Six Weeks in South Africa, Six To Go: Fun Facts & Reflections

Today marks my official halfway point into my time here in SA. Crazy how time flies. I hardly feel like the same person who emerged from the throes of my first year in grad school; heavy, tired, uncertain, and sad that I was going to miss the best weather of the year. What did I trade in summer for? To be in the southern hemisphere being confused daily by my belief that I was entitled to summer, yet brutalized by a winter that feels more like autumn in the shade, spring in the sunlight, and an occasional temperature drop at night. I’m always sweating, it’s stressful. It’s like that moment you sprint to catch the train when it’s cold out, but as soon as you get on the train you burst into flames because you have on a layer or two. Why do the gods hate me?

Me. All. The. Time.


Weather aside, the opportunity to spend an extended period of time here comes with being a student at an engineering school that has a vested interest in spreading its influence all over the world. So here I am, on a research internship at a university in Johannesburg (JHB) getting to explore deep contentious political, social, development, and cultural issues in a World Class African City — a tagline the city of Johannesburg adopted in its official branding within the last decade or so. I’m still not sure when exactly they began using this tagline, but I suspect it nicely dovetails with the 2010 FIFA World Cup when SA welcomed an irrationally fearful [is it safe?] world inside its borders to take part in one of the world’s largest and most endeared sporting events. The claim to being an ‘African city’ is also hugely significant for a country that has long grappled with its relation to Africa writ large.

The official logo of the City of Johannesburg

Some fun facts I’ve learned so far about South Africa (and South Africans subsequently):

  • There are 11 official languages. In an effort to not leave anyone out in the transition to a ‘New SA’, all these languages were selected.


  • The new SA, although strikingly youthful compared to the USA (also a relatively young country), has many many similarities to the USA. Regarding race and notions of exceptionalism, the two countries are strangely alike and dissimilar. A 20-something SA woman put it to me like this: “South Africans are the Americans of Africa”…


  • Most people speak more than one language. Here where Johannesburg is located, in Gauteng province, it’s hard to bump into a black person who doesn’t speak Zulu plus two to three or four other distinctive languages including English. There is a demeanor people put on when they communicate in these native languages. Zulu is the language of solidarity in JHB, the tongue that ties together black people in a nation where a minority of white people have taken so so much away from them for hundreds of years.


What I need in my life. Right. Now. The Aunties at the grocery store don’t like when they speak to me in Zulu and I just stare back at them in black American.


  • Gauteng is pronounced ‘how-ten’. The ‘how’ sound has a funky effect if you wanna be fancy. It translates to ‘place of gold’. JHB and its surrounding areas came to be established when gold was discovered here in 1886. When people ask me how I’m finding it, I say it feels just like NYC. Lots of people from all over the country and beyond find themselves here chasing all kinds of dreams and hopes. The biggest difference is that people here sleep and they don’t walk anywhere.


  • Narratives about safety, security, and crime are pervasive. The physical and social manifestations of fear are to be found in the way beggars beg, the bars people live behind at every turn in their homes, cautions about what neighborhoods are dodgy, and the risk you take every time you park your car anywhere. As an American, these narratives are beyond alarming. The more time I spend here I’m beginning to understand how much they shape people’s daily lives, identities, and the physical architecture of the city. While vigilance is important, ideas about crime and safety (for different people) take on a kind of magnitude that I’m still trying to wrap my head around.


On a visit to the Westbury neighborhood in Johannesburg, notorious for being a tough place, here the fencing around a community center epitomizes the way spiked fencing is as natural and organic to the landscape as anything else.


  • Public transportation is the saddest form of nonexistent here. Given the history of apartheid spatial planning, it is most unfortunate that the apartheid regimes didn’t invest in the movement of people. I have a hunch why they didn’t, but like the missed opportunity to invest in transit during the gilded age of America, one can only lament the lack of investment in transit infrastructure when the economy could have afforded it. The provincial government has dreams of implementing new transportation infrastructure to correct for some of this, but like most urban African contexts, the transit sector is so dominated by the ‘informal’ taxi (minibus) regime(s), it is ever difficult to transition to a system that is both affordable and regulated — that does not alienate those whose livelihoods are already wrapped up in the current way of business.


“Born in the 1980s out of necessity, it has spiralled into a huge multi-billion dollar industry that South Africans love to hate,” writes one SA blogger, The Kingmaker.


  • There are lots of different white people here. Afrikaners are the bad white people. Ok, they aren’t all bad. Just don’t call them Dutch. Even though it seems they are the descendants of Dutch settlers; and that their language sounds a lot like a Dutch-German-English creole depending on who’s speaking, don’t call them Dutch. The most stereotypical and extreme characterization would suggest that they resemble far-right conservative country white people from the South…or as my classmate would say ‘backcountry hicks’.


One of the infamous images captured during the June 16, 1976 youth uprisings in Soweto largely in response to Afrikaans language education being forced upon blacks. This move was one in a long line of injustices that lit the fire of the revolution.


  • Stereotypes are dangerous, but I run into them all the time here. At comedy shows, Afrikaners are characterized in a range of ways, both funny and obviously true. BUT of course these are generalizations and not all of them are like that!! [I have to constantly remind myself]


  • Stereotypes aside, it’s mindfuckery of the highest order to wrap one’s head around how white people can make up such small slither of the population (~9%) and own all the land, all the economy, all the industry.


  • Apartheid is not an event in the history books. It is the present. Its legacy is the subtext for the emergent black middle class, young people going to college to study things like film and art, and widening wealth inequality between those with land deeds and those waiting, hoping for the day when they get land of their own. People talk about race every single day of their lives here, everywhere, anytime, all the time.


  • Indoor heating isn’t a thing. Don’t ever say that no one told you this one key fact.


  • #MenAreTrash is an important trend you should check out here and here for some perspective.


Dassit for now.


[Inquire: Have you been to SA? Have you visited JHB? What things have you heard about the country/city? What did you witness to be true if you’ve visited yourself? I’m curious to hear what others have heard and/or experienced.]

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