Things I learned on my business trip to South Africa:
- 11 hours on an economy flight is a version of hell I find quite focused and intensive. Dante could probably not have captured this one to its full extent regardless of his brilliance and creativity.
- There is such a thing as a city with no river.
- Johannesburg is an ugly, sprawling, industrial parking lot of a place.
- The sun sets at 7pm south of the equator even in the height of summer.
- Monkey gland sauce apparently has nothing to do with monkeys, but no-one can tell me what it’s made of.
- Going from 33 celsius to 1 celsius is an experience I am not eager to repeat.
South Africa is odd. Now don’t get me wrong, generally speaking, I love odd. Things that are out of the ordinary are one of the reasons I enjoy life. Occasionally though, when I am in a place which could almost be like home re: language and food, I find myself slightly perturbed by the small but rather distinctive differences in culture. Like, oh, I don’t know, the free condoms in every toilet. That was a surprise in the building I was working in. More so because I took some before I realised what I was getting, and then it dawned upon me that I had both a packet of condoms in my hand, and no pockets, and was about to walk out of the bathroom on my first day as a consultant there. Hurray for establishing a reputation though.
I have never been ripped off so constantly, so many times consecutively, for being a foreigner. However, I didn’t care in the slightest for two reasons. These were firstly because it wasn’t my money, and secondly because it was still cheaper than any equivalent expense in London, usually by half. If a taxi-driver who would otherwise earn less than a fiver for his days work can make £30 because I’m a rich European, I have trouble summoning any hard feelings. I tend to buy into the philosophy of paying for something what I think its worth.
Having a driver for the time I was working was considered entirely normal, the fact that said driver wore a suit and opened doors for me was probably some sort of bonus, but certainly no-one seemed surprised. When I queued for the ATM, instead of standing the requisite, polite, 3 feet back, people tended to stand 10 feet back. We went for lunch in a different building, but didn’t have to walk outside, because all three of the company buildings had tunnels built between them on the 2nd floor, which is a normal facility in Jo’burg should your company span such a distance. There are no pubs, only bars, restaurants and clubs. Every working individual with their head above water financially owns a car. Everyone who owns a car speeds.
There are no street corner shops, there is no real town centre. Everything sprawls out from the centre to accommodate the huge shopping malls which are the only safe places to go for shopping in Johannesburg. The food is amazing, particularly the steak. The people I met were great. A larger than usual tip I gave once actually caused a waiter to come up and personally thank me. Money means so much more there than it does here.
What really bothered me though, was the affirmative action policy that so many companies adopt. I suppose in a country so rife with blatant shameless racism I can understand the point, but two intrinsically wrong ideas do not make a right. On the whole, it was an interesting trip, and a fascinating place, but it doesn’t make the list of places I want to or would ever live in.