I often say that Joburg has been one of my favourite places to live in. After being scarred by Chicago winters and utterly resentful of big hair from the humidity of Mauritius, Louisiana, and NYC’s subways, I thoroughly enjoyed Johannesburg’s dry and sunny weather. Over the years I learnt to combat its winters – not that it was particularly cold (well it rarely went below freezing), but the houses were in no way built for them. I replaced my heater to a more powerful one, I carried the heaters from room to room - and it took me a couple of winters to figure out that I needed to layer up inside the house instead. It was the opposite of any winter that I had ever experienced in – usually one would bundle up to go outside. Here in Johannesburg, indoors was often cooler than outdoors, and one had to bundle up on fleece pyjamas and bathrobes indoors, and then strip to lighter clothes outdoors.
South Africa offered stunning scenery, and as much as there was nothing particularly beautiful about Johannesburg, one could drive less than an hour and enjoy the nature in an uninterrupted sky of blue. Joburg offered all the first world luxuries from Biodanza, to world-class liposuction surgeons, to art fairs and sculpture classes, contemporary Buddhist classes, juice detoxes delivered to your home, health supermarkets with date balls and moringa, well equipped gyms with saunas and pools and unlimited classes … you name it. It had every comfort that I needed – and at a rate that was affordable.
Affordable to me. Not that I was earning very much, compared to my previous American or Mauritian pay checks. But I was probably easily earning more than 95% of the country. So suddenly, I had the world at my fingertips. In Johannesburg, even though nothing about me had changed – my education, my work, my heritage – I was suddenly privy to things that I had never had access to. I could afford to study at the top school in Africa. I could afford to pick anything I wanted in the supermarket without glancing at prices. And – one of the sweetest luxuries - I could afford a maid. Nolitha came twice a week. She ironed my clothes professionally and put them back exactly in their place in the cupboard. She would wash my shoes, hand stitch my torn bags, polish my pots, clean the windows. She ironed my bed sheets and made my bed with the utmost care. In short, I enjoyed all these luxuries at the expense of cheap labour, caused by massive unemployment – a legacy of apartheid, where black people had little access to education and often worked in white people’s homes as maids, gardeners, housekeepers.
I was not the only one who enjoyed South Africa immensely. There was a group of us – mostly expats posted Johannesburg. For the most part in a previous chapter of our lives, we had all lived stressful lives, worked long hours, in suboptimal weather, and came home to ordinary apartments. We had done our own laundry, eaten frozen meals and blended in the masses on the trains on our way to work every day. Each of us had, for some reason or another, found our way to South Africa, and suddenly discovered that life could be lived in a different way. Suddenly we could afford more space, more help, more sunshine, more time… We could fill our lives with little luxuries effortlessly, in a way we wouldn’t have been able to before. The thing that bonded most of us, is that many of us were there to live fully. That was our life purpose, at least at that point in our lives. My social calendar was filled with every imaginable activity – outdoor yoga, sundowners (drinks at sunset), brunches in shabby chic restaurants, walking tours in upcoming neighbourhoods, hikes on Sunday mornings, food markets and sculpture parks. We took road trips to the bush, the beach and the mountains. We planned our trips across Africa, from Ethiopia, to the Okavango Delta, the Masai Mara, the gorillas in Rwanda and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. We were having the time of our lives.
The irony of this, is that there were some South Africans – or Saffers - who were baffled at my passion for their country. I was asked many times why in the world would I pick to live there, when I had the world at my fingertips. Of course, they loved their country deeply, of course they enjoyed all the luxuries I enjoyed. But on their shoulders, rested the burden of inequality, a corrupted government, social unrest, a broken economy, amongst others. Despite their hard work, they were disrupted again and again by crime, unemployment, racism – to name a few. Some of them wanted desperately to leave but hadn’t found a way out yet. As a foreigner, I also suffered the downsides of a depreciating rand and regular load-shedding (regular electricity cuts). But I was able to detach emotionally from it, the same way it’s easier to accept the annoying habits of friends compared to family members. When it’s your own problem, it’s not so funny anymore.
And then there was another camp of Saffers that I met at the business school. These were the finest minds of the country and were acutely aware of what it meant to be sitting in this business school auditorium. It meant that they were in the 2% of people in the country who would hold a Master’s degree, and they had somehow afforded the tuition fees – while this was a fraction of what other business schools cost, this was more money than some people in South Africa would ever make in a life time. And what rested on their shoulders, along with all the burdens that all South Africans had, was duty and obligation as leaders of their country – in whatever field they were in – in their organisation, their community, or the government. As we covered the economic, social and historic landscape of South Africa, often the reality was sobering. These business leaders were also mothers, fathers, daughters, sisters, sons and brothers. In the same breath that they wanted to contribute to their country, they worried about their children’s education, safety and future. Many of their fellow compatriots had left their country for brighter futures in Europe, Australia and other places. These were a group of people who had the education and experience to find a way to leave if they had to. And with that, came the conflict on whether to leave for a safer bet, or to stay in their beloved country with family and try and make a change.
As much as I have talked about these two camps of people, I need to highlight just how diverse Saffers are. The sub-culture within South African culture is incredibly layered and complex. Even though we sat together in class, unified at this point in time, the histories of my classmates, depending on who they are, were miles apart, lived at the same time in the same place. Many of my own classmates were very young or teenagers and some even young adults when Apartheid came to an end in 1994. In class, sat a young white man of barely thirty, who now ran his father’s business. He asked me about purchase of land in Mauritius that would grant one Mauritian citizenship. I mentioned that that would cost half a million dollars, to which he nodded and shrugged. I understood that this wouldn’t be a huge barrier from him and his family. Next to him, sat another young black man, whose mind was so sharp and quick that our teachers often called on him to contribute when no one else was getting the right answer. He told me about his modest upbringing, and how he and his siblings managed to get bursaries (scholarships) to go to university. Next to him sat another young black man, who found the latter ‘soft and sheltered’. This particular young man grew up in the middle of crime in a township. He made money in drugs at seventeen and used it to put himself through varsity (university), unlike his friends who kept at the dangerous game. Most of his friends have been shot or are in prison – he is one of the few that knew when to walk away. He also told me that there would have been no way to find a way out of the circumstances he was born in without the illegal money he made. Now he has a stable job, owns property and a side business and his family has more than they ever dreamed of. Another young white girl spoke of how hard she studied at school, but being white, no companies wanted to employ her – the Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment (BBB-EE) favoured the employ of blacks (in this case, Africans, coloured and Indians). This forced her to found her own business. And now, again due to BEE which encourages companies to do with black owned companies, she is taking her company overseas.
The story of each and every one of my classmates has a unique story. And yet they were similar to those who grew up in their situation – depending on who they were, where they grew up and where they found themselves today. And so it was inevitable that that one found kinship in the ones who had similar backgrounds. By the end of our two years together, even though our class was a fine mix of races and gender, we found that those we kept in touch with tended to have something similar to ourselves. Amongst ourselves we could feel free to make comments about stereotypes without offending each other, we could talk in our own language or talk about our customs without having to explain them. Once a South African friend of mine was relating a story about a lady in a supermarket. I interrupted her and asked, ‘Wait, was the lady coloured?’ At the end of seven years, this context had become important to me too.