I’ve lived in South Africa for five months now, and think of myself as pretty well settled in. The one thing I won’t ever get used to, however, is the shocking standards of driving on the roads. Especially by people in big, expensive, fast cars who really should know better. I’ve been researching a story on it and one block I’ve come up against is that there’s been no good, reliable and detailed stats about accidents on South African roads released for two years now. Despite the fact that – by some estimates at least – the road death toll is now higher than the much talked about murder rate (and a more democratic killer of all classes and creeds too).
I’m not the only one – there’s gaping holes that should be obvious to fill in the WHO data published on the Guardian today, such as a who’s actually being killed out there on the highways and byways. But the staggering fact remains: fewer people drive here, but the roads are more congested and around ten times more dangerous than in the UK. It really, really doesn’t have to be like that.
You may or may not be aware that I’m slowly building a 3D printer at the moment, based on a RepRap kit I bought in the UK. I now have all the parts, just not the time to solder the electrics together (for reasons I’ll be blogging about this weekend).
Thing is, RepRap is still quite expensive – I reckon I’ve spent about £400 in total, and that’s doing it very much on the cheap. And it’s tricky to assemble.
This project, by South African hacker Quentin Harley, looks really promising. An almost entirely printed robot arm which can do everything a RepRap can for a lot less, with a much more easy to assemble chassis.
It’s a work in progress, but if it works it could be one of those big step forward things that will pull the day 3D printers are as ubiquitous as PCs forward by years. Check out the link at It Moves.
So far, my experiences with South African bureaucracy haven’t been
too bad as bad as I was led to believe they might be. There’s been long queues and waiting around for things to get done, but my biggest issues have been with the UK company that’s handling our household goods. And the banks – but they deserve a post all of their own.
The only real problem with government bureaucracy is the amount of paperwork that needs to be countersigned by notaries just to do the silliest of things, which involves finding a photocopier, driving to a police station, queueing – and all for a document that could be easily forged and no-one’s going to check anyway. So long as you have the right paperwork, processes are fairly smooth it seems.
A month ago, I applied for my invisible visa. The one that lets me live in the country as the spouse of a South African citizen and also lets me work. It’s called a Temporary Residence: Spousal Visa (section 11.6) It doesn’t really seem exist in law, can’t be applied for outside of the country and yet everyone at the Department of Home Affairs knows what it is and how to apply for one.
The process is tedious, but fairly straightforward. I takes 30 days, according to the rules, and mine was supposed to be ready yesterday.
Before you collect a permit, the DHA usually SMS you to say it’s ready. Since I hadn’t received the SMS yesterday morning, I thought I’d call ahead rather than brave the traffic of downtown Joburg and the inevitable two hour queue at their quite spectacularly grimy offices.
The lady I spoke to took my number and said she’d call back within 24 hours. Today’s phone call went something like this:
“Hi, I called yesterday to see if my visa was ready, and someone said they’d call me back within 24 hours. I thought I’d call since that was yesterday morning, and you might have my number wrong.”
“Ah sir, can I have your passport number and application reference please.”
“I see sir. It says here that you called yesterday and the lady you spoke to said she’d call you back in 24 hours.”
“That’s right. That was yesterday at 8am, so I was just a bit concerned…”
“Sir, you do realise that 24 hours can be two days don’t you.”
I laugh, thinking this is an ironic remark about ‘Africa time’ or something.
“Yes, quite. Ha, ha. I should probably get my clocks fixed then.”
(Deadpan) “So my colleague will call you back before tomorrow morning sir.”
“24 hours can be two days you see.”
“…um…OK…I’ll speak to her tomorrow then.”
“Thank you sir. Is there anything else I can do for you today?”
“Do you mean yesterday, or tomorrow? I’m very confused.”
In other news, the communist party of South Africa – a key parliamentary partner of the ruling ANC – today called for a law to be introduced which would outlaw defamatory remarks about the president. To protect “the dignity of office”, satire must be punishable by law. I’m not sure whether this is scary totalitarianism on a par with what’s going in Greece or just some idiots who still think Stalin got it right.
