Final Thoughts

As I get ready to leave South Africa, some random thoughts:

Unless something really strange happens, I won’t be back. Had you told me as little as a few months ago that I’d be coming back to the Vaderland, I’d have laughed in your face. I’d never planned on coming back, ever, once I left back in 1986; but here I am anyway, which means never say never. I sincerely doubt that I’ll come back again, though, because now that I’ve seen the post-apartheid Seffrica, it’s a case of “been there, done that” and repeating the experience would be meaningless.

The only thing that might tempt me into returning to Johannesburg is the weather. I’ve often said that Joburg (or “Jozi” as it’s now called) has the best weather in the world, and this trip has only reinforced it. Hot days are made bearable by the cool breezes — and there’s always a cool breeze blowing, 24/7 — and even if it gets really hot, the relative humidity seldom tops 10% unless during the frequent afternoon showers, which cool everything down. It’s what I’ll miss the most in chilly Britain and oven-like Dallas.

Times change, and so have my tastes. Castle Lager, for example, doesn’t taste as good as Wadworth 6X; even though Castle is better than any other lager I’ve drunk, I don’t enjoy lager beer as much as I now do bitter ale.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the quality of South African fruit. Good grief; I’ve lived in the U.S. for thirty years, have eaten fruit there for all that time (I love fruit, just about all of it), and honestly, South African fruit beats it all by a country mile. This is not some kind of “fruit chauvinism”, mind you: it’s just better than anything I’ve ever tasted in the U.S.

Neither Seffrica nor Britishland offer us yogurt fanatics the variety and quality of the Murkin stuff. No other brand or type (and I’ve tried LOTS) in either SA or the UK has provided a decent substitute. I can’t wait to start eating Noosa again when I get back to Texas in January.

Malls are malls are malls. I’ve been to five different ones across two South African cities, and other than the local brands and kiosks, they are completely interchangeable with those in the U.S. and the U.K. All suck green donkey dicks, and unless I need a specific product or service that I can only get from a particular store, I don’t want to go back inside another one, in any country. The homogenization of retail has finally been achieved, and meatspace mall shopping is unexciting and a total drag. (Biggest letdown: Sandton City outside Johannesburg. Once the crown jewel of South African malls, it’s not only unremarkable now, it’s crappy, especially when compared to the Menlyn Park mall outside Pretoria, which is twice as enjoyable despite having about 80% of the same stores.)

As I mentioned earlier, I love the emergence of the Black middle class in South Africa. Here’s what actually makes me the slightest bit hopeful about the situation here: middle-class South African Blacks want precisely the same things as middle-class Brits, middle-class Americans and perhaps as the middle classes of any capitalist country. And the sheer size of the middle class Black sector is going to propel South Africa into a prosperous future, as long as (a big if) the government doesn’t fuck it up royally.

I’d forgotten how much I like full-service gas stations, with free checkups of fluids and a windshield cleaning thrown in. (The price of gas here, however, makes me homesick for Texas. Even the Brits have it better than the Seffricans.)

Not many girls have tattoos, thank Gawd. Maybe it was just a feature of middle-class Johannesburg, but I saw very few in evidence. The Seffrican men are about the same as Brits and Murkins, tattoo-wise, but guys are idiots so ’nuff said on that.

I cannot repeat often enough how much I hate the walled-up fortresses known as “homes” over here. Apart from the ugliness (and it is really ugly, even in otherwise-beautiful neighborhoods), I hate the insecurity and paranoia that the barbed-wire-topped walls must engender. This alone makes my return to SA a remote prospect — and despite the exchange rate that would give me a decent standard of living over here, the compromise of the quality of life… eh, forget it.

I met a bunch of old friends over here for the first time in many decades, and I’m pleased to say that nothing has changed. We’ve all gotten older and more rickety, of course, but our friendships have endured absolutely unchanged from back then. All of them — and they know who they are — have an open, undated invitation to visit me in Texas. True friendship really does seem to be eternal, makes nonsense of both time and distance, and I cannot express how glad I am of that.

And if there’s a better note on which to end my experiences here, I can’t think of it.




