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The Best and Worst things about living in South Africa – Part II

And now for the not-so-nice things about living here as an expat…

The Most Frustrating Things about SA:

The impenetrable job market: Foreigners have a tough time finding employment here through the direct application process. There is a dearth of skilled labour in several major fields and yet SA Immigration/Home Affairs makes it extremely difficult for people to find jobs. Employers know this and so do not want to take any chances in hiring somebody that does not already have a work permit. The person could be qualified to the high heavens but without a permit they hardly stand a chance. And without a job offer, one cannot get a work permit. So it is a frustrating catch-22 situation. It seems that one needs to have a contact or friend in a company in order to get through… meaning that the employer must be interested enough to wait through the tedious process of securing a work permit. I understand that the high unemployment figure here of 25% in combination with the Black Economic Empowerment reservation system is what is causing this disinterest towards hiring foreign labour. But I wonder… how does a country progress if it closes its mind to skilled labour, whether local or foreign? Just take a look at the US of A. The country has been brought to where it is now, thanks largely due to immigration. And I don’t get the whole argument of “previously disadvantaged hence automatically entitled”. This BEE policy is not that far removed from the caste-based reservation system in India. I know that some races and communities were discriminated against many years ago. But if we want to start again at square one, we must have merit-based equal rights for all, surely!

Political apathy: After Nelson Mandela was freed and Apartheid ended in the early 90’s, it was amazing how people of different races came together in order to move the country forward. One still wonders how SA did not slip into the total chaos of civil war. Now about 20 years after Apartheid, the ruling party African National Congress (or ANC) seems to have taken a lackadaisical approach to everything. They were persecuted by the white regime for many years, so now they want to enjoy all the riches and play a game of tit-for-tat while the country goes to hell. From President Zuma’s many personal jets to the ineffective corruption-riddled policing on the roads to a textbook supply fiasco that is part of a worsening education system, it is clear that these guys are more interested in getting rich than getting things right.

Essential services failures: Unfortunately due to a general electricity shortage and a growing water problem, there are a fair amount of power outages and water supply issues every now and then. Initially we were trying to move from one housing complex to another in an attempt to dodge these problems. But later on we found out that it is a general problem and can occur anywhere in Johannesburg. The thing is, these kinds of problems can occur anywhere in the world, even in the so-called developed countries. It is how fast the concerned authorities respond to the problem that makes the difference. It is often close to impossible to get through to the Johannesburg Water complaint phone line. And the main electricity provider Eskom had to do load shedding a few years back in order to combat the electricity shortage. They do try to educate the public through adverts, talking about how one must turn off all unnecessary lights in the home, turn off the geyser when not needed or use less water in the bathroom etc. So that’s a good thing.

Internet: South Africa has still not fully caught up on telecommunications. There are a handful of wireless internet providers and each of them offers limited, capped bandwidth at not-so-cheap prices. Uncapped internet is still very expensive for the average computer user. Of course, one can get uncapped ADSL through a home telephone line for a somewhat decent price. But the terrible state of telephone lines provided by Telkom makes this option more difficult to choose, especially in newer suburbs and neighbourhoods where there are simply no phone lines installed. And getting a new line installed would take several months if not years!

Bad drivers: I see an increasing number of bad drivers on the roads every day. Either they drive way too fast (160 kmph in an 80 zone) or they just do not know the rules of the road – that one must indicate before changing lanes (not just for turns) or that one should keep a safe following distance etc. The omnipresent minibus taxis cause the most accidents with their reckless driving and careless abandon for any kind of rule of the road. The lack of proper policing only makes this problem worse. Thankfully there are initiatives like Lead SA which continuously try to educate people on civic sense.

Crime: No matter how much crime has reduced since the Football World Cup, it is still there. Of course if one uses their common sense and takes adequate precautions, nothing untoward happens. But we still hear about things like burglaries, cable theft and gang rape, the latter being mostly in townships or poor neighbourhoods. But I have to say that I’m not all that surprised. With an apathetic government, high unemployment and pathetic policing, it is no wonder that there are people out there who would rather resort to crime than struggle from day to day. All that said, the South African crime problem is way overblown in foreign, especially western media! It is really not all that bad. If one exercises reasonable caution and avoids certain areas after dark, one is generally safe.