I’m going to laugh at them, just to be on the safe side. Although in a country where the government is busy bulldozing the homes of people who’ve managed to pull themselves out of the slums*, anything is possible.
*Obviously they aren’t bulldozing the hotels and rich people’s houses on the other side of the road.
Is it an inauspicious start to the new life abroad? On my first day in Johannesburg I can say I’ve become an illegal immigrant, got caught up in a riot, been solicited for a bribe and been refused a bank account.
All technically true. Sadly none of it quite as exciting as it sounds.
For the first part, an ‘interesting’ quirk of the South African visa and permits system means that although I applied for a permit – and received one – in London just two months ago, my first task upon arrival had to be to visit the Department of Home Affairs in downtown Johannesburg to apply for another one.
The details are a bit tedious, but basically I’m here on a relative’s permit, by virtue of being married to a South African. Unfortunately, you’re not allowed to work on a Relative’s Permit. If, however, you have a Spousal Permit, you can get your passport endorsed for the right to earn a living while here. The stamp – from what I gather – is pretty much a formality, but the important thing is that unlike a regular Work Permit you don’t need to prove that no citizen of the country can do your job at least as well before you’ll be allowed to do it.
Told you it was boring. It’s a good system in one way – returning citizens can bring their families home with a lot less hassle and cost than UK citizens can bring partners into their country. The cost to me was just three trips to the London High Commission and a couple of medical and police reports – not cheap, but not massively expensive. It would have only cost two trips to London, except that on the first one I accidentally brought a photocopy of a document not the original one.
The problem is, however, that it’s impossible to get a Spousal Permit via an overseas embassy. Or at least, the London High Commission won’t issue them, and there’s no apparent reason for this. So today’s task was to take all the same paperwork to the Department of Home Affairs to apply for a second permit. Ironically, at DHA they insist on photocopies and not the original documents.
So right now, I’m not allowed to earn a living under SA law. There’s a project I was working on in the UK before I left, however, which requires me to read three pages and sign them off at some point over the weekend before it’s finished. Technically, by reading those pages I’ll be breaking the law – but you know what, I’m going to chance it.
Which makes me – for a couple of hours at least – an illegal immigrant.
As for the riot – while sitting in DHA waiting for a free advisor, I realised that some of the paperwork I might need had been left in the car. So I left Tamsin and Tabby to hold my place in the queue while I ran back to get them.
At this point, I should probably explain that while driving around Johannesburg CBD two things rapidly became apparent. One, as the (one time) crime capital of a very crime ridden country, it’s still not a place a lot of South African’s are comfortable in. One of which is my wife, who hasn’t been here since its darkest days. Two, we have no idea where to park in central Johannesburg. The burnt out multistory next to the DHA building (thanks Google Maps) doesn’t seem like a safe place to park my brother in law’s pickup truck.
So we’re circling the one way system, feeling a little aggitated, with nowhere to stop near the DHA building. At which point my wife swings into a private parking lot. The guard makes a half hearted attempt to stop us, then says “how much will you pay me?” In a rather pathetic and terribly middle class way, I have been solicited for a bribe. To which my response is: “ummm – I have no idea, what’s the going rate for bribing a parking attendant?” Look at my fearsome street smarts and shake with fear.
Which brings us back to point two – involved in a riot. On my way back to the car, the street (Harrison Street) outside the DHA had been completed blocked off by police. On my way back, I found out why. A small demonstration – about 60 people – were moving down the street chanting, on their way to a rally point for striking truck drivers. Given the heavy police presence and the small number of demonstrators, I did something which – as a journalist – I should have known better than to do. I took a picture with my smartphone.
Unfortunately, I’d left the flash on.
As the phone focused, the LED popped. And about ten of the protestors broke off to chase me off (one of them took a swipe at my ankle). Stupid thing for me to do, ridiculous reponse which – I presume – wasn’t entirely unrelated to the colour of my skin. I think I had been mistaken for a banker (there’s a lot of banks in the area, but I don’t think the inhabitants walk around there much).The nice thing being that several people not involved in the demo stopped to ask how I was and make sure I was OK.
“They’re just interested in violence. We don’t like them here.”
