This Is Africa: First Impressions

Welcome to Stellenbosch, put on your dancing shoes.

This is Africa. A phrase beloved by overlanders and gap year students. A phrase I long ago came to detest. Used in comic exasperation when things don’t quite go to plan: the bus breaks down and you are stuck in the blazing heat for six hours: T.I.A.; you have to wait at customs for change from your visa payment until the official has finished his computer game: T.I.A.

Yet when I heard it two weeks ago “This is Africa”, was used by the director of international students as he welcomed us to Stellenbosch University in South Africa. This time T.I.A. was not used in jest. It was accompanied by a poker-face that put Lady Gaga to shame: a stern warning that you ignored at your peril.

You see, it is hard to believe that I am sitting here, typing this, in Africa. I am lazing in the blazing sunshine outside a café, at a marble-topped table, on a tree-lined boulevard with cars of the latest model. A scene that barely differs from childhood holidays in the south of France.

In my first class this morning there was one black student, two mixed race and the rest, white: three South Africans, myself the only Brit and countless Norwegians. The few black people I see now are working as waitrons (the asexual term for a restaurant/café server) and parking guards. I attended a wine festival at the weekend (an event I was pleased to hear is a regular occurrence here) and amongst the attendees, only a handful were black, whilst the majority of people waiting on were black. I have moved to the Afrikaner heartland, where progress from Apartheid is, at times, hard to see.

And that is why Mr Kotzé gave his warning. “It may look like you are in Europe. But you are not. This is Africa”. Until yesterday, my only real encounter with black South Africans had been with those who had been providing me with a service. Yesterday, this changed. On a hike with friends up into the hills that skirt the University sports fields, we saw the whole town for the first time in its entirety. Not just the nice parts with the beautiful buildings of yesteryear. On the slopes on the outskirts we could see the shimmering sight of corrugated metal that comprises Kayamandi township. An informal settlement of at least 40,000 residents juxtaposed with the grand homesteads of the wine estates that we could also see below us.

Living in Stellenbosch, like St Andrews, to an extent occupies a bubble. I don’t think St Andrews' bubble was ever burst by crossing the Tay Bridge (as much as we all may joke that it is). My bubble was burst yesterday when I sat down with friends to sunbathe, picnic and swim at a watering hole. A group of young boys, no more than ten years old, were swimming and playing not in swimming gear but pyjamas and baggy pants – cursed by a plight of broken elastic with little to sustain their dignity. Suddenly, T.I.A. became emotionally charged; not with the humour of frustration but with the frustration of inequality. I am going to be working in Kayamandi township on Friday with children perhaps just like those I encountered yesterday. I’m not naïve, I know we won’t transform their lives, but we can certainly help.

I chose to come to Stellenbosch to leave my comfort zone, to experience a culture shock and to develop: not just academically, but emotionally. Unlike lots of students, who tire of their studies, I found it was only in my final year at St Andrews when I was in control of my studies, that I truly enjoyed the experience. By the end I wasn’t ready to stop. Further academic qualification was necessary for future career plans, yet none of the UK universities with relevant courses enticed me.

I fell in love with Africa at eighteen when I embarked on a gap year to Tanzania (it wasn’t quite such a cliché back in my day). From the moment I left the airport terminal, with my nose pressed up against the scorching glass of the Land Cruiser, I have never truly left. 

I have returned to somewhere that feels very much like home. I have substituted my Hunters for Havaianas and my Barbour for a braai, and not a moment too soon. St Andrews made me SAD. Not upset; a sufferer of Seasonal Affective Disorder and as I sit here now, in the glaring sun, I know this experience will be far from a bed of roses, but I also know that 35℃ won’t half help.

T.I.A. and I’m loving it.

See more on my blog ‘Footsteps through the Cape’

Title image by Helen Miller. Other photos courtesy of the author.