When I left South Africa in 2000, many people assumed that I was wanting to be part of the “brain drain”: a flood of disillusioned young professionals getting out of a troubled country before it was too late. Although there were undeniable problems plaguing the country, that is not why I left. My reason was simply that I had the opportunity to explore life elsewhere.
Fifteen years on, South Africa is in a lot of trouble – more so than back in 2000. The President is widely regarded as an international joke who mocks his citizens, crime is bad and getting worse, and organizations like the electricity provider, the post office and the national airline are in a state of chaos due to mismanagement and corruption. The latest government shenanigans, which resulted in the unjustified firing of the Minister of Finance, have sent the national currency into freefall.
It’s a crying shame to see the land of my birth experiencing such difficulty. South Africa is a magnificent country with a lot to offer. With its coastlines, mountains and wildlife, it has more natural beauty than almost any other place on earth. Most parts of the country have superb weather, with hot, low-humidity summers, mild winters and majestic African thunderstorms. South Africa also is also one of the world’s richest sources of many natural resources, such as diamonds, gold and platinum.
South Africa has also turned out a host of world-class doctors, scientists, statesmen, authors and entertainers. This list includes the likes of Nelson Mandela, heart transplant pioneer Chris Barnard, TV personality Trevor Noah and paleontologist Phillip Tobias.
In addition to all of this, South Africa has a wonderful quality that can possibly only be fully appreciated by visitors. It is certainly not something I ever thought about when I was living there, but I saw it on a daily basis during my recent month-long visit.
South Africans – the regular, everyday folks you see when you walk down the road or do your grocery shopping – are the most openly friendly people I have ever come across. In a world where most people almost religiously avoid interactions with strangers, a South African you encounter while you’re out and about will look you directly in the eye and greet you with a smile. It’s not one of those mumbled hello’s that you can barely hear. It’s a clear, enthusiastic greeting accompanied by a genuinely happy smile, as if the person’s day has been made by this chance encounter.
What makes this even more remarkable is that many of the people who are offering up this positive energy do not have easy lives. A lot of them are working thankless jobs for little pay. They risk their lives every day by commuting on dangerous taxis recklessly operated by militant drivers. Economic necessity forces them to be separated from their wives and children during the working week. They struggle to put food on their table, to educate their children, and to get medical help when they are sick. The better life that was promised to them when Apartheid fell has not materialized. They are still poor, and they are still victimized by corrupt people in positions of authority.
They have every reason to be bitter and suspicious of everyone they meet. But instead, they find joy within themselves, and they project it outwards to the world. It was impossible for me, as a former South African resident returning for a visit, to be unaffected by this. It reminded me of what most South Africans are truly like: joyously optimistic even when things look desperate, and determined to make a go of it no matter what.
It is this quality, this irrepressible enthusiasm, that I think will help pull South Africa out of the trouble it has fallen into. On its own, it is not enough. But the positive energy that radiates from the South African people during their day-to-day interactions is a very good start.
By Kirsten Doyle.
Photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/128539140@N03/. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.