Recently I posted on Africa-as-everything-bad, which got me thinking about some of the most common perceptions of South Africa as an individual country. When Australians think of South Africa, they think of crime. When I was first considering visiting there with Dave, one relative informed me that I’d be “raped and murdered”.
About a week ago, someone told me of a conversation they’d had with a South African ex-pat who’d recently gone back for a holiday. This person, I was told, “didn’t bring back your glowing reports” but instead had tales of relatives being hijacked, fences with barbed wire on the top, and gates that block off the area of the house where the bedrooms are.
I suddenly felt like my “glowing reports” were embarrassingly naïve. Apparently it is suspicious even to enjoy South Africa, and appreciate its beauty and its people, on a holiday. I’d stayed behind barbed wire fences with people who’d been hijacked and tied up in their own home. I’d seen the security signs everywhere, and the “car guards” at the end of every parking place.
Yet somehow I’d failed. I’d still managed to feel positive about being in South Africa. The crime stories weren’t at the top of my list of perceptions of the place. I remembered a beautiful garden and a happy dinner behind the fence and the laser beams. I remembered a spectacular view from the well-secured apartment complex. I remembered how much fun it was to see my husband’s old home and school, even though every house in the street had a security sign on the fence.
I think ex-pat South Africans also have mainly positive memories of their homeland. Most would readily admit that the lived a reasonably good life in South Africa, but envisaged a better future somewhere else. Some, like my husband, came here for reasons completely unrelated to the social problems in the land of their birth. They came to pursue study or work, and never intended to remain indefinitely. Dave and I still hope to spend substantial amounts of time in South Africa, perhaps even years.
It is probably Australians, not South African ex-pats, who are at fault in the creation of the mental phenomenon of South-Africa-as-fear-and-violence. The crime stories are so much juicier than the tales ex-pats could tell of the jobs they enjoyed, their trips to other countries in Africa, the people they loved and still love, the opportunities for service to the community, and the cultural aspects they miss? Who wants to hear about those when you can hear about the time Uncle Bob woke up to find a masked man at the end of his bed?