I am writing this piece while sitting behind my desk in shorts and a T-shirt while it is raining outside with a cold breeze accompanying it. The difference between the conditions outside and inside makes it seem like two different seasons. However, this is accepted as the norm in (Western) Europe and it made me realise that Europe and South Africa, my home, are two very different places. In the next couple of paragraphs I will give my opinion on why South Africa should be on every European’s to-do list – albeit a somewhat biased opinion.
The first reason is to appreciate the things that make Europe a first world country. A very popular term in South Africa is “Africa time”. In South Africa the trains aren’t nearly as clean, well maintained or on time as in most European countries. Please note that a train is only classified as being late if it is more than 20-30 minutes late…not two minutes like in Europe. Heck, if a train is only two minutes late in South Africa that also counts as it being early.
Although the South African government tries its best, the service delivery is not even comparable to that which is found in Europe. I recently got told that the German railway service was planning a strike of 100 hours, which was later reduced to 50 hours and then to 25 hours. Although I have not read the facts, apparently plans were also put in place to reduce the effect of the strike so that the rest of Germany could function without too much of a disturbance. In sharp contrast to this, unplanned strikes are very common in South Africa and a permanent hindrance to quality foreign investment. In the past two years there have been massive strikes in the mining and agricultural industries and at the time of writing this piece the four month long post office strike is said to be in the final stages of getting resolved.
I realise that I sound very pessimistic about the rainbow nation at the southern tip of Africa, but I would just like to point out that there are things in Europe which people take for granted and sometimes one can only notice it when spending time abroad (and no, travelling to a neighbouring country in Europe does not count). I have come to this conclusion as my short three months in Netherlands so far have made me realise things that we take for granted in South Africa.
The definition of space in Europe and space in South Africa is not the same. Not by a long way. If you look at an average middle class house in Netherlands and you compare it to an average middle class house in South Africa there are some interesting differences. Very few houses in NL have got parking garages or even parking whereas in South Africa it is almost a given to have two or at least one. It is rather uncommon for a house in Netherlands to be smaller than its plot size as it is normally a two or three story house covering about 80-100% of the plot. Houses in SA have either got one story or perhaps two stories, but most of the time there is space for a dog outside with a swimming pool and perhaps even some space to play a game of French-cricket on a warm day. There is no need to take your kids to parks to get some physical exercise as they can get rid of their extra energy playing outside the house. And if you need a cup of sugar it is more than a 10 meter walk to your neighbour’s door.
While in Europe I have also learned to appreciate and admire the optimism in my country. There are people who have to walk 30 minutes to get to the nearest train, bus or taxi to get to work, but yet they see it as an opportunity to improve their lives and to take care of their families. Children who do not own anything else than the clothes they are wearing are able to spend a whole day laughing and playing with their friends in the streets. I miss standing in queues as supermarkets and hearing people engaging in small talk.
Out of everything, I would have to say that I miss the landscape and the variety of places the most. Some of the most beautiful beaches, mountains, vineyards, deserts and bushveld (go google it) can all be found in South Africa. Of course you cannot forget the game lodges and the wild animals. All of this coupled with the rising sun makes me wonder if all the powerful nations in the world could choose a country again whether they would not have a second look at Africa before they picked one.
Some might argue that I have not addressed the crime that is so often parasitized on by the South African media, but I’d like to think that our exchange rate and great food could have been used to counter that argument.
Next time you think about what country to visit next, please make sure that South Africa is on your top three list.