Michael Francis
Michael Francis

My love-hate relationship with SA

I have returned to South Africa (again). She tends to get under one’s skin in strange ways that make her unforgettable, loveable and detestable in so many contradictory ways. I do have a viscous love-hate relationship with this strange land.

I came back after eight months absence and was feeling all enthralled and loving despite all the media reports of tribunals and other Stalinist controls. And after five days I experience KZN’s finest robbers in the garden. The dogs next door were barking and I was listening to them thinking “oh shut up already” but realised that they were at the back of the house and were not barking at someone on the street.

I had remarked to my partner “do the dogs always bark like that?” and (perhaps stupidly) gone to investigate the bottom of the property to see if I could see what had caused their strife. The property overlooks the neighbour’s and I hoped to be able to see into their garden, but instead found myself face to face with a totsi/crook however you wish to label him.

He was trying to steal a bicycle from next door and their dogs had discovered him so he was stuck between properties trying to pull the bicycle over after him. I froze in panic and yelled hey “WTF” (unabridged of course). He actually apologised and I yelled “go, get the [email protected]$% out of here” and off he ran to my relief.

I was lucky. It was just after sunset, a time one feels safe and secure. We had our door open and were enjoying Durban’s weather. Now that security is ruined once again as it has so many times in the past (I have experienced robberies or people on the property trying to do so about nine times since 2002 when I had first come to Durban).

Crime is so pervasive and intrusive. And the experience of crime belies the crime statistics just released. I have only ever reported one crime to the police and was so bitterly disappointed with the Umbilo police station that I never did it again. Tonight as I write this, four neighbours have also had unknown person/persons in their gardens and none of us phoned the police. We all contacted private security forces to check gardens for more crooks and locked our doors. These incidents are all too common and never reported and therefore do not contribute to the overall crime statistics.

As a social scientist I learned to mistrust statistics as an often flawed and misused methodology and in this case they are misapplied and clearly misrepresentative of the real situation. If house breakings are up in KZN according to the police then how common are they? People in Durban do not even call the police any more when they are robbed unless they are claiming for insurance. The real number of break-ins is much higher.

So I am back for two months and happy to be here for so many reasons but there is that creeping resentment and anger as the bad starts to overwhelm the good in such a short period of time. As a foreign national I have the option to leave but how many people do not? And people should not have to feel unwelcome and fearful in their homes.

I just keep coming back despite sometimes feeling like I am leaving for good, but every chance I get I am back here exploring, working or relaxing. A Bushman friend once told me that once I got African sand in my shoes I would never really leave. He meant the Kalahari, but it seems he got it right for the continent as well. I have been back and forth to that wondrous place (the Kalahari) eight times now and I expect to go each year with few gaps here and there.

To be honest I am filled with nostalgia, a tinge of sadness and some happiness about being here. I worked it out that I have spent 23% of my life in South Africa and 29% of my life studying the history, people and politics of this tragic, wonderful country. I expect to always have a relationship with this land and its people. But my relationship will always be fraught as I will always be a critic of society and always want to see change for the better. I make for a lousy praisesinger.

For me South Africa is such a land of contrasts. Everything here is extreme: the weather, politics and social problems. And as I said I make a lousy praisesinger, so I will continue to study South Africa and will always point out flaws, mistakes and excesses by politicians etc. If we truly care about South Africa we need to be critical and demand change. We cannot accept mediocrity or failure as acceptable.

I sometimes get attacked for being a Canadian commenting on South Africa, which I find infuriating for a variety of reasons. If the world had accepted that logic then apartheid would be alive and well as nobody but South Africans would have been able to comment or act. The rest of the world needs to be allowed and even encouraged to critique and comment on the ills and failures of others. I also think that sometimes an outside perspective is needed and very insightful.

For all the good that keeps me coming back, the bad is downright awful. The violence that infuses South Africa spills over into everything. If this is not sorted out then the future is not that hopeful for far too many people.

  • FishEagle

    Your comments are welcome, Mr. Canadian. In fact, we need much, much more constructive critisism in South Africa.

  • Blossom

    Part of the problem is that people shrug their shoulders in apathy instead of reporting incidents to the police or filing complaints to the relevant authorities. It doesn’t matter if we believe the authorities are ineffective. Or if we have experienced them to be ineffective. As long as we shrug our shoulders, we are accepting the situation and do nothing, we are partially responsible. Complaints amongst ourselves should be coupled with action. We musn’t give up and let the baddies win.

  • StevieWonder

    Canadian no problem whatsoever, indeed your very welcome, we are an open and welcoming land!!! If ya had a said British or Kiwi of course yad be totally f*$)ed ,… Yes, saffers of all shades dont’ do ‘critical analysis’ its genetic I think!

  • haiwa tigere

    Michael – you are a big part of the problem. You whinge about the statistics are wrong yets they might be wrong because 4 people in your street did not report the crimes.So the one incident the police did not come to your place within 10 minutes (probably because they were attending to a murder) made you never to ring the police again.
    Statistic never lie . If you did not report it then its your fault its not in the statistics.