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The Best and Worst things about living in South Africa – Part I

Got this idea from another blogger’s post on the most frustrating things about living in Germany. So I was wondering about what they would be for me. But I’ll start with the positive…

The Best Things about SA:

Natural Beauty: It is a beautiful country with vast stretches of open land, majestic mountains and never-ending blue skies filled with fluffy white clouds. The sky here is a sight of its own! I have not seen so many different colours and pretty cloud formations anywhere else. The gorgeous reddish orange sunsets are simply to die for! The thunder and lightning also present quite the spectacle with huge menacing bolts from the sky or as we saw in the Drakensberg, continuous flickering over a mountainous horizon making it look like God’s light bulbs are going out. Road trips are a must here for any traveller, no matter how short or long the duration of stay.

Road Infrastructure: Speaking of roads, they are some of the best in the world. Sure, you would find potholes on narrow country roads but the highways and most of the roads in major cities like Pretoria, Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town are world class. They have been like that for many years, although recently many of the major highways were redone for the World Cup in 2010. Also, since most of the country is mountainous there are a lot of ups and downs in the landscape. This gives a lovely look to the highways in combination with the beautiful blue skies.

Climate: The climate of SA really is one of the best in the world. The summers are hot but never get too unbearable. If you are around Pretoria, Johannesburg or Cape Town in summer it is lovely and not too humid. Durban can get quite humid in summer but it is absolutely beautiful and warm in winter. As for winters in Pretoria and Joburg, they get very cold only for a short duration in June/July. Cape Town gets rain in winter. But overall, it is a very mild and moderate climate. It hardly ever snows here which can be a bummer depending on how you look at it, sitting comfy at home staring out the window or struggling with your work commute. But the lack of snow is a somewhat small sacrifice for such polite and relatively unchanging weather throughout the year.

Cost of Living: The cost of living is generally cheap. One can find a decent looking 2 bedroom apartment here for about R5000 which comes to about 15% of the average salary for a skilled professional. So, one gets to save on a monthly basis after meeting all obligations. That is comforting when compared to many other countries where the house rent itself eats away at a chunk of the monthly salary. And since South Africa is sort of a combination of a developing as well as a developed country in many ways, good quality merchandise is generally available at moderate prices. My mum-in-law said it herself when she was here a couple of months back. She was able to purchase 2 heavy woollen coats, 1 light leather jacket, 2 pairs of leather gloves and a leather handbag, all for about R3000. That is not a bad deal considering the top notch quality of the material.

Ease of Exploration: The country is not very difficult to explore due to its manageable size. And there is a wide variety of landscapes from mountains to deserts and grasslands to beaches, all within a somewhat small to medium sized country. There is only one standard time zone here, so there are no issues of jetlag and other such inconveniences. Also, the domestic flights are quite efficient and many in number. There are low cost options available too such as Kulula, Mango and 1Time, in addition to the national carrier SAA.

Work-Life Balance: Generally I have seen from my own experience and from talking to people that there is a good work-life balance here. The number of ‘paid vacation’ days usually provided annually by companies is more than the average number in the US. On a weekly basis, people generally work much more during the week than during weekends. The problem with this of course is that it applies to the retail sector as well. So, shops generally close between 2 to 4 pm during weekends. But as long as we plan our shopping early, it does not matter. It is certainly a good thing that there is emphasis on weekend family time. The national pastime here is barbecuing or as it is called in local lingo, ‘braai’. When the sun is out, nothing pleases a South African more than hanging out on the lawn with friends and family around a smoking braai grill.

To be continued in Part II … Thanks for reading.

Durban – Just perfect during off-peak season!

Durban North Beach at night

About a week before Easter, I had to go on a business trip to Durban. It just so happened that the day I was going to leave there was a problem at home that my wife couldn’t deal with by herself. So with permission from my boss I decided to take her with me. And it turned out to be a great trip combining business and leisure.

We were lucky to be doing this trip just a week before the mad rush of Easter holidays which is basically the other peak season after New Year’s Eve. The weather was beautiful and pretty much perfect to go to the many beaches there, except on the last day when it rained. The thing is, I have seen Durban during the ‘peakest’ of peak seasons and it ain’t pretty! The rush of people and the long queues especially at top tourist attractions like uShaka Marine World gets a little too hectic to deal with. My mom and sis were visiting South Africa this past New Year’s and we tried to cover as much as possible during their short 2-week foreign trip. We made it to Kruger Park, the Drakensberg mountains and Durban, all within that one week between Christmas and New Year’s. The former two were nice and peaceful but Durban was nuts! Doesn’t mean that we didn’t enjoy it but I had seen the city during a much calmer, more beautiful time of the year in August. Somehow even the water in the oceans looked bluer and prettier during off-peak season, from what I can recall. I’m not imagining this… honest!

