Saturday, June 13, 2009

Desert Notes: Tourist at home

I'm proudly South African. Even though I am living elsewhere. And firmly believe that South Africa is my ultimate home, the place I will return to once we have finished wandering in the desert. And I was really looking forward to my visit home.

Unfortunately, my holiday didn't turn out exactly the way we had planned, but ultimately it was good to be home. And good to be home with a different perspective on things.

Being a tourist in your own country is quite a weird feeling. You belong, and yet you don't. There were things that I was completely happy to see, things that I was horrified to see, and things that left me more than a little bewildered.

One of the first things that we noticed was the prices of things. Stuff is EXPENSIVE in SA. Petrol, obviously, but pretty much everything else too. I was stunned by food prices. Food in the UAE is predominately imported, but yet its cheaper than SA, where food is produced at home.

In fact, we can get SA fruit cheaper in the UAE than we could get it in SA. That simply doesn't make sense to me at all.

And house prices are simply astronomical. The places next to our old house are selling for nearly one million rand. And when we sold, we thought we doing just fine at selling R200000 above our initial purchase price. Now we couldn't even afford to buy our old house back. Even with the profit we made from selling it two years ago.

Car prices are horrendous. Again, a surprise because a large percentage of the cars are manufactured locally. And while interest rates are lower than they have been in years, we still cannot see how people can afford to live in SA anymore. Are people just living on credit? Or have salaries escalated at the same rate prices have? Where is the money coming from?

And money must be coming from somewhere, because along side the rising prices, we saw tons of rising developments. A good sign. It means the economy must be doing well. Everywhere from Jeffreys Bay to Roodepoort is under construction. New malls, new shops, new housing developments.

It looks like a booming country. Excellent news! But still, there is that niggle. How can people afford it? Can you explain? Apart from an apparently booming economy, it was great to be able to know that I was in a country where my human rights were respected, and my freedom of choice guaranteed.

While the UAE is by far one of the most liberal Arab/Moslem countries in the Gulf region, it is by no means truly free. And while I enjoyed knowing I had that freedom, my freedom felt confined. Because of crime. Yep, it exists everywhere, even here in the UAE.

But in SA, justice is slow, crime rampant and people don't seem to notice. Its like its become acceptable. On my second day in SA, we were over taken by a convoy of police cars and riot vans on their way to break up a strike at a local mall where the striking workers had gone nuts and taken shoppers hostage.

My sister, who happened to be driving us to that very same mall, simply said, "Oh, no, not again." And then my mother proceeded to tell me about other recent horrors at the very same, very brand new, very upmarket mall. Two armed robberies, a murder-suicide etc etc. Eventually, I asked her to stop, as my daughter (5) was starting to get very worried.

Everywhere we turned, someone else had a crime story. And very few were followed by stories of how justice was done. Here, justice may often be harsh, but is swift, and justice is seen to be done. So people respect the law. By harsh, I don't mean Saudi-style beheadings or amputations. Here, for example, being caught driving drunk will get you a jail sentence, a fine of around Dh30000, and possibly even 100 lashes. And sentance will be carried out within a week of your trial, and your trial within a week of your arrest. I don't agree with the 100 lashes - thats barbaric - but I do approve of the strict sentance, and the swiftness with which justice is carried out.

But yet if we as "expats" coming home, dared to comment on the crime, we would be told that its "not that bad." And that the police were working on it. In the same day, those same people would be celebrating mob justice and bribing traffic officers to squash fines. Double standards.

If we had a criticism (positive or negative) about crime or the cost of living, we would be told we had no right to comment as we "deserted" our country and that we no longer understood.

I disagree. We just have a new perspective. And a new respect for the way things could be done. I still love South Africa. Its still my home.

But it worries me that people are becoming blind to its faults because they don't want to see them.

Its sad. And bewildering. What do you think?

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