Election Day in South Africa -Looking back after fifteen years in Ireland

Female figure standing looking over the view of the Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa

This week marks the fifteen year anniversary of our arrival in Ireland with our two year old and my 5-month-big bump. In all these years we have been back to visit South Africa about nine times – we returned from our latest trip last week.

This is the first trip where I was genuinely glad to come back here to Ireland after our holiday, to be HOME! I call Ireland our home now as we no longer have a home in South Africa.

In recent years, each time we have been back to visit, it has been harder to return to Ireland. There is so much that I miss about South Africa, mostly our family but also the climate, the vistas, the food, the smells, sounds, colours and feel of the place.

Wilderness, Western Cape

I miss the smell of the earth after a thunderstorm, the sounds of the cicada beetle in the heat of the afternoon, our favourite SA flavas such as Stoney Ginger beer, Niknaks, Milo, koeksisters, boerie, potjiekos, vetkoek, milktart, Pronutro and rusks just to name a few! I miss the diversity of culture, music, languages and landscape.

Klein Karoo, between Outshoorn and George

Our parents are getting older and it’s more difficult each time to say goodbye. Our children are growing up too far away from their cousins to be able to play together on weekends. My husband and I miss our siblings that still live in the country, a few days together every two years is never enough.

Clan Henwick

However, this most recent visit something changed and now I’m finally at the place where, quite frankly, I’m glad we have left. It’s been a long and difficult journey to get to that point and to accept it.

All the years that we’ve been away I have wondered whether we could return, and if we did, where we would live and where our children would go to school. I feel sad and even angry at times that we no longer live there and the reasons why we felt it necessary to leave. I’d love it if my children had the opportunity to grow up enjoying the country.

My kids overlooking Sedgefield beach where I spent my teen summer holidays, Western Cape

One of the reasons we left is because my husband couldn’t find work there, he was told he wouldn’t get interviews because he is white. And I could understand why as in the past white males got all the positions of priviledge and it was time that things changed. He went online to apply for work overseas and was offered two interviews in Ireland. You could call us economic migrants.

While we were there last month the country was gearing up for the national elections, voting day is today. It has been 25 years since the ANC have been in power and in those years there has been a steady decline in so many sectors.

In 1994 R3.55 would give you a dollar or R5.44 would give you a pound. Now you have to pay R14.40 for a dollar almost R19 for a pound. The national electricity provider, Eskom has been facing a crisis since 2007 and national power cuts or loadshedding has become the norm. It’s no joke but the only way locals deal with it is by making it into a joke, because really it’s laughable!

The E in South Africa stands for Electricity.

Source: WhatsApp

I found the latest election posters interesting but this ANC billboard spotted in Port Elizabeth is absolutely absurd. The glaring typo has placed an enormous amount of expectation on Togher, a small Irish town in County Cork, I hope they have a mahoosive power station there!

Source: Twitter

A local comedian was being interviewed on the radio while we were there and he spoke about how humour grows out of adversity, that when you go through tough times, one of the best ways of handling them is to look for the funny side. South Africa certainly produces some world-class humour.

However, some things aren’t funny. We got caught in a police block on our last night and I’m not going to divulge the details but I can tell you that was definitely no laughing matter. The kids were unsettled and we were both shaken. My trust in the S.A. police force was sketchy before we left the country because of the way my father’s disapperance and murder was handled and now, after this latest incident, it is completely eroded.

If you can’t trust the law then who do you trust?

Many of our friends and family now live in secure complexes with guarded entrances, almost everyone I know has been personally affected by violent crime, hijacking, home break-ins or vehicle smash and grabs.

It’s not an easy process to pop in and visit people who live in these places, you need a secure access code to get in and sometimes another one to get out, you have to sign in and have your driver’s licence inspected. On a busy Friday night you could be queuing for 10 minutes just to get in through the visitor’s side at the entrance gate.

One of the things that is apparent is how much the differences between the rich and the poor have increased since we’ve left. There appear to be as many wealthy people living in huge homes in vast gated and secure communities as there are desperately poor living in tiny tin shacks in sprawling informal settlements. Often these disparate communities are living side by side, just across the road from one another.

