Not much like home

2013-10-18 00:00

RON Nicolson (The Witness, October 1) drew our attention to many similarities between Australia and South Africa.

However, when I read his story, I had been back here for a week, while he was still having fun with the grandsons on the Gold Coast. Forgive my negativity, but there are some startling differences that show as soon as one enters Johannesburg passport control.

I was embarrassed at how a couple was treated while I was waiting in line. The man was being told that there was a problem with his papers and had to “go back there”, wherever that was. He was anxious about his elderly female companion who was in a wheelchair.

“Can I bring her?”

“No, just come”, followed by rapid Zulu, which seemed to be instructing another employee to park the woman in a corner, was the response. The old woman was left on her own, her face towards the wall. To my shame, I did nothing. The man behind me began on the equivalent of “this country is going to the dogs” (put politely). I was glad to be able to move away.

There were no smiles at the border, no smiles at all. To be fair, the passport officer said: “Welcome back”. But he didn’t smile either.

The pervasive negative attitude saddens me. I interpret it as resentment, hostility and dislike. Probably this isn’t true. But I admit I was not prepared to intervene with the old woman at the airport because I feared being accused of interference or worse, racism.

The Indian taxi driver who fetched me at the airport had his own version of “this country”. And I found myself defending the government, defending the president and saying how much worse life was under apartheid. He was unconvinced.

In the three weeks I was away, I had forgotten how terrifying the traffic is on the highway. To remind me, a blue-light convoy passed me, fortunately going the opposite direction. We South Africans may laugh at how law-abiding the Aussies are on the road, but the penalties for misbehaviour are serious and enforced rigidly. While 16-year-olds are allowed to drive, there is a probationary period of two years before they are allowed to drive without restrictions. Drivers are cautious, courteous and considerate.

Heavy vehicles are allowed in all lanes and thus do not weave unpredictably in and out of the slow lane. Drivers and vehicles are tested regularly, and there is a strong traffic police presence. Certainly not like home. The death toll on Queensland’s roads for 2011 was 267, whereas in just five months, from November 2011 to March 2012, the death toll for KwaZulu-Natal was 808.

On arriving in Howick, I was struck by the dirtiness of the town. It was a Sunday, so there were no crowds at the supermarket, but I was taken aback at the amount of rubbish on the streets, the overflowing bins, the plastic, paper and the empty beer bottles. And, to be honest, even the upmarket supermarket was devoid of interesting fare. I left with my bread and milk, and was not tempted by any treats.

In our local paper, the Village Talk, I read an article about a businessman who had, with the assistance of several local businesses, donated a jungle gym to a local preschool. In Australia, I had been blown away by the facilities provided for children in parks, at the beach and in caravan sites: bouncy pillows, jungle gyms, swings, water play facilities, picnic areas with shading, and barbecue facilities equipped with gas and hot running water. There were signs that said: “Please be considerate and do not occupy this site for more than two hours”. Not at all like home.

Our local lending library tries hard. The staff are friendly and the displays are relevant to current topics. But the public libraries I visited on the Gold Coast are like Aladdin’s treasure-trove. What amazing facilities: computers, free Internet access CDs and DVDs. There is no limit to how many items can be borrowed. There are librarians who are able and willing to assist with pupils’ research, although most of the people doing research were well over 50. Presumably young pupils were in school. Not like home.

At my doorstep, the mat reads: “There’s no place like home”. That is very true. Where else can I have zebras and blesbuck as neighbours? The duiker has worked out how to get over my fence to eat the roses — a slightly mixed blessing. But at the moment, I can’t find much else to be happy about. Perhaps I’ll feel better in the morning.

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