Tuesday, 19 June 2007
No.94: South Africa
Boks and Biltong
Owen Powell - 19th June
Surely we should have found a South African by now, we said to each other. As the cliché goes, every man behind every bar in London is from one of the rugby or cricket nations (Australia, New Zealand, SA). Maybe we just don’t go to many bars, or maybe the cliché isn’t actually all that true.
Conscious that our self-imposed one month exile in Edinburgh was fast approaching, and that we weren’t even half-way through, we knuckled down, did ten seconds worth of research on the internet and discovered that there was a South African Bok Bar in Covent Garden. Bingo. We jumped on the tube.
But before we even got to the Bok Bar, we got distracted by the Bok Shop. Inside, behind the counter, was Sunette. Sunette was from South Africa, and listened patiently as we explained the project. “OK,” she said, “but do you only want people who’ll say nice things about London?”
Our ears pricked up. No, we said. We want all sorts of people. (This was interesting!) What do you want to say about London? “Oh, I don’t really like the London lifestyle,” said Sunette. “It’s too rushed. I mean, I can afford things, I always have money, but I don’t like travelling around. It’s too expensive, and not nice.” Sunette handed us some biltong – dried strips of beef that were tasty and very chewy. “In South Africa, you can just hire a car and take five of your friends around. Here, it’s the tube, and buses. I was on a bus recently, and some kids heard my accent and called me a foreigner, and threw keys at me. In South Africa, if there were men on the bus, they would have stopped it, but here, no-one said anything. There’s no respect. No-one stands on the buses for old people. Respect is missing in this country.”
Sunette was worried about young people back home as well. She clearly loves her country (“It is the world in one country, it has beautiful landscapes, friendly people”) but has lots of concerns about its future. (Alex and I had mouths full of biltong, chewing away). “People who come into the shop, I ask them if they plan to visit South Africa, but mostly they are too scared,” she said. “It’s a real shame, as we have a lot to share with visitors. But I can see why. I read an Afrikaans newspaper every morning, and 80% of it is about crime. My brother lives in Johannesburg, and it’s worse there, but it’s getting bad in Cape Town as well.”
Sunette is 22, so was quite young when Apartheid ended in 1994. She says this is at the root of many of her country’s problems today. “If you ask them, many black people in South Africa say they were happier in the time of Apartheid. They were promised a lot once they were treated the same as whites, but not much has happened. It’s affected everything. Even sport is more like politics than sport these days. There are quotas, so people like Pietersen move to England to play. Even if you have talent, you can’t get into the team because of the colour of your skin.”
The biltong was very chewy and I struggled to ask any more questions. Alex found a jar of ‘Mrs Balls Chutney’ on the shelves, which he brought over to the counter. “I had some of this when I was in South Africa last year!” he said. In turns out that he had been to an Elephant Park that was right next door to where Sunette used to work in a game farm. She then took a degree in tourism, and is in the UK to work to pay off her study loan. “That’s the reason that most South Africans are here,” she told us. She’s worked for a year, partly in the shop, partly doing things like medical trials, but plans to return soon.
“Lots of people are leaving, running away,” she said, “and the attitude now is to give up. But I think it’s important to go back to help, help create jobs, help to stop the crime. It’s really bad. Everyone you know has been affected by it: muggings, hijacks, rapes. Even from a very young age, your mother teaches you not to walk alone. Recently, there was a story about a husband on his wedding night who was shot so the thieves could steal his presents. The country is going to get out of hand. We have to bring back the death penalty. In a country that bad, you need the death penalty. That’s crisis talk, but ...” Sunette shrugged, and smiled.
Both of her parents were teachers in South Africa, and Sunette believes that wages for public servants need to rise to encourage more people into careers in teaching, nursing and policing. Especially when gunmen often come into the schools, as her parents once witnessed. “I am optimistic,” said Sunette. “I’m proud of my country, and my language, and I believe that things will get better. There are people standing together, marching in the streets for peace. I want to go back and live there long term.”