The bad thing is, I didn’t get the picture. Not much of a professional, me. Hence no pic at the top of this post.
So not technically involved in a riot at all. I’m exaggerating enormously for effect. Stupid thing was that the strike was over, the workers won. Why still so angry?
With the permit application finally in, it was off to a bank to open an account, so I can pay things like rent, utilities and mobile phone bill without having to pay with a UK card and pay international fees each time. After an hour’s worth of queuing (there was only one person ahead of me) I found out that without a work permit, I can’t open a bank account. Which makes me wonder what retirees who move to Cape Town from overseas do – and also how I’m going to pay my phone bill for the next month. Fortunately, my wife already has a bank account in South Africa, which she’s had for many years. It only took her the best part of two hours to get it working again.
Still, I was reused a bank account. If only for a very dull reason.
And the rest of the day was spent mostly in traffic jams. Huge thunderstorms have taken out enough traffic lights to cause near gridlock. I’m reassured this is not an unusual occurrence.
All of which may sound a trife bleak. Don’t, however, think for a moment I’m having second thoughts. Compared to – say – evidence of police collusion with neo-fascist Golden Dawn thugs in Greece, I’m just happy I now have a set of amusing stories for dinner parties. And a sore ankle.
Here’s why I’ll never be an especially great blogger. On Wednesday, I’m emigrating to South Africa with my family. This is my last day of full work in the UK, possibly forever. It’s a big, huge move and enormously stressful and emotional in many ways. Yet I’ve not written anything about it here.
I have many posts half written, from musings on the high cost of living in South Africa and how it’s doomed the country to be split into two economies for the foreseeable future, to things I’ll miss about the UK – like free health care, public transport and delicatessens that sell tasty Mediterranean treats.
These posts are unlikely to be finished for a while yet though, as instead of taking a few weeks off to enjoy the move, write my novel and ponder the greater significance of these things, I’ve been saying goodbye to people and working desperately hard to try and finish the work I have to do before I go.
Damn that protestant work ethic.
I realise this feature is a few weeks old - From Kenya to Madagascar: The African tech-hub boom - but since it’s written by someone who’s a bit of a hero of mine, I thought I’d link to it anyway. This has been an interesting weekend in terms of Oxford family’s future plans. It looks very much like we’ll be relocating to Johannesburg sooner than planned. The lure of the tech hubs Hersman writes about here is very much part of the reason we’re going, and it looks like I may just have been offered a job.
I landed in Livingstone yesterday, but given the fact it’s raining, humid and I’m running round trying to things like internet connectivity over the next week sorted, there’s no pics yet. I met with Haakon, the country director for Response Network last night, to quickly catch up on all the news that’s happened in the country over the last year or so.
General impressions are not good – more corruption, less proactive work for the poor – but the forthcoming elections may change all that.
Physically, Livingstone hasn’t changed at all. I’ve spotted one new shop so far – everything else is as I left it.
For those who don’t know, Livingstone is a town of between 100,00 and 140,00 people, with one main shopping street – Mosi-oa-Tunya Road. Tourism is big, and all the main NGOs have offices here, but it’s clearly not very well off compared to an English town of this size. Like Bath, for example.
Leaving Johannesburg was odd. After spending so much time there it was starting to feel like a home away from home, and quite a pleasant one at that.
I switched off over the World Cup because of my antipathy towards football, but the effect of that and falling crime levels made the city feel completely different to last time I was there in 2007. Then, crime was at its peak, Mbeki’s administration was imploding and the bizarre behaviour of president in waiting Zuma convinced many of my friends that South Africa was about to go the way of Zimbabwe.
This time, no-one talked about being scared any more, everyone seemed more confident in the future and upbeat about their prospects. The papers hardly carry any crime stories at all, and there’s a sense that some things are changing for good. It made me regret not moving there four years ago, when it was a serious option, and feel like we probably will relocate some time soon.
The success of the Gautrain and a crime free world cup have, I think, shown people that South Africa isn’t, perhaps, as bad as they thought. That’s not to be naive – theres still a massive murder rate in the townships, the political class is so brazenly corrupt it defies belief and a staggering unemployment rate means the tax base is way to small for the size of the problems at hand.
