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South Africa can break your heart – daily. It can also fill it to overflowing. A country of extreme joy and heartache all muddled up, and dished up in great big dollops. There is much hope, optimism and growth – an antidote to the cold, dark greyness of London, and I can’t resist it seeping into my psyche, uninvited but very welcome all the same.
And every year I spend time here in the country of my birth and notice the changes that only a gap of twelve months can deliver. For the first time in many years, the brain drain has slowed and the tight, tough markets in UK and the US have seen many returning home. A contributing factor is the changes in UK visa requirements – the legendary two year working holiday to the UK is no longer an option for young South Africans.
Day to day interaction in shops, restaurants and over boardroom tables seems so very different to that of a few years ago. There is a new wave of educated young black people who are smart, savvy, well-spoken, friendly and outgoing. Johannesburg, for all its perceived dangers, leads the way and on the surface of things, appears to be far better integrated than Cape Town or other cities. And yet, the dark face of poverty is never far from you.
Every traffic junction delivers a collection of needy people – at the top of the hierarchy are those handing out marketing materials, then the salesmen offering handicrafts, fruit, clothes-hangers – followed by the windscreen cleaners who pounce on you armed with detergent, squeegee and attitude before you have a chance to object. The entertainers perform for a pittance, and at the bottom of the pile, the beggars. The most heartbreaking of all – mothers with babies, the blind, deaf, downtrodden, those with disabilities and a plethora of aimless people with red-rimmed eyes and slow movements who are clearly stoned. And yesterday, a new approach with an imp of a child-man patiently picking leaves off the bonnet of my car in the hope that he would be rewarded with a few rands.
If the cars on the roads are any indication of where the new money is, then it is clearly in the black market. The majority of shiny new Porche, Jaguar, BMW, Audi, Mercedes and Range Rover drivers are black. Private schools are packed to the rafters with black students, as are the universities and business schools. Education is recognised as the way forward and it is easy to be deceived by this thin layer of affluence. The majority are still far from the hopes and promises of basic living conditions and post-apartheid economic opportunity.
And many young white South Africans feel disenfranchised. They believe that the only way to get on in business is to start their own or to leave the country. Many find working in large corporates deeply frustrating; with people appointed to roles they are not qualified or experienced to do because of their colour. As a result, South Africans are incredibly resourceful and entrepreneurial. Failure does not deliver a comforting hand-out from the state or medical care for all. The reality of failure here is far more brutal.
Yet, for all its flaws and mixed messages, South Africa is definitely happening right now. New roads, highways, public transport and the fast march toward the World Cup – and I wonder what impact this leap will have? The world’s eyes will be firmly trained on this breathtakingly beautiful country with its extraordinary society in a few short months. I do hope that it delivers all that it needs to… and more.