A warm homecoming

2013-11-20 00:00

THREE weeks ago, I returned to South Africa after two years in the United States.

It was exciting to be home — still the most dynamic society on Earth — but, in truth, I was unconsciously braced against a return to inefficiency, negativity, inequality and crime obsession.

And then, at a retail shop in Durban, a cashier moved my groceries through the till point without breaking off from the song she was singing, and flashed a smile.

And then a friend of my parents drove a 40-kilometre round trip to collect me late at night at the roadside in Cato Ridge when the electronics on my car (an Alfa Romeo, of course) simply shut down.

And then I watched both a community in Pietermaritzburg and my own colleagues rally around the city’s women joggers, after one runner became the victim of a brutal rape.

And I saw ANC, DA and IFP town councillors brainstorming cost-cutting ideas together — and even getting things done — in Newcastle. Unusual in South Africa, to be sure, but an outright shock, after two years of watching Republican and Democrat politicians in the U.S. devoted to nothing else but ridiculing each other.

And then I spent precisely one minute paying my new rent by Internet transfer — after two years in which I’d had to post paper cheques to landlords in Boston. (Yes, superpower America still pays by cheque.)

True, these pages have accurately reported horrible crimes and cynical corruption in recent weeks.

And true, tenants at my house have simply refused to pay rent for months, and it seems there is no affordable recourse in South Africa.

But I have to acknowledge that I’ve been blown away by the remarkable warmth and humanness of South Africans in this homecoming: their willingness to bend the rules, go the extra mile, or good-naturedly conspire with a complete stranger in ways that rarely happen in the U.S., and almost never in the UK.

Here’s how my first afternoon in South Africa went: needing a renewed driver’s licence, I went to the local traffic department, filled with trepidation. (Actually, since my licence had expired, a perfect stranger gave me a ride to the department, there and back.)

There was none of the queue chaos or passport-photo cons I remembered from past years.

A clerk wound me up about the extraordinary hoops I’d need to jump through to get my temporary licence, before admitting she was just kidding — and declaring that the two dog-eared and stained photos I fished from my wallet would be good enough for the process, and that I needn’t waste money on the four photos stipulated on the form.

The eye-test official told me warm tales of her family and then asked after mine.

At the cashier’s counter, neither I nor the clerk could remember whether I’d handed her two R50 notes or one, after we’d broken change for a R200 note back and forth.

She chuckled and said: “Eish! Well, if I find I’m short at the end of the day, I’ll just come hunt for you, ha ha” — and let it go, probably underpaid.

From the traffic department, I went to a small cellphone kiosk to have my old South African cellphone checked out. They found that the battery was kaput, and inserted their own test battery to check the phone itself.

The woman said: “Ag, it’s fine, just keep our test battery”, and didn’t charge me at all.

From there, still jet-lagged, I went to the movie house in the hopes of resting and killing time ahead of another appointment in the city that night.

The cinema manager picked up on my needs and said: “Hey, just go rest in theatre seven; that movie doesn’t start for an hour.

“I’ll just ask the cleaners to be quiet around you.”

I don’t think any of these things would routinely happen in the West.

Yes, the wheels turn slowly in South Africa, and often those wheels are flat, or stolen.

But it is a thrill to be living again among, and reporting for, people who are unashamedly human, and undeniably alive.

• Rowan Philp is chief reporter at The Witness.

• rowan.philp@witness.co.za

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