Worst of all, you don’t have to drive far from the wealthy northern suburbs to hit some of the most shocking poverty and living conditions I’ve seen.
My biggest reservation about Johannesburg, though, remains its reliance on the car. You can live there without one – 80,000 people a day get to work on the Metro buses and hundreds of thousands more by the four wheel deathboxes they call taxis. But heavy handed zoning regulations mean there’s no such thing as a local shop or pub, and hundreds of malls serve a city of drivers who’ve faced 20% rises in fuel costs this year alone. Even if you can look past the enormous carbon wellyboots of this place, the car-based lifestyle isn’t going to be sustainable for long and it’s doubtful the government is really prepared for the additional problems that will bring.
Few people there seem to have figured out that complaining about the traffic is silly when you are the traffic.
That said, the Gautrain and related bus services are a big step forward for public transport and, if all goes according to plan, will eventually be a modern metro network with a reach much greater than its current four stops. Much as I enjoyed riding it to the airport, there’s a certain sense of irony in that you have to navigate the heaviest traffic in the city just to reach the central terminal (Sandton).
I think, all in all, we’ll be back soon – probably for while.
I haven’t blogged much over Christmas because it’s been spent mostly doing family stuff and catching up with friends. All of which was ace, but uninteresting to read. I’m putting together a longer post about how my feelings towards Johannesburg have changed since last time I was here, but in the meantime, here’s Tabby on the drums.
The town of Hazyview is considerably more developed since last time I was here. Back then, there was an open market in a gas station for all your needs. Now there are several malls, including one with a camera shop that sells universal chargers. The old town may have had more charm, but the new one at least means we were able to fire off 100 shots of these two kudu almost being eaten by a crocodile this morning. The face off (shall we drink the water? Is that a log?) lasted well over an hour before the kudu walked off and the croc went hungry.
Still, if we hadn’t sat watching them, we’d have missed this gorgeous chap just around the corner when we left the lake.
I can’t believe we’ve been lucky enough to see a cheetah just three days after the leopard. These two are almost impossible to see normally, and yet both were just by the side of the road, waiting for us. amazing creatures. Thank you.
As I’ve been fond of pointing out to people prior to this trip, there may not be snow in Africa at Christmas, but there’s a hell of a lot of rain south of the equator this time of year. The day we arrived in Sambonani, a lodge just outside of Kruger Park where we’re spending a few days, it’s was to a full on monsoon. In the dark, with the power constantly failing, the lightning storms that illumated the first two nights here were staggeringly beautiful.
Apparently, we have a family of hippos and a crocodile living in the river opposite us. I haven’t seen them yet, but I do hope there’s a backup generator for the very fragile looking electric fence keeping the crocs out.
One lesson I have learned is that the old adage about the the most important camera being the camera you have with you is very true. My trusty GF1 is a lovely piece of kit, but without a powerful zoom and a reliance on contrast-based auto-focus, it’s not the best for taking pictures of game. Fortunately, we also have Tamsin’s Nikon, with my 300mm VR lens on it. Which is perfect.
We’ve been very lucky in our first two days in the park. We’ve seen rhino, a huge herd of elephants, hippos, nearly every type of buck and possibly a wildcat or caracal or two as well. The most impressive spot so far though was this one.
A leopard – the last of the Big Five I haven’t photographed in the park. Asleep in a tree in the late muggy afternoon. These cats look lazy, but they’re incredibly hard to spot – they hunt at night and hide during the day. Seeing one is a rare and unusual privilege.
This would, however, be the point that Tamsin’s battery dies, and we discover the charger is back in Joburg. Hence the rather disappointing blur-o-vision above, cropped in from the maximum range of my GF1.
Sigh. I love my GF1, but it does have it’s limitations. If anyone wants to buy me one of these for Christmas, don’t hold back.
Still, it’s hard to get too upset. I’ve been waiting years to see a leopard, and come close twice in the past. And look at the position he’s in, all four legs hanging down like he just doesn’t care about cameras and all the cars jostling for position at the base of the tree.
He probably doesn’t.