    I had a minor fender bender when I was in New Zealand. As per custom in SA I rang the police who asked me if anyone was injured and when I said “no” he wanted to know why I called him.It openned my eyes to a few things- police are there to help in crises present not past crises.
    Remember house breakings are happening in Soweto, in the shacks not just the leafy surbubs. All these people in the shacks deserve to have the police just like you think you deserve.If someone steals their blanket off their backs they are having a very cold night that day. If someone steals tour 10 speed well you can afford to drive to work.
    the police should se the Shack dweller first and get his blanket back than your shimano mountain bike

  • http://southafricanseamonkey.co.za Po

    My relationship with South Africa is fraught just like yours and I am a South African. It’s wierd how it does that to you, you can’t just take it or leave it. It’s always both, and everything in between with SA.

  • Benzol

    @ “My love-hate relationship with SA”. See my comments in “To leave or not to leave
    by Alex Matthews on September 13th, 2010″ on the issue of “love for a country”.

    If you manage to stop the “love”, you would not develop the “hate”. You could talk about preferences for living her or there.

    I was born and lived in Holland for 45 years. Moved to SA and have been here for almost 30 years.

    Visiting Holland, I recognize the patterns of their developments. I might question but never criticize. Just accept where they are today.

    I have learned to look at the event you described as an occasion where a very poor person comes to borrow your bicycle for an undefined period of time or a donation to the 3rd world.

    I have lost a few cellphones, a wheel or two from my cars, radio, car radio’s, hi-fi, jewellery…you name it including the content of my deep freezer, including a security door being used as stretcher to carry the loot.

    You go to the police station, get your “SAP number” and get your money back from insurance or suffer your loss if not insured. Want to moan about it?? This is part of life as much as rain is in Holland.

    I do get upset when people are being killed in the process of loosing a cellphone or anything else of that nature. But……..what can one do different than moving to a less risky area.

  • Graham Johnson

    Everything you said about Africa is true. Still, this country that we built is still in reasonably good nick, no government can take away the weather or the scenery. So sadly, crime is the price we pay to live comfortably.

  • OneFlew

    haiwa tigere, not reporting things to the police is a perfectly rational response.

    I haven’t lived in SA in many years. However, I reported something in the 90s and the experience would have put me off reporting further incidents unless required for say insurance reasons.

    They were utterly inept, came across as functionally illiterate and were simply no help to me at all. I cannot believe that the subject of my interaction with the police on that day found its way into the statistics, so even the bigger ‘social purpose’ of improving intelligence and allowing more rational resource distribution would not have been served.

    Maybe there were, or are, pockets of sanity within the SAPS. But there are certainly extremely dysfunctional cells/stations out there too.

    I see even the head of the service accedes that they have been an employer of last resort for the incompetent in recent years.

    If it has in fact deteriorated further since my interaction with them then I suspect that one would not only fail to report things to them, but actively avoid them. Best to keep out of the way of ill-trained, undisciplined people who have authority and guns and who may just have an attitude too.

    Presumably that is part of the reason why private security firms are doing so well in SA.

  • Vince Rautenbach

    I love that country I tell you but whenever I think of going back, I just imagine that feeling of dismay I would experience being in those surroundings again. Seeing the social and moral decay and not being able to say a thing, and when saying it, being called a negative, fearmongering @sshole.

    Feeling overwhelmed by the ersatz pop nonsense of the rainbow nation, the outworn and overused “idea” of Mandela (over and over and over again) Education standards plummeting, looting of public funds, narrow minded and greedy politicos fatcatting in their bling-bling ivory towers…

    Seeing South Africa still frozen in one state for seventeen years, and seemingly unable to overcome that hump to normality, never mind greatness. And in the background of it all that ubiquitous frisson of fear ** CRIME ** It never leaves you….You have to leave it.

  • lyn

    well written, so true, having had a sister shot there,and children held at gunpoint, it was time to move on.

  • SouthEaster

    I lived there for five years and loved it. But then the next five nearly drove me over the edge. Had to move on as it was becoming clear that it wasn’t going to be a place to get old in or for my kids to grow up in. I had the choice to go there and the choice to leave. Had to measure SA against the alternatives, and it didn’t stretch enough.

    Arrived trusting and optimistic. Never wanted to end up hating it at all. Don’t actually miss it but do get very nostalgic.

    Been back once. Felt like home for one week then needed to get back on the plane. Everyone was so pessimistic – so it wasn’t just me after all.

    Well, you don’t live in SA, you live with it, like a co-dependent.

  • http://thoughtleader.co.za/michaelfrancis Michael Francis

    @haiwa tigere – my experience with the police is forever soured in South Africa. Trying to report cops asking for bribes got me threatened, reporting on prostitution in Glenwood (as asked by the police at a community policing forum) got my partner beaten up at the police station, trying to report that had cops cruising my street and intimidating us, reporting robbers in the garden got no attention, reporting a shear waving man in the garden got a 25 minute response time and I lived two blocks form the police station, go by Umbilo at night loads of cops no response to anything, a couple detectives working their asses off out of the lazy lot. Why don’t I report crime? Because it gets met with violence, hostility, ineptness and so on. And as for me being part of the problem no I hire private security to do the states job.

