The Rainbow Nation – South Africa

When the time came to move to South Africa in June 2011, I had mixed feelings in my mind. I was going to leave behind my ailing mother who was at the end of her journey of life. I had to risk my career of 23 years and getting into an uncertain future. I was leaving behind a comfortable place like Mumbai I had grown so used to. I was worried about the emotional reaction of my teenage daughter who was depressed about leaving her friends behind.

I did not have much knowledge about South Africa, except for some exotic destinations shown in various Hindi Movies and the news about various Cricket matches held there every now and then. Like all other Indians, I had some preliminary idea about the history of South Africa in bits and pieces – Mahatma Gandhi’s Satyagraha movement that started from South Africa, the Apartheid system which prevailed for so long and of course about Nelson Mandela. But I did not have much knowledge about its history, its current political situation, about the society and so on.

Security was also a big concern. Everybody who came to know about our relocation expressed concern about the safety. I looked up the internet and learned that there is 25% unemployment – a cause of concern for me.
This is the first time we were going to live in a country in the southern hemisphere, having severe winter in June and summer during Christmas. The day we landed in Johannesburg, it was extremely cold. Coming from a warm place like Mumbai, it was almost unbearable. Gradually we got used to systems like under-floor heating, wearing winter boots and so on.

We settled down in a golf estate called Dainfern, which was kind of outskirts of Johannesburg. It was a high security gated estate mainly housing expats from all over the world – Europeans, Koreans, Chinese, Americans and Indians like us. The kids’ school (American International School) was 10 minutes’ drive from the place.

The first thing that struck me in Johannesburg was its flatness. As if the city was a large valley, with faraway places clearly visible. There were very few high rises, only around the downtown called Sandton. The whole place was flat, with large houses with large gardens, trees and plants everywhere. Till date, it is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.

The next thing was its clear sky. I had never seen such a clear sky in my life. Even a plane very distant in the sky was clearly visible. It’s a country close to the South Pole and so exposed to the hole in the ozone layer. The skin is exposed to the direct sun and one can get tanned very quickly, even in winter. I realized this within six months of my stay when I had started my walk in the beautiful Dainfern estate. The skin cancer rate is quite high in South Africa.
Dainfern was a beautiful estate with hundreds of independent houses. Morning walk through Dainfern was a treat to the eyes. Each and every house was distinct in its design, with beautiful gardens full of unique trees and plants. There were streams, river (river Juksei) and multiple types of birds all over the place. Once I found a giant sized spider in the bathroom. I ignored it and walked out. Sometime later, Rose, the live-in help discovered it and created a lot of noise. Paul, our driver, came and killed it ultimately. Only after this incident I learnt that these spiders can be extremely poisonous and dangerous, unlike the spiders we see at home in India.

Summer roughly starts from November and lasts till April. From May onwards winter sets in. The months of June and July are severely cold. Thankfully the American School used to be closed during this time, unlike the South African Schools which are open throughout the winter. There is nothing like monsoon in South Africa. It rains intermittently throughout the summer. Normally it is extremely hot for a few days followed by a heavy shower. The shower is often accompanied by thunder. The hailstorm in South Africa is unbelievable. In a single hour, the entire garden becomes white with small size ice. If one is on the road, in a car, it can be very dangerous as well. In a few months we realized that the infrastructure of the nice and big houses are not that strong at all. During such thunder storms and heavy pours, often the walls started leaking, floors would flood and so on. Most of the time the internet and phones stopped working at such times.

The office that I joined had only two girls other than me – the receptionist and a network support engineer. One day I met a girl with a completely new look and new hairstyle. I took her to be a new employee. Later on I was told that she was the same network engineer, with a new wig. Only then I came to know that most of the African girls do not use their real hair. Most of them have wigs. Even eyebrows are shaven and painted. The natural hair of the African girls is little coarse and tough. So most of them prefer to shave their heads and put wig. Many other make very elaborate plaits that stay for months. Styling the hair is a big thing in Africa, with salons offering wide range of hair styles. India is one of the top most exporters of hair to Africa (from places like Tirupati).

The local black Africans are generally polite, cheerful and humble in nature. South Africa gets many foreign workers from neighbouring countries like Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia etc. Most of them are engaged in manual labour. The black and white divide and inequality in the society is still very apparent. On one hand Johannesburg is an extremely westernized city with all modern facilities, high end cars, wide roads, international standard malls and availability of all international brands. On the other hand one would hardly find any African black in a big restaurant or upmarket residential area. The menial jobs are exclusively done by the local Africans. The privately run taxi services are used only by them. Though most of the government agencies and private companies have Black Empowerment policies, it would take some time for the local black population to overcome the lost opportunities and the acute discrimination that they have faced for several generations.

South Africa is a sport loving nation. Almost everybody pursues some kind of sport like squash, golf, rugby, soccer etc. It is also a tremendously pet friendly place. Almost every family has dogs, cats, and horses and sometimes even monitor lizards!

