Russian expat, Valeria van der Westhuizen, tells us what she has learnt while staying in South Africa
14 January 2018| Last updated on 28 May 2018
It is great to discover something different about a country that is as far as South Africa – different from what you read on the Internet, what tourists tell you and different from how local people see it. My story is about my own discoveries in and about South Africa. A country I visited for the first time in March 2009.
Exploring this strikingly beautiful land is a never-ending process, so for now, I will only share a couple of my thoughts with you.
The Languages and the Landscapes
There are two things which I found to be quite peculiar about the country’s languages and landscapes. First, South Africa is the homeland for people with various ethnical backgrounds – the country itself has 11 official languages, therefore, 11 cultural groups: Tswana, Sotho, Northern Sotho, Swazi, Zulu, Ndebele, Xhosa, Tsonga, Venda, Afrikaners and English. Let alone the other languages and cultures in the country that are not represented as official ones.
Something that I have come to enjoy about the languages in South Africa, is the tendency of the people to mix them. Afrikaans speaking people often mix Afrikaans with English, more so than English speaking South Africans. What can we do about it? English is an international language! For instance, you will often hear that something is “baie nice”. “Baie” meaning “very” in Afrikaans.
Another interesting thing is that locals often tend to speak English rather than their native tongue. I once asked a Sotho lady why she was speaking English to her children since English is not her mother tongue, and she answered: “It is easier this way. They will go to school one day and will have to learn anyway. I can teach them our native language later.”
One more curious thing I heard was from an elderly Afrikaans speaking lady who used to teach at a local school in a remote town in Kwazulu-Natal. One day she encountered two Zulu girl students speaking English to each other. The lady stopped next to them and asked why they did not speak Zulu instead. The girls’ answer was simple: “It is hard to talk about Maths in Zulu because our language does not have the necessary words for it.”
Second, South Africa is incredibly diverse geographically. Eight years ago I had the privilege of driving from Cape Town to Johannesburg along the N1 (a national route in South Africa that runs from Cape Town to the border of Zimbabwe). During the trip, I drove through 4 provinces each with their own unique natural characteristics. The Western Cape has beautiful mountains with lush green fields and, of course, all the wine farms. The Northern Cape has large open fields that are almost desert-like, but don’t let that fool you. It is also home to the world-renowned Namaqualand flowers. The Free State might be a dull sight to some with its brown, grassy plains and thousands of cattle grazing in the fields as you drive along. And lastly, Gauteng, a mixture of Highveld and city life.
Each part of the country is unique and has its own beauty. Each province speaks to your soul and tells its own story. Travelling through South Africa you will see real African bushes, majestic mountains, the oceans, the deserts, flat and hilly landscapes, wine yards, burnt down grass and trees and plants in full bloom. No words can describe it, you should see it for yourself.
Jacaranda Trees are also expats!
Speaking of trees. Jacaranda has become a truly recognised symbol of Pretoria, “the Jacaranda city.” The only thing is, in South Africa the Jacaranda tree is an officially declared weed as it originally comes from Latin America. Nevertheless, spring is a great time to see Jacarandas in full bloom. Some streets in the city have Jacaranda trees growing along both sides of the road. This forms a caravan over the road, providing a good shade, and amazingly beautiful purple flowers. When you walk along the roads covered by the petals, it feels like you are in an enchanted part of the city. I am yet to see a person who does not stop and enjoy the view for a bit. You just cannot take your eyes away from it.
South Africa’s wildlife has more to offer than just the “Big Five”
It also has the Small 5, Little 5 animals, and “Big Six” birds. Just to remind you, the “Big Five” includes the leopard, African elephant, rhinoceros, buffalo and lion. During my recent trip to the Kruger National Park, my friends and I saw big herds of elephants, cheetahs, lions and numerous buffalo. It was a big surprise to me to see so many buffalo in one day as they are normally extremely hard to see. We were lucky.
The Small 5 is accordingly represented by the leopard cub, African elephant calf, rhinoceros calf, buffalo calf and Lion cub. While at the Kruger National Park, we also saw a lot of baby elephants, and I almost died from their cuteness!
The so-called “Little 5” are small animals that you would normally not pay as much attention to, yet they are worth looking for. These small and fascinating creatures are the elephant shrew, ant lion, buffalo weaver, rhino beetle and leopard tortoise. I have seen at least three Leopard Tortoises – very beautiful and fast folks, who are always off on a mission somewhere.
I am sure the number 6 is not something you usually relate to South Africa. But when you stop by for a visit, look out for these six majestic, big, must see birds: lappet-faced vulture, southern ground hornbill, the pel’s fishing owl, saddle-billed stork, martial eagle and kori bustard. I was lucky enough to spot the first five birds with my binoculars and to say that it was something special is to say nothing.
“If you can drive in South Africa, you can drive anywhere else in the world”
This is what my father-in-law told me when I started taking lessons to learn to drive a car and ride a motorcycle. South Africa is one of the countries where having your own transport is a must. Firstly, because there are no well-developed public transport systems, especially outside the bigger cities.
Secondly, the public transport (mainly taxi’s) is driven by people who, more often than not, don’t adhere to the road rules. Hence, even though to drive your own transport is safer in a sense that you can control what you are doing, you cannot control what other drivers are doing. The chance of a collision is very high every day. It is necessary to have a pair of good eyes, but if you have more than two, it is even better!
Once you know how to drive in South Africa and stay alive, you can most probably drive safely anywhere else in the world.
Crime is an issue but…
“Crime” is the first word I heard when locals described South Africa to me. I spent my younger years in the country living in fear and anxiety – scared that something might happen to me. Later, I realised something: everyone, regardless nationality and skin colour, should be aware that the crime level is high, but it should not deprive people of living a happy, fulfilling life. I don’t believe that it is necessary to be alert all the time, stressing about something that might never happen. Be aware and be reasonable yes, constantly stressed and alert – not really.
One of the girls I know (she is also a national of a different country) once told me that she does not ever go out alone to the town because she is concerned about her own safety. I understand this because 8 years ago I had a similar mindset. The main reason for this was that I didn't have a chance to just go out and explore myself, I only heard other people’s stories and once witnessed the neighbour’s house have a break-in.
My second move to South Africa was preceded by mental work and letting go of fears and worries about “what if.” Plus, I started working and met a number of great people, including very interesting, funny, intelligent and hardworking local ladies and gentlemen. This is how my perception of the country has changed, and my life along with it. It is not subjected to fear anymore but led by curiosity, a thirst for exploring, and, gratefulness for every single opportunity this country and its people have given to me.
These are my discoveries about South Africa, a country I now call home. I know there will be many more lessons along the way, and I cannot wait for them to happen!