  1. Kim, I had forgotten Sandton City mall, just across a courtyard from the Michelangelo Hotel. I did some Christmas shopping there in maybe ’98 and bought my eldest a Zulu spear and my youngest boy an ancient wooden shield which both went up in their apartment wall in Bozeman, MT as they were attending Montana State University (imagine – I hand carried them on the SA Airlines flight to Miami and on to Houston. (I add this next bit because this sounds like the last of the SA thread) I also found a Cecil Chong, a jewler at Sandton and bought some things from him (much cheaper than the hotel); then a few years later when I needed a diamond and settings for my now wife of 17 years, I called Cecil from a rig in the Gulf of Mexico and he arranged to go to Namibia for the “best” diamonds and Mrs. Chong designed the settings. A friend of a cousin in Pretoria went to J-Berg and picked them up and brought them to the US and Fed Exed them to me – my wife was impressed!!

  2. I’ll throw in another reason for hope: the roads.

    They are a government function, which by your account seems to be done well.

    IOW, the kleptocracy is not universal.

    BTW – the great SF writer Robert Heinlein visited South Africa in 1953, as part of a world tour. He wrote a “travel book” about the trip, including a chapter about South Africa.

    Tramp Royale was rejected by the publishers at the time. After Heinlein’s death it was dug out and published, but sales were minimal (not enough RAH completists) and it went to remainder.

    I think you would find the South Africa chapter very interesting. (And much of the rest of the book, too.) There are copies in several libraries in and near Plano.

  3. Interesting observations as always, Kim.

    I’ve never been to SA but I’ve been on the other side of the Limpopo. In 1995 my Army unit spent almost 3 months in ZImbabwe as part of a big Africa-wide training exercise (we had units in Botswana, Malawi, Namibia, Cameroon, Rwanda, Kenya, and I think in Guinea-Bissau but I was with Battalion HQ in Harare.)

    At that time, of course, Mugabe was still in power and things functioned more or less OK. The ZNA folks we worked with were alright and we had enough free time that we got to go into Harare (nee Salisbury) to explore the city.

    When asked to describe the suburbs of Harare, I told my family and friends that it was exactly like an American suburb – except that every modest ranch house was surrounded by an 8 – 10′ solid wall, topped with spikes or broken glass and had a heavy iron or steel gate at the entrance, and often a security guard (always black and sometimes armed) standing out front.

    As American GIs we were something of a curiosity in Harare. Everyone was quite friendly to us (some of the ladies were especially friendly) but there were a few instances that stuck out in my mind:

    One of them took place at a sporting goods store in downtown Harare. Being an SF unit, we had a lot of hunters and other sportsmen in the unit so of course we sought out the local sporting goods store. The one we went to was called Fereday’s. We went in and talked to the folks who worked there – most of the management were white and sounded veddy British (at least to our ears.) Like everyone else in the world they had watched the First Gulf War on television and seen images of our HMMWVs but they had never seen one in person. Since we brought several HMMWVs with us to Zimbabwe I arranged to drive one into town to show it to them, which of course they loved (and driving a Left Hand Drive HMMWV on the left side of the highway was it’s own interesting experience…) At one point we told the folks who worked at Feredays that we were in Zimbabwe to train the ZNA and their reply was “well, don’t teach them too much.” Even back then I think there was an undercurrent of tension that the radicals in government wanted to drive the whites out of Zimbabwe, by force if neccessary.

    Another thing I remember actually happened to a friend of mine, not me. We were staying at the Commando Group barracks on the outskirts of Harare (this would have been the old Rhodesian African Rifles cantonment back in the Rhodesia days) which was about 6 miles or so from town. This friend had the day off but no transportation. He was hoping to be able to flag a taxi down but as he was waiting, a passenger car stopped. An older white woman was driving and offered him a lift into town, which he took. As he was being driven into town, the woman (probably in her 50’s or 60’s) said “you’re one of those American soldiers that are here, right?” He told her he was and she said wistfully “It’s so nice to see young white boys in camouflage again!”

    Overall it was a great experience and it saddens me to see the country descending into anarchy. It really is a beautiful part of the world and I wish I’d gotten to see more of it than what we did.

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