6 Years in South Africa – Reflections of an Immigrant

by biltong101

cape-townIt’s been six years since I arrived in South Africa. It seems like a long time and with all the adventures I’ve had along the way, it feels even longer. I don’t regret coming here but I certainly had no idea what I was getting myself into when I left my home country. Bear with me in this summary of my reflections after 6 years abroad.

I’ll start with the positive. South Africa is undeniably beautiful. I’ve been accused before of being on permanent vacation because of pictures from my weekend escapades I post on social media. Cape Town itself is scenic and between mountains and the ocean, the inhabitants are extremely spoilt with the wonders of nature. For those lucky enough to be living in the Atlantic Seaboard area a walk or a run on the promenade is just a part of a daily routine. The sounds and the looks of the ocean have a calming quality and so does the nearby park. Even when normalized, such views never cease to please. The beauty of Cape Town encourages healthy and fit lifestyle but don’t even try to get into competition with the fittest. You think it’s impressive because you go on a hike at 8 o’clock on a Saturday? On your way up you’ll meet plenty of people on their way down, who’ve already finished their second peak that day. Lion’s Head is one of the most popular trails and it gets so crowded every month during the full moon hike that people need to queue in order to continue their journey. There are plenty of other ways to spend time outdoors and appreciate the city you live in. Apart from active outdoors pastimes Cape Town offers a generous choice of markets. In case of bad weather there are numerous pubs, clubs and restaurans to go to. Last but not least, there’s sushi everywhere!!! If you’re not a fan (then we won’t be friends, but) you can go to a variety of other food places. There’s always something happening here!

The lifestyle is probably one of the biggest perks of living in Cape Town. I earn more than I would in Poland but life (apart from the rent) is cheaper. It’s nice to be able to go out without depriving myself of an occasional treat. It is still quite a new thing for me, though. My beginnings here weren’t that easy and I still have a slight aversion towards baked beans in tomato sauce! In six years I’ve obviously made some friends here, even though Cape Town isn’t the easiest place to make lasting connections. More importantly, I met my husband and that changed my life a lot, for the better. At the same time, life isn’t just unicorns and roses.

I’m not particularly attached to Poland but even I occasionally suffer from nostalgia. I miss the language, books, people, places, food… I don’t visit the country often but when I do I have mixed feelings about it. South Africa feels more like home to me than Poland. People can make things difficult, though. They keep reminding you that you’re not from here. They comment on your accent and constantly ask you where you come from. It’s not only during social events, it’s on an Uber, in a shop, at a doctor’s office… Sometimes you can tell it’s just curiosity, other times it’s prying or micro-aggression. As a foreigner you also deal with a whole bunch of issues that have to do with immigration. The lengthy visa processes are exhausting for everyone. Spouses are on the top of the food chain, but their lives still can be seriously hindered by immigration matters. The inefficiency of the public sector can be extremely frustrating, more so for foreigners as they deal with it often. The obsession with formalities infiltrated the private sector and the magic object called a proof of residency is needed for every formal arrangement. They want a proof of everything here: of where you live, of your bank details, of the fact that you actually live with your husband, of the fact that you do what it says on your visa… Silly me with my (now fading) European inclinations of just believing what people tell you!

My career has probably been my biggest source of frustration during my life here. People are prejudiced against foreigners from non-English speaking countries. Many holders of undergraduate and graduate degrees do entry level jobs. It doesn’t really help that the recognition of my degree has been certified by the local authority. A degree from the best (I hope still?) university in Poland means as much to many employers as if I graduated from a college in a village of 50 people. Employers may be prejudices against me but I’m still much better off than any immigrants from African countries. It’s not uncommon to meet an extremely knowledgable Master’s Degree holder from Zimbabwe who’s been working as a waiter since he moved to South Africa. Of course, such problems mostly apply to us, the wanky humanities types. Those with more technical qualifications and similar struggle much less. If only I hadn’t had this ridiculous ideas about “just studying what interests me” when I was 18… On the other hand, I could have become a lawyer as my parents wanted me to and then I could truly just wipe my ass with my degree in South Africa…Anyway, I’m starting my own business now and hoping for a better future. For what’s left for us humans than to keep trying?

Last but not least, there are of course the local problems here to deal with. Crime is high, but I’ve been lucky so far not to be touched by it directly. Let’s not forget about the poverty that’s very much present in daily life. So many South African live in horrible conditions… You can help some people directly and donate to charities but at the end of the day it’s just a drop in the ocean of needs. As a lefty foreigner you may get upset with the fact that race and class are still so strongly connected here. Racial divisions are visible 20 years after the apartheid ended and we can’t talk about a unified society.  Now and then there are cases of some blatant racism on social media and then the society does its finger pointing, but it just hides South Africa’s actual problem with race. The biggest issue is the normalized and internalized racism of:

The white South African who speaks s l o w l y and LOUDLY to representatives of other races. This one white acquaintance of mine who, when I was visiting her, told me that if I didn’t like what I was eating I could give it to her maid to finish. The black guy who told me he doesn’t like Indian people because there’s just “something funny” about them. The colored girl who refused to go to a certain place for a bachelorette party because it was “too black”. This other white woman who always speaks of people of races other than white with and adjective: this black woman, that colored boy. The guy who chased me through the whole train station shouting at me that my skin is white and I don’t belong in Africa… I could go on and on with the examples accumulated in 6 years but I guess you get the idea. It still seems to be us and them for most South Africans and the divisions are mostly based on race. Who am I to judge, anyway? I’m just an observer who’s not from here.

I don’t regret moving here but if I could write a letter to the 18 year old me, who already knew she wanted to leave Poland, I’d ask her to be more pragmatic with her choice of studies. Let’s be honest: most of us end up with boring jobs, some of us just earn more. I’d also encourage her to maybe research the immigration policy of a country she’s planning to choose for her home. Maybe somewhere deep down I just like a challenge and that’s why things worked out the way they did for me. Perhaps a lot of feelings I have would be the same if I moved to a different country. Maybe we do something horrible uprooting ourselves by leaving the country we were born in? Maybe it’s normal to always have a sense of longing because of it? I don’t know the answers but I’d like to hear about your experiences with immigration in the comments! Was it tough for you to adapt? Is life better where you are at the moment?