Johannesburg is a modern city with modern houses, malls and landscape. Most of the houses are in gated communities with high security. Apartments are relatively less in number. South Africa is a country of bushes. Even when you travel to the wild, dense forests are almost non-existent. It is the brown, high coarse bush which is seen everywhere. At the outskirts of Johannesburg a unique thing can be seen. You can see many yellow coloured hills. These are not natural hills. These are actually man-made hills from the gold mines of Johannesburg. Between the months of September and November, the city looks vibrant and gorgeous with the colourful Jacaranda flowers everywhere. The huge and colorful Protea is the national flower of South Africa.

The local South African blacks are quite westernized in their dressing. They are also big church followers and very active in the church activities. However they have also preserved many of their tribal rituals and customs. Normally they have big families with many brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts. The tribal customs are seen at the time of funeral and wedding. They still have the custom of paying lobola (dowry) at the time of marriage. Marriages are loose in the African society. Unmarried, teenage mothers are common in the African society.

During my stay very often I used to hear about deaths of family members of my helps or office colleagues – people dying from cold, cough, fever and so on. After sometime, I realized that these are deaths from AIDS. On an average 20% of the office population was infected by the virus.

Another thing I observed was their body built. Most of the women are very big built, over-weight. However the men were very much medium built, completely opposite of what we are used to seeing in American movies i.e. tall and big built African men.

One of the greatest experience of living in South Africa was becoming part of BASA (Bengali Association of South Africa). It was a very vibrant Bengali community in Johannesburg. Life was full of excitement – Durga Puja, cultural programs, picnics and get-togethers. We had never felt like this after our university campus days. It was a very closely-knit community with a lot of love, affection and fun. Isha and Megha got their first exposure to Bengali culture and sense of community in Johannesburg.

The Indian community is also a vibrant community in Jo’burg. There was a large population of Indian expats working in various Indian organizations. India Day on 15th August, Diwali etc. were celebrated in a big way. There were frequent live concerts by popular Indian singers and dancers. There is also a very big population of South African Indians who are popularly known as Durban Indians. Normally they are Gujurati Hindus, Gujurati Muslims and Tamils. Their food habits, way of dressing, language etc. are quite different from regular Indians due to the fact that they migrated to Africa hundreds of years back.

However they are crazy about Bollywood. For them Bollywood is the only window to so called Indian Culture. The Zee TV Channel and their serials are tremendously popular among Durban Indians.

During the weekends we would regularly visit the Indian neighbourhoods of Fordsburg and Laudium. A visit to the temple, lunch at the vegetarian joint of Swaruchi or Shayona, kebabs from the roadside Pakistani vendors, fish from the Bangladeshi stores, and a Hindi movie at the local multiplex would make our weekend enjoyable.

South Africa has a very rich history and heritage. There are many tribes of South Africans. Like Indians, they have multiple spoken and written languages (11 official languages) with Zulu as the main one. It is known as the Rainbow nation where people of all colour and creed lived together. The people of South Africa fought a long and difficult fight against the apartheid regime for more than 50 years. Two entire generations had to fight extremely unfair systems like Bantu Education, Pass system and so on. South Africa is the only nation to have its own Women’s day which is on 9th August. This day marks the protest march of 1956 when thousands of women marched against the Pass law. Today it is a day celebrated all over the nation with great enthusiasm. Nelson Mandela was affectionately called Madiba by the South Africans. His birthday, 18th July, was also celebrated all over. Sadly the great soul passed away on Dec 5th 2013 after a long period of suffering. He was on a life support system for a long time and there were several rumours and secrecy surrounding his death. People were anticipating his death news for a long time. There were rumours like all the shops will be closed for days, consulates will be closed for days and so on. Surprisingly, everything was open and it was business as usual everywhere. Offices, Schools, Malls everything operated as usual. When I reached office the next day, there were flowers on the reception desk in his memory. There was a memorial service on 9th December in the FNB stadium and later on in his native village. However, there was no compulsory holiday on these occasions. This is something unimaginable in India. Normally from 2nd week of December, everything starts closing in South Africa for Christmas. People start going for long family vacations. Things come back to normal only after the first week of January. Many companies throw Christmas Parties for their employees in the 1st and the 2nd week of December, before they head for the vacation. Our office was in World Trade Centre which had a banquet hall. I was surprised to see Christmas parties going on and employees coming in theme costumes during the week of death of Nelson Mandela. It looked little odd to me to be celebrating at such an event. In India, all celebrations would have been cancelled. However South Africans believed in celebrating Mandela’s life and his work instead of mourning his death. This was indeed a different outlook.

One of the best places in Johannesburg was the Organic market in Bryanston. The ambiance and the atmosphere were good. It was a very lively, colorful and vibrant place. It was one of the best places to hang around and relax. During our last days in Johannesburg, we used to frequent the Organic Market; buying small art and craft items; having a cup of coffee or enjoying a leisurely lunch. There were other open markets in Rosebank and other places of Jo’burg as well. There were weekend markets where African Art and Craft were sold. These were very interesting place. Some of them also displayed African Tribal life, dance and other customs.

We came back to India in May 2014. From the month of March I stopped cooking at home. Almost every day we had invitations at friends’ places. After our university days, we never had such big friend circle. At the end of three years, I was happy that I got a chance to live in South Africa and got to know this beautiful country and its beautiful people.