Here’s something I’ve noticed: South Africa has almost no rules. In fact, so few things are disallowed here that I am shocked when anything at all is prohibited. In some ways South Africa is all anarchy, which raises an interesting question about the innate goodness or badness of people. If folks are free to do as they please, how do they behave?
I found a really sweet example of people’s goodwill in South African traffic customs. Many of the roads here are single lane, and the painted lines really only seem to indicate suggested safe passing zones. People tend to pass at any time they feel it might be feasible. This could result in extraordinarily treacherous highways but instead, the custom is for the slower vehicles to drive on the extreme left shoulder (remembering South Africa is left-side drive) to allow faster cars to blow by. Then, when the manoeuvre is completed, the passing driver flashes his or her hazards once (Thank you) and the driver behind flashes his or her high beams once (You’re welcome). Très civilized, and much less road rage than I am accustomed to.
On the other hand, the lack of structure can create laughably frustrating situations. Renting a DVD can become an almost insurmountable challenge (the tag says it’s in but it’s not, or it’s misplaced, and so on) – and when you finally succeed, you will not be surprised to find the disc scratched and unplayable. Things meander. There are no two-minute exchanges; everything from highways to conversations must take the scenic route. This is no place for brevity or efficiency. Patience is more than a virtue; patience is, perhaps, the true currency of South Africa.
There is an intersection with race here too, of course. Everyday life in South Africa is a salad of difficulty and ease, harmony and violence, and a main indicator of how you will experience this is race, and by extension, class. Most times, if you’re white, you’re going to have an easier time of it. Sure – there are all sorts of petite difficulties (i.e. Downtown Cape Town has limited street parking) but if you have the means, you can circumvent the rules (pay that guy to watch your car, parked in the tow-away zone). Need your car cleaned and you’re hungry? Pay that guy to wash it while you eat. Need your pants hemmed, your shirts ironed, or a paper fetched…? Make no mistake: “that guy” is black. It is easy after a while to get comfortable with this, to begin to rely on it. It sure is nice to have so many options all the time. And it’s not like you’re asking them to do it for free. Right?
Evan may have summed it up best. “South Africa is a mind fuck,” he said matter-of-factly, the candlelight illuminating our steaks and red wine.