What South Africans do best


I’ve spent most of this year living in various places overseas, and when you’re away for a long time you realize all sorts of things about home.

For instance, I’ve realized that South Africans actually walk quite well in public. This is not something I’d have believed before. Walking down a South African sidewalk usually makes me want to shoulder-charge little old ladies out of the way or set fire to small children. Obviously, the closer you are to Cape Town, the truer this is. Walking is just about the only thing that Capetonians do worse than driving. Capetonians weave and lurch around like they’re the last survivors of some terrible nuclear catastrophe, all alone in the world with just the voices in their heads.

Well, let me tell you, compared to Turks, Capetonians move with the focus and intensity of Usain Bolt. At least Capetonians have a general sense they’re trying to move from one place to another: Turks will just suddenly start walking backwards, or turning round in circles. They’ll lie down on the ground. They’ll suddenly veer diagonally across the sidewalk as though they have rabies.

And here’s something about Greece: in the whole country, there isn’t a single competent electrician. South Africans might not always have electricity, but when we do, we can usually switch on the light. In Greece everyone does their own wiring, so when you turn on a switch there’s usually a shower of sparks and then the house burns down. I recently checked into a hotel room that didn’t have a light switch at all. I fumbled to the phone in the dark and called reception. Some guy came and slapped the wall to switch on the lights, and showed me where to kick the skirting board to switch them off again.

I had to fly back home from London to give a talk. I stood in the queues at Heathrow security and then the queues at passport control and then the queues at the gate. I stood for hours. I think I spent more time in those queues than on the flight home.

Then I queued at passport control at OR Tambo. The queue took maybe ten minutes. A South African woman from my flight, who had been through all those same queues in London, rolled her eyes and said, to no one in particular, “Welcome to Africa!”

That’s where we’re champions, I thought, as I tried not to strangle her: we’re the best in the world at thinking that we’re worse than everyone else.

And then I left the airport and stopped for a takeaway burger. Obviously I’d been away too long, because when the woman behind the counter looked me in the eyes and smiled and said hello, I couldn’t speak for minute, because it had been so long since someone had genuinely smiled at me, and there were tears in my eyes as I remembered that actually complaining isn’t what we’re best at. We’re the best at just being people, and it felt so good to be home.

Edgars, 3 July 2018