Last year the world bank deemed South Africa the world’s most unequal country. This recent article in the Time magazine describes in detail how little anything has changed since 1994. The problems in South Africa now are complex to unravel, they are rooted in apartheid and have been exacerbated by two and half decades of political wrangling, corruption and ineptitude.

Time magazine cover with affluent suburb on the left of the road and poor suburb on the right.
Johannesburg, South Africa

See also this article about the Time magazine story ‘Unequal Scenes’ above with more images on the discrepancy between rich and poor in South Africa.

There has undoubtedly been a lot of development in South Africa since we have left, there are many more shopping malls and huge areas of new housing that must mean that there is money being made and being spent.

Equally I have noticed how unformal settlements have popped up in new places and the old ones have spread across acres and acres of land and are now supplied by eletricity lines and surrounded by make-shift markets.

Many of the roads have become a lacework of tar and potholes – driving through the centre of Bethlehem in the Freestate now was what I imagined it would have been like driving through the original Bethlehem in Israel 2000 years ago the day before Jesus was born. It was dusty, crowded and hard enough to get a car along the road, let alone a donkey.

However, the open roads can be amazing, so straight and unhindered by traffic, well kept and well serviced by garage pit-stops.

wide open road and flat horizon with vast blue sky
Road from Bloemfontein to Bethlehem, Freestate

Writing this piece, I feel like I’m betraying this beautiful country. All these years I have tried to find the positives and have promoted South Africa as an ideal holiday destination.

And it is a fantastic place for a holiday, especially the Cape where the climate is sublime, and the Drakensberg where the mountains are higher than the clouds.

Cathkin Peak in the Drakensberg.

However, this time I was shocked to hear from a friend that 800 families from all races are leaving the country every month, many of whom have arrived here in Ireland. I know why they are leaving but it’s an utter tragedy for South Africa that we all are. Most of the emigrants are qualified professionals who would have valuable skills to offer.

We would love to stay if there were opportunities for employment, if I didn’t feel the need to lock my doors while I drove in the day because of the ‘Smash and Grab Hotspot’ signs beside the road, if I felt safe driving after dark at all, if police didn’t accept bribes, if my children had access to quality education that didn’t cost a small fortune.

Another ANC poster caught my eye in Kimberley and I’m just sorry I didn’t take a photo of it, it said: “Let’s turn this country around”. Around from where? From where you’ve been taking it this past 25 years?? It definitely needs to turn somewhere but is this the ANC’s way of finally admitting it’s been bringing the country in the wrong direction all these years?

Somebody raised an interesting, albeit controversial, point in discussion one evening: Africa missed the Enlightenment and it has been playing catch up ever since. The Enlightenment, or ‘Age of Reason’ which followed the middle ages in Europe, is what pushed European culture away from a feudal system towards democracy, and is what has shaped Western civilisation today.

This was an era epitomised by tolerance, reason, freedom of religious belief and freedom of speech. New ideas and values were embraced such as the emancipation of women, the emancipation of slaves, the industrial revolution and the overthrowing of tyranny. It was as if the universal mindset of the time developed from operating from the teenaged emotional centre of the brain to operating from the logical and rational adult frontal lobes!

Europe essentially grew up.

Coming back here to Ireland last week I felt an instant sense of peace, safety and ease, things work, there is a higher level of orderliness, accountability and general ‘rightness’.

Tameness even – and this is why there are days when I do miss that crazy wild child exuberance of Africa.

My eldest child, the only one born there, now wants to return to live there to help the country with the education and skills she has been given here. She is perhaps idealistic, she has only ever seen the country through the eyes of a holiday maker.

There are no easy solutions for South Africa, my heart breaks for the people there as the consequences of crime and dire poverty can be devastating. We were approached on a number of occasions by children younger than my own who are begging for food and clearly high from sniffing glue.

I just hope and pray that the results of the election today bring about the crucial changes needed to get the country back on the long road towards recovery, what ever those changes may be.

Because it’s surely going to take a miracle for that to happen any time soon.

Sunset over Kimberley

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