: I’ve been indulging myself on South African food whilst I’m here; after all, I can eat steak and spare ribs in Dallas and fish & chips in England, anytime. Yesterday was Lamb Potjie (“little pot”), which as the name suggests, is served at the table in a small 3-legged iron pot, thus:

You’re supposed to leave it in the pot and just serve it piece by piece, so it stays warm in the pot, but I dished it all out so y’all could see the quantity, which could easily serve two people (I’d already had a couple mouthfuls before I remembered to take the pic). Cost: R95 ($7.25). That’s one thing that hasn’t changed: food is good, and not expensive. That quantity of food in London would have cost at least £27 ($36).

I went out to dinner with three friends the other night. I picked up the tab for dinner — which included steak / seafood main courses, desserts and wine — and the bill came (with tip) to R1,100 ($87). Tips, by the way, are 10%, and not mandatory. I raise eyebrows by tipping 20%, because the service has typically been outstanding; and I should also add that the waiters have all been Black (another massive change since I left).

Grocery store prices are incredibly low, by the way. I won’t bore you with the details, but allow me to show you some pics of a store called “Food Lover’s Market” in Pretoria:

The price works out to about $0.63 per pineapple. Compare that the next time you go to CostCo or Sam’s Club.

The Old Homestead

I didn’t really know what to expect when I decided to go and see the house where I grew up (ages 3 – 23). Given that Johannesburg has turned into a series of walled fortifications, I expected not to be able to see the house at all. Here’s an example of the security almost all houses surround themselves with these days:

…and mostly, the gates are solid wood or steel, to prevent “crash” robberies.

So my heart sank a little when I turned onto the old road, and saw this:

…but when I got to the old house, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the current owners have not succumbed to paranoia (or, to be cynical, prudence):

The place has changed quit a bit (and for the better, I think), as it now has a Mediterranean feel to it. When my father originally built it back in 1957, it was the height of 1950s architecture — i.e. pig-ugly by today’s standards — but now its design is almost timeless.

And having just come from the south of France, I like this far better.

Some details: it sits on a hectare (about 2.5 acres), and while some of the other places have been subdivided into two, old Number 7 hasn’t. The house is about 4,000 sq. ft in size, unless they’ve added on some more in the back, which I couldn’t see through the trees.

It looks quite lovely, and I’m glad I got to see it.

Tomorrow, I’ll talk about what I’ve seen in and around Johannesburg.

 

I Could Live Here

“Here” is “anywhere along the Midi (Southern France coastline)”, where I spent last week. Never mind the usual tourist pics like this one:

…because to buy one of those houses you’d need to win not one but three or four large $100-million+ lotteries.

No; I could live in one of the smaller places up the hill such as in Beausoleil, La Turbie or especially Juan-Le-Pins, well off the tourist areas, where prices are not even close to California levels — as long as you don’t doing a bit of renovation. But good grief, the views:

Apartment rentals are not bad: depending on the quality of the place, about $2,000 per month for a small 2-bedroom apartment (in Plano, I was renting a 1-bed for just over $1,200). Here was the view from Longtime Friend & Drummer Knob’s place in Beausoleil, just outside Monaco:

The weather is just about perfect, the food is about the same price as the U.S. (if you avoid the tourist traps along the coast) and the towns look like this:

A few miles inland, by the way, are drives like this:

…and given the season, that’s about as ugly as it gets. Gawd knows what it’s like in summer.

I need to brush up on my French (which, by the way, is in a sad state of dilapidation after years of non-use). Amazingly, my halting Franglais (for so it has become) was met with sympathy and even friendliness — the people in the Midi do not live up to the reputation of the French as surly xenophobes; quite the opposite.

I didn’t take too many pics of my trip there, because I knew after about three hours that I would be coming back.

If you’ve never been to the south of France, you owe it to yourself to go. Start saving now; you will never regret it. (I would recommend April-May or September-October, to avoid the high season when prices and such are sky-high.)

Oh, and did I mention the food? That’s for another post.