Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Living in present-day South Africa

I don’t believe in generalisations when it comes to experience, except in the natural sciences. In fact, philosopher Hans Reichenbach, in The Rise of Scientific Philosophy, goes so far as to claim that “generalisation” is what is distinctive about science – in the language of the philosophy of science, it is science’s “demarcation criterion”. Because one cannot justifiably generalise about everyday experience, for instance about what it’s like to live in a specific country, let’s get down to some concrete instances of particular personal experiences reflecting the differences between living in South Africa and living elsewhere in the world. Perhaps this could function as an experiential touchstone for others.

One can choose among many different experiences, so my selection of these, below, probably derives from them being uppermost in my mind at present, partly because the Christmas season makes one reflect on these things, and partly because they are related to recent events in my life. Firstly, when I was climbing one of my favourite mountains on Monday, in pouring rain, drenched to the skin – I was only wearing a T-shirt, shorts and climbing shoes – I felt so close to Mother Nature that Lévi-Strauss might have suspected me of incestuous enjoyment. Because it was raining, I could not do one of my usual rock-climbing routes (that would be suicidal in the rain), so I had to follow the path, and everywhere tiny (what we call) rain-frogs – 3cm-long amphibians with a pinkish-orange patch on their heads – were wriggling out of the underbrush to get to the puddles and streams forming in the path.

This is just one of many variegated experiences in a natural setting that one can have in South Africa, and I love living here for that reason. Others include sleeping in caves after a long walk, looking forward to the next morning’s descent into a steep gorge to dive into a pool so deep that its depth has never been gauged, according to the forest wardens in the area. Or climbing the rocky promontory of a mountain, with the mist rolling in from the sea, swirling around you, and a rock kestrel or two hovering on the wind a few metres from where you are hanging against the mountain side. Or swimming in mountain pools that are so clear that you can drink the water as you swim.

These experiences are irreplaceable, and may be possible in other countries, such as New Zealand, Bhutan, North Carolina in the US, South American countries such as Peru, and other African countries, but this country is still infused with a wildness seldom witnessed abroad. I recall a hike that my ex and I went on about 90 kilometres outside of Beijing, and being surprised about not seeing any sign of wildlife, except for the odd bird or lizard. No trace of antelope, or of snakes, like in South Africa. I asked our guide why there was no indication of wildlife, and she smiled sardonically. “It’s all been eaten”, she replied. A saddening situation, rapidly getting to the point where our descendants will have to look at David Attenborough’s BBC-Nature films to see what wild animals look(ed) like.

The South African experiences that I treasure mostly have to do with nature, which is more accessible here than overseas; cities in South Africa, if and when they offer something enjoyable, are much the same as cities elsewhere in the world – shopping malls (which I avoid because of the unadulterated, in-your-face commercialism), a glut of motor cars, the odd museum (which is pleasant enough to visit, I guess) and so on. I must also admit that I like teaching at a university in South Africa, where one’s efforts at imparting knowledge are usually rewarding regarding the majority, if not of all of the students in one’s classes.

Then there are the “other” kind of South African experiences – those that one does not cherish, unless you are a confirmed masochist. I am talking about the kind of experience that will readily come to mind as soon as one mentions certain “code words”, such as “security” (as in “security door”, “security system” or “security alarm”). We have all had these experiences, but let me start with a recent one that stood in stark contrast with our experiences in European cities immediately preceding it.

My partner and I had just returned from a two-week conference visit to Germany, France and Switzerland, and had experienced that familiar sense of relaxation that infuses one’s being as soon as you realise, at a subliminal level, mostly, that you don’t have to cling to your rucksack or camera, or watch your back as you walk down the street, which is, sadly but undeniably, endemic to living in South Africa (not in other African countries, by the way), regardless of what culture or race you belong to. Walking around late at night, with many people in the streets, in Basel or Freiburg, (or in Seoul, Osaka, Istanbul, Rome) there is never any feeling that you are in danger of being mugged, or worse, summarily shot for your cellphone or wallet. Accordingly, going to bed there is not accompanied by a nagging worry that, although you have set the alarm, checked that the security gates are locked, and so on, you are not safe; there you can simply surrender to the arms of Morpheus.

Perhaps the likes of President Jacob Zuma and ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa can do so here; after all, they have millions of rands worth of security installations, plus an army of bodyguards protecting them. Alas, not so the ordinary citizen. On our return we had to take care of my disabled son (his mother had gone overseas to visit our other children) – the victim of South Africa’s hunting culture: his neck was broken when a kudu jumped the 5ft fence (!) between a hunting farm and the N2 to Grahamstown and landed on his car the day the hunting season opened 12 years ago, and he has been in a wheelchair since that time.

During the second night at his house, around 4 o’clock in the morning, the alarm went off – a chilling experience in South Africa – followed by all the usual activities: checking the house, the windows, answering the phone when the security company calls, etc. Nothing; it must have been an insect that set it off. Twenty minutes after going back to bed the same thing again, followed by the same South African ritual. This is especially disturbing when you have come from a place where such a threat does not constantly hang over your head, like a Damoclean sword. And when, just after your return, friends of yours down the road were attacked in their house at night by someone that had worked in your friend’s gardening company about a year before.

During the attack, when defending himself against his assailant, he was stabbed, with a screwdriver penetrating both arms, so that, weeks after the attack, he still cannot drive his truck. It is small consolation that the attacker was arrested and convicted; when released from prison he will probably return to a life of crime, partly because it is something he knows, and partly because there is little else he can hope for in a country that spends millions of state funds on politicians’ so-called needs, while its population languishes in an economic malaise that shows few signs of abating. But if there is one thing that law-abiding South Africans have every right to blame the present government for, it is for utterly FAILING in its duty, to provide SA citizens with a SAFE, civilized environment in which to pursue their life-goals.

While one can feel sorry for people with few legitimate economic expectations – after all, the community-oriented principles of the Freedom Charter have been swept under the carpet in favour of dog-eat-dog capitalism – the fact remains: there are some South African experiences one can relish, and then there are others every South African has reason to dread. Besides, one is far safer here in the mountains than in cities; I don’t fear the leopard, snakes and other wild creatures that populate the mountains, gorges and plateaus I know well, and criminals usually don’t venture there.

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