South Africans, a different breed

A special breed, those South Africans. The longer I live in their country, the more I feel like the odd one out. Or rather to say, the normal one in. I mainly noticed when I was back in the Netherlands the beginning of May, and tried to look at my people from the eyes of a South African, after having been on the other side of the lens for a year now. The differences seem subtle for an ignorant tourist, but astonishing once observed from up close.

Firstly, I advice anyone to speed up their pace in Holland. People are busy and like to complain about it. I was constantly complimented by how much effort my friends had to make to see me, which hardly felt flattering. Soon enough my agenda was fully booked too and I found myself speed-cycling in Amsterdam from coffee to wine, and chasing trains from village to town. In South Africa, on the other hand, social plans are rarely made or hardly followed, but you can always knock on someone’s door if you are in for some supper, or sit at ones table if you feel like a spontaneous drink. Love it.

The downside is that I’m still Dutch by heart, and not being able to plan a weekend drives me slightly Tourette still. Appointments and time are irrelevant in South Africa. Phrases such as ‘no stress’, ‘see you now-now’, ‘no sweat’ or ‘just now’, still mean substantially little to me. African time basically means that people can easily arrive 1.5 hours after the agreed time. But at least they are honorable about it, and receiving a message “ill be there now-now sweety” an hour late, does charm me, while slowly my skin is turning crispy in the African sun.

And it’s not just African-time I find tricky, there is the African-lifestyle as well. Eating healthy is a daily challenge, exercising is frowned upon, and going to a bar for one wine is out of the question. South Africans drink on another level than Dutchies do: stronger, daily, and limitless. Shots of jagermeister and lekka lekka vanish in the bar at the same rate steaks evaporate at a braai. And most surprisingly of all, the drugs culture in Johannesburg makes my legalized Dutch jaws drop two floors down. The amount of names for marijuana is endless (e.g. ganja, pot, maconja, splif, daga) and it is, again, consumed daily and limitless. Cocaine is consumed more moderately, but only because the wallet won’t otherwise keep up. I have been offered cocaine on children’s parties, Sunday afternoons on the way to the supermarket, and on Thursday mornings because coffee had run out. I have learned that instagram and chop chop have a different meaning here, and that I can better not say I’m going to powder my nose when visiting the toilet.

But at the same level as South Africans astonish me sometimes, have I shocked people with my Dutch manners. Compared to generally timid South Africans, Dutch people can be recognized from miles away by their confident body posture, indiscreet language and immodest attitude. If I were to discuss my menstruation hazards or poor sex-life over dinner in Holland, nobody would even raise an eye-brow. In South Africa, people will respond in horror, de-friend you on facebook, or start praying on your behalf. In fact, if you don’t live by proper South African manners, people will simply refuse to help you in a supermarket or answer an innocent question on the street. Never, and I mean never, forget to start any interaction with “Good morning, how are you?” ‘Good, thank you, how are you?’ “Good good, thanks.” Dozens of times per day, while nobody really cares how you are doing.

It’s politeness, I guess.. Over-politeness actually has the opposite effect on me. Boys that go out of their way to open the door for me leave me itchy, the constant question if ‘everything is fine’ makes me want to scream in a pillow, and persistent effort to impress me has got me to behave colder than I used to consider necessary. How often have I missed the down-to-earth, straight-forward Dutch boys, that will just let you be. Also the amount of religious palms I have received over the past year, to save my soul, got severely out of hand. I am an atheist and a lot of people in South Africa have the hardest time accepting me as a full human-being knowing that.

About a week after my return from Holland I was invited by a friend to his sister’s wedding: “ought to be fun” were the words, and I agreed that no harm could be done saying yes to that kind offer. But maybe I was being naïve; Im Dutch and they are African, after all. Because I was stressed to meet my friend in time at the airport I got up way too early to arrive at Dutch, not African, time: half an hour early, 8 o’clock sharp. But then my phone broke on the way, and I never saw my friend get out of domestic flights. And then I waited for 1.5 hours, and ran up and down the hall to look for him. And then I panicked, and then people came to help this poor stressed-out European girl who was talking backwards by that time. I explained in a mix of Dutch, English and sign language that my phone died, my friend probably left, and that I couldn’t even go back home because I lost my bankcard and spend my last money getting to the airport. They offered me some morphine and a computer, and I managed to find my friend’s phone number on facebook. At last I could call him, to find out he was chilling at the Wimpy, having a coffee or two… It turned out his brother would only come fetch us in another 2 hours time.

So we wait in the sun and my blood pressure drops slowly. About noon we are finally picked up and transferred to his sister’s house, not the wedding quite yet. Here the waiting ritual continues for about three hours. My heart rate increases again, as waiting is one of the things Dutchies are not good at doing. But at three o’clock the moment is there, and the wedding finally seems to be happening. Half an hour later we arrive, in a faraway place, where the other guests know no more than we do about what’s going to happen next. People randomly wander around, often still have to get dressed, but eventually find the church where the ceremony is going to take place at some undefined moment in time. And so I sit down.. the uncomfortable, stiff cheese-head amongst the curved, singing Zimbabweans and South Africans. I get a few appreciative hand-shakes, notice some long-lasting stares, and see several disapproving looks in the direction of my friend Sisanda. But it is a wedding, so one is there to enjoy. And when the wedding ceremony finally starts, 1.5 hours later than planned, I once again feel excited, which 5 minutes later turns out to be totally misplaced.

There was a preacher and a lot of ‘hallelujah, praise the lord’; there was clapping and a lot of praying. It was in a cold, dark church and the ceremony was endless. But at least I had the safety of the herd, hoping the sheep around me wouldn’t notice they had a wolf amongst them. Although I did my fair share, praying to God this would all be over soon. Almost two hours later my prayers were answered. On my way out the door, zigzagging through the singing crowd to find the bar, I came to the realization that at Christian weddings people are not ashamed to toast to the happy couple with a champaign glass filled with orange juice… I was going to have a little rehab, it seemed.

And not even two weeks later, I was in for the same joy ride. Another wedding, being the ‘plus one’. I should have known better by now and taken the easy way out. It was a ‘white’ Afrikaans wedding this time, but the circumstances differed little to me. A church, prayers, awkwardness, and another day spend in complete silence. It might be the alcohol-deprivation, but for the second time in two weddings now, I was sitting on a table with strangers who couldn’t bother to talk to me or involve me in any other social activity. That would be unheard of in Holland, where people will talk to anybody, compete to tell stories and crack provoking jokes effortlessly. In the Netherlands, a useless conversation is always better than no conservation. On these weddings, on the other hand, the food was consumed in silence. I was left counting the amount of lines on my hands, over and over again, summing them up in my head, and dividing the total to get an average, including standard deviation. I convinced myself that my fellow South African wedding-crashers must have been too shy or polite to approach the Dutch stranger in the corner, and that is was nothing personal. Although I couldn’t help blaming myself for not wearing the long sleeved dress instead…

But at the end of the day, those South African oddballs grew on me. They are always in for a joll and take life just a little bit less serious then we do. South Africans definitely win from Dutchies when it comes to generosity and hospitability, and they laugh considerably more than other people I know. Going back to Holland might become the real challenge.