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 f@$% 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.


  • I have returned to South Africa. I now teach Economic History and Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. I am happy to be back after a couple years away. I had been teaching anthropology at a Canadian University, but Africa called and I returned.


Michael Francis

I have returned to South Africa. I now teach Economic History and Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. I am happy to be back after a couple years away. I had been teaching anthropology...

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