Landisa: I am German and now run youth camps across Gauteng. Here’s why I can’t leave SA

Juliane Hoss.
Juliane Hoss.

I came to South Africa for the first time in 2010.

No, not for the World Cup but exactly two months later, so I perfectly missed it.

My first year as a volunteer in a crèche and an aftercare centre in Zeerust was the best year of my life.

Many people from the North West are still surprised to hear how exciting it was for me to live in such a small town but to me, everything was new and interesting. 

I was lucky enough to make close friends, who were patient to explain and teach me everything I had to know; how to say thank you by folding my arms, how to stop a taxi to town and how to make and eat pap, a dish we don’t have in Germany.

When I arrived back in Germany, I immediately started googling for options to return to South Africa. Through my psychology studies I ended up at the University of Pretoria, where I spent half of the five years it took me to finish my Masters. 

I love to answer the question why I chose to stay in South Africa for six years and now relocated permanently because it reminds me of all the amazing moments I experienced and the wonderful people I met here.

The biggest reason was not really the weather but the young people and colleagues I work with in my free time as part of our organisation, Bridging Gaps, which I started in 2013. 

A question I would prefer not to answer is why I chose to come to South Africa in the first place.

The truth is, I had a completely romanticised view of "Africa" as a beautiful continent, where people are warm, welcoming, emotional and living closely connected to the earth.

I wanted to be part of this adventure and offer my help to provide a better future for young people.

Looking back, my motivations do not only seem naïve but also selfish as I really assumed I have more to offer than to learn myself.

But South Africa really put a mirror in front of me forcing me to question myself and reflect on my own socialisation and society, something I will forever be grateful for. 

Already during my first year, my friends opened my eyes in a slightly provocative but kind way.

First of all, they were surprised how unprepared I was when I first arrived in the country.

Basically, I didn’t know anything about the country, except for the basic image of Africa, I picked up in the media.

I started to notice that it was the image of the orange, brownish cover pictures of the books about African animals or the novels about adventures in Africa I loved to read growing up. 

I couldn’t ignore that the reality was far from what I expected.

Initially, I tried to force fit my experiences in South Africa: I tried to over-emphasise moments, in which my colleagues or peers behaved as warm, welcoming or emotional.

I tried to take photographs, which should fit my stereotypes, such as the landscape during sunset.

I purposefully attended traditional events to meet the traditional, welcoming and kind of exotic characters I encountered of Africans on TV or in German travel brochures.

My friends challenged me to admit that my expectations were not a compliment to the continent and its people but a reflection of the general narrative we have of Africa in Europe.

My friends were not shy to question my assumption that young people in "Africa" might need me more than in Germany.

And after many conversations, I came to realise that I was brought up with and became part of a narrative that reduces the continent and its people to a racialised view dating back to old colonial thoughts.

I also remember feeling slightly shocked about the racism in South Africa.

It seemed unbelievable to me how people could live so segregated and I was full of anger when other South Africans warned me to be cautious and not go to the townships.

I would start a fight every time someone made a rude comment and I remember thinking to myself how lucky I am to be from Germany.

I was convinced we had no problems with racism in Germany.

Like most of my peers, I grew up not only thinking that we are not racist but actively rejecting it.

Learning about the history of South Africa fascinated me and while I started reading more about racism, I came across books about my own society.

For the first time, I learned about Germany’s colonies and the genocide in Namibia, an ugly and shocking truth I did not encounter in the German curriculum.

Then I started reading up on racism in Germany and realised how wrong I was to assume, we had no such problems where I am from.

To the contrary, I felt my attitude was part of the problem because I pretended everyone in Germany is treated the same - just like me. 

Thanks to my time in South Africa, I accepted that we have global problems to tackle, especially in relation to race.

This motivated me and my friends to take our organisation Bridging Gaps to Germany and try to set a sign against racism in both countries. 

Ten years after I first arrived in South Africa, I am mainly grateful, and a bit humbled considering how wrong I was and how much I had to learn.

I guess I came to make a change as many of my fellow German volunteers, but luckily it was exactly the opposite.

And if I could choose, which question I would like to answer when people ask me about South Africa, it would be: "What has South Africa taught you in the time you were here?"

Juliane is the founder of the Bridging Gaps non profit, a psychologist currently working as a business consultant, and lives in Johannesburg.

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