So anyway, this time it was just great! We missed the peak rush, I got my work done and we enjoyed the evenings and adjoining weekend as well. We visited this absolutely gorgeous park called Mitchell Park in the suburb of Morningside and my wife went crazy with her camera. We also went to the main area of North Beach, Umhlanga Rocks and Umdloti Beach. North Beach during evening time was so beautiful, calm and peaceful, I had no idea! The other two we visited the next morning before driving back to Joburg.

So if you ever plan to go see what Durban is all about, I say go during off-peak season. It’s a world of difference!

U2 360 Tour in Johannesburg – Literally larger than life!

This is a late entry but I have finally decided to write about my recent U2 concert experience. It was my 3rd time seeing them live after catching them twice on the Vertigo tour in 2005. U2 has always been my favourite band growing up and there was a time in the 90’s when I was completely obsessed with them. In the 2000’s they lost me a bit with their back-to-basics approach which arguably ended up sounding too conservative and seemed like they weren’t pushing their creative limits enough. Nonetheless, I enjoy all of their albums in varying degrees. The best aspect about them in this late stage of their career is that, they create one hell of an awesome live concert experience! The night of 13th February 2011 was no different.

First of all, I couldn’t believe that U2 had finally decided to come to South Africa again, after almost 13 years! When I left the US in 2009, I did not have much hope of catching their live show again anytime soon. In recent memory, the band has not performed outside the Americas, Europe, Australasia and Japan. So when the announcement came that the 360 degrees tour was coming to SA, I was both delighted and surprised. Last year’s successful FIFA world cup here had perhaps left a good impression on their minds.

Anyway, it was an excellent show with great performances of their all-time classic songs like ‘Beautiful Day’, ‘I Will Follow’, ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’, ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’, ‘Pride’, ‘One’, ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’, ‘Vertigo’, ‘With Or Without You’ and several others. They even included a couple of obscure ones from their catalogue, namely ‘Miss Sarajevo’ and ‘Scarlet’ in a fresh new instrumental version; plus songs such as ‘Until The End Of The World’, ‘Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me Kill Me’ and the recent ‘Moment Of Surrender’ which are all both lyrically and musically brilliant! As for that huge claw-shaped spaceship of a set, I just do not know how to describe the wide-eyed awesomeness of the light shows it created! It was pretty much the best concert stage lighting I have ever seen! And I’d like to think that I have seen a fair bit of big name rock acts, like Pearl Jam, R.E.M., Radiohead, Green Day and Metallica among others. At the risk of sounding like a total U2 geek but trying my best to be as unbiased as possible, I have to say that the 360 tour set was the best I have seen since U2’s own Vertigo tour which was absolutely stunning! Of course, I have not seen Pink Floyd live and judging from their ‘Pulse’ dvd, that would be an otherworldly experience of its own. So overall from U2’s side, the concert was amazing and exceeded all my expectations.

The venue had some problems though. Parking at FNB Stadium (formerly Soccer City) was a mess with attendants having no clue where to direct people with the Park n Walk tickets. The beer and beverage queues were too long due to an insufficient number of vending clerks. To make things worse, they had this system where one had to stand in line to get tokens first and then stand in another line to get the drinks, using said tokens. The problem was that the person issuing the tokens was clueless about the price of certain drinks. So basically we had to almost guess how much it would be and get a good number of tokens to be on the safe side. That was completely ridiculous! And I heard that the women’s toilets were not very clean. The men’s ones were thankfully fine. Otherwise, to mention something positive here, the cops did a great job directing traffic out of the stadium area after the gig was over.

Despite being packed to the gills with a 98,000 strong audience, I felt that the crowd was not lively enough for a rock show of this magnitude. So many people around us were sitting down for the major part of the show! Why would you sit down at a rock concert??? This is not opera! Some people around me did get up and started singing along or dancing to the big chorus songs but this was mostly not the case. Even if somebody did not know any songs, they could have at least got up and danced around or done something that shows that they are happy they came! Anyway, thankfully this did not ruin our personal enjoyment or participation at this awesome show.

Here are some photos: