For those of you that aren’t aware, I was born and raised in South Africa. (Yes, I do have an accent, although it has faded with time.) Other than the question of whether I have an accent or not, a lot of people ask me what it was like growing up there; many are under the impression that I grew up in a mud hut with lions and elephants for pets. The reality is that growing up in South Africa (as a white person) was different in many ways – mostly culturally and with respect to lifestyle – but not as different to a North American childhood as many of you may think
I grew up in a suburban area – the streets were even paved! The primary difference in residential areas there is that almost everyone lives behind a wall, gates, electric fences and iron bars on the windows. Crime is rampant in SA, and security is a central and defining component to most homes. When one grows up with it, it doesn’t really seem all that out of place, although now that I have lived somewhere else for many years, I have a greater appreciation for the lack of self-imposed imprisonment South Africans endure on a daily basis. The homes are also built with bricks, and the outdoors is more of an extension of the house than a separate area; the weather there is pretty much amazing all year long. The African sun is definitely hotter!
Another difference between what most of you experienced as a child is having servants. I get a lot of jokes about having slaves. The truth is that labour is cheap and abundant in Africa, and pretty much every middle income or higher family has a maid. I grew up with a maid, a gardener, and a cook (although my mother did cook sometimes). I don’t mind cleaning my apartment or doing laundry, but I certainly do miss that little luxury. South Africa is a very unique African country because there is an abundance of poverty and an abundance of wealth that co-mingles pretty well. Even though whites make up a tiny percentage of the population of South Africa, they control most of the wealth due to nearly a century of Apartheid and oppression. The balance of power shifted from “white” to “black” nearly 20 years ago and affluent blacks are much more common. But most are still poor, while most whites are still rich.
I was educated in private schools most of my life. Uniforms are the norm in SA, even in the public schools. I’ve never worn anything other than uniforms to school my entre life, and I think I’m better off for it – I never had to worry about what to wear to impress anyone. Uniforms are a great equalizer – I think they should be mandatory in every school. Furthermore, I feel very grateful for the education I received. The education system in private schools is world-class, and prepared me well for my transition to Canadian life. I completed my last two years of high school in Canada, and it really was a breeze.
Overall, I had a pretty good life in SA. If I were to compare it to my life here, I would say that in many ways it was much better there. However, the peace of mind I have not worrying about if I’m going to get hijacked as I’m leaving home or killed in some other gruesome manner compensates somewhat for it. But I’m not going to lie – as I get older, I seem to be yearning more to return there. One would think it would be the other way….
This has made me homesick. Time to plan a trip to the homeland!