    @Benzol- Love of a nation can lead to crude nationalism (aka xenophobia) so I take your point, but crime and ineptness of the police must be fought and cannot be accepted as the rain in Holland. The rain is a natural phenomenon the decline here takes effort and political will to suff it up so badly.

  • http://thoughtleader.co.za/michaelfrancis Michael Francis

    What really tarnishes South Africa’s image abroad is the appalling crime, a dancing singing president coupled with his hareem, massive strikes that cripple the country and allow babies to die in hospital, talks of nationalizing the mines, etc etc. My little words expressing outrage really do not compare. And by acknowledging problems we can work to fix them and make the world a better place. Pretending it is all roses is to miss the shit the roses are growing in.

  • Realpolitik

    Michael, nice article, glad you enjoy our country or at least certain aspects of it, as a “social scientist” I would have expected an analysis or insight into the problems of crime and criminality and other such “objective social facts” instead of this subjective and schizo perspective which does nothing to contribute to understanding or change. enjoy your stay. (fish and visitors smell in three days- Benjamin Franklin)

  • karen lang

    Welcome back. I love reading your work. Criticise away. I wish there was an international court that could take action against governments BEFORE they turn their citizens into refugees. If a government is found to be corrupt and incompetent an outside interim government should be appointed to oversee the country until an appropriate government can be appointed through election. No government should be left to run it’s country into the ground. As citizens we should not assume that other countries should mind their own business because as Mr Mugabe so aptly demonstrated those citizens become your business rather rapidly once their country is destroyed.

  • http://thoughtleader.co.za/michaelfrancis Michael Francis

    @realpolitik – what a wonderfully backhanded compliment. I decided to respond to your request on my next posting which should generate some discussion and vitriol. I have just written about crime and violence in South Africa and didn’t pull any punches…

  • http://hardcopyink.com MLH

    I reported my wallet stolen last month. Had very efficient smses from the SAPS, but there the link broke down. I wanted to pass on the Visa statement so the detective could follow up. First the public service strike (he was at King Edward Hospital for the duration, they said) and now a seeming total lack of communication between Umbilo police station and its detective branch means I can’t pass on information. How on earth did the detective ever receive the docket? Whenever I ring the detective branch, I end up holding on and listening to people playing pool…

    And Michael, no one who lives in Umbilo could be called a Canadian. It takes all sorts and we’ve got them! We’re a motley lot but we claim our stake if not in official citizenship!

  • Paul S

    My love-hate relationship with Canada has bearing here, and knowing where you come from I can understand how SA has got under your skin, Michael. An SA commenting on Canada, if you will. My wife and I left SA some 10 years ago and despite our best efforts we still can’t call Vancouver home. We’ve been back to SA many times, always saddened and shocked by the decline in just about everyting there. I’m an African through and through and the warmth and beauty of the land and its people is truly unique. No offence, Michael, but Canada has to be the quintessential polar opposite – carefully managed, bland, dull and populated by folk who seem driven to avoid real joy and colour at whatever cost. I’ve come across folk anywhere else where bland colour in clothing, vehicles and homes is de rigeur – even in summer ! We know that we can’t go home to SA long-term but sure as nuts we can’t continue to merely exist out here. Starting next summer we’re off to find new prospects, real people, places to call home. SA will remain top of the list for visits…just not a place to put down roots. Enjoy the pulse and colour of SA, Michael. You won’t easily find it anywhere else.

  • http://thoughtleader.co.za/michaelfrancis Michael Francis

    @Paul S – I currently live in Edmonton which was described as a friend as an ontological wasteland of culture and sometimes it does feel really insular. The wealth coupled with a complete disdain for social justice and politics in broader terms horrifies me. I find myself an outsider at home and am drawn to immigrant communities and other outsiders. But as a local I do have deep roots nonetheless but I do really understand how bleak it can feel for newcomers. You should check out Victoria’s artist community (not the elderly community) or some of the more bohemian areas near UBC and Granville Island. There is hope in the bleakness just look for it in the right area.

  • nokuthula dlamini

    stop whining boet. You know where King Shaka/O.R Tambo are situated.

  • Rory Short

    @michael nice to hear you are back. For a long time it has seemed to me that if a person is at all socially aware then South Africa is definitely not a place where they should come to retreat from the stresses of existence. I think South Africa has always been a place where the socially aware person senses a calling to live here that is greater and wider than their own egotistic preoccupations otherwise they would never come here, or stay here if they were born here.

  • Rory Short

    @Paul S there is a wise saying which goes as follows – ‘You never become a good sailor on a smooth sea’ – and, as I see it, that is also very true of life as a whole.

    The trouble is we human beings expend an enormous amount of time and effort looking for smooth seas on which we then intend to become good voyagers through life. It is just not possible however as that very ‘smooth sea’ situation removes the very conditions that are actually needed for becoming a good voyager.

  • Ashton

    Ah Mr Dlamini, the Robert Mugabe, Julius Malema defence. Very clever. Not.

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  • http://thoughtleader.co.za/michaelfrancis Michael Francis

    I have returned to live once again in South Africa and will resume my blog…