Why We Travel … Observations about Lives in South Africa

Where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic Ocean!
Cap Agulhas, where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic.

It’s the end of three months in Darling. Our goal in living here for a year (in addition to some Burkat Global planning) is to LIVE as close to the lives of locals as foreigners can. To me, that means having a routine. To Howard, that means having none. So, “How’s it going?” as everyone asks in South Africa.

Our last month was anything but routine.

We were both treated for allergies to all the plants – 600 of the 6000 plant species in the province of Western Cape grow during August and September in Darling. Who knew? After antibiotics, nose sprays, cough meds, and visits to the physiotherapist, and two weeks away, we are back and mostly recovered but coughing again. Allergy season supposedly ends in December … but with the drought, anything can happen.

And not-routine but pre-planned, the owners of our rental house arrived from Holland for two weeks (which they will do again before Christmas). So we began a two-week road trip (not to be confused with the two weeks on the road when we first arrived from New York) … adding maybe 5000 ks to the 16,000 ks we covered on our last three trips.

With that, here are some observations about people’s lives here, including ours.

When we returned to the house after two weeks away (thankfully there were no security issues), of course we ran out of data again – so I’m not sure if running out of data now belongs in the routine or the non-routine category. What makes it not routine is that Standard Bank, our local bank, has decided to follow new government regulations barring foreigners from using online banking, which for some reason includes buying data at the ATM …

So routine or not, yesterday we drove 30 k/18 miles to Malmsbury to the Vodacom store to buy more data … and while we were there, on to Riebeek Kasteel to buy coffee (hey, it’s only an hour away, and there’s a place there that roasts its own beans, and grinds them for us for the French Press, which we are slowly getting to use without spilling it all over the floor each time).

And while we were in Riebeek, we tried a place for lunch, which instead of hoped-for salads, served pork belly in a heavy plum sauce, with the yummiest potatoes, and thankfully, lots of fresh vegetables. The pork belly and potatoes were amazing, but can’t imagine how much cholesterol was contained in each.

To keep things simple, and reasonably accurate, let’s start our closer examination of our routine and lives as local South Africans …

The basics – housing, transportation, jobs – and divide our observations into two groups: whites and non-whites, which typically include blacks and colored. In apartheid days, colored also included Indians and a few Chinese – most Chinese having arrived since then.


We live in the cute little village, near one to two hundred year old cute historic houses, all occupied by whites … Non-whites live, literally, on the other side of the tracks, in relatively new, one or two room residences that look like railroad freight cars or shipping containers …

The white government moved non-whites to settlements around the country under the Native Areas Act during its time in power under apartheid. Later the ANC government (Mandela’s party) moved more people of color to places like Darling to influence voting before the first Democratic elections (1994).

There is finally electricity in the township (since we are at the top of a hill looking down, we can see the straight rows of street lights from our bedroom at night). If you’re lucky, there’s plumbing. Outside every town, village, or city we have passed through, there is a township like this. Typically, 10 times larger than the white portion of the town or city.


Now, let’s talk about basic transportation … to get where one needs to go (of course over simplifying and generalizing to make the point)…

Whites drive – in new model cars and bakkies (the South African English and Afrikaans word for pickup truck); non-whites walk or drive old beat up cars.

Whites ride bicycles – mainly mountain bikes – or run … for sport or exercise. Non-whites walk, too – to get where they are going.

Non-whites hitchhike – or wait in groups for the ubiquitous vans that make pickups along the way. I’ve never seen a white person waiting for one of these.


And let’s look at jobs – with a population of 5 million whites and 50 million non-whites, and of course I am simplifying … and many of the non-white jobs are in new positions in government, jobs which travelers rarely see …

Here goes:

Since the end of apartheid, and the ruling ANC, labor regulations favor non-whites in hiring. It’s called Black Empowerment here. This includes government, industry, and education. As a white person, it’s hard to get and keep a “normal” job. Many white people have become entrepreneurs in businesses like restaurants, technology, tourism or other services – opening guesthouses, wilderness game camps, or even becoming tour guides. Non-whites work for whites in these businesses. They are cleaning people (minimum wage about $1 per hour), housekeepers, waiters, cooks, dish washers, gas station attendants, bathroom cleaners (South Africa has the cleanest bathrooms we’ve ever seen anywhere, with even fresh flowers in some…), game trackers. Wages are so low, that even if twice as many non-whites are hired to do a job, it is still cheaper …

South Africa, which we have renamed the "land of the clean bathrooms," even has fresh flowers in the gas station rest rooms along the highways. On the counter was a gorgeous vase of native fynbos. Jersey Turnpike stations have so much to learn...
South Africa, which we have renamed the “land of the clean bathrooms,” even has fresh flowers in the gas station rest rooms along the highways. On the counter was a gorgeous vase of native fynbos. Jersey Turnpike stations have so much to learn…

… and it’s cheaper to hire cheap labor than buy machines. Even at the famous stop and go’s at all the road work spots, rather than using a traffic light (or robot as it is called in SA), people are employed to hand-turn a sign back and forth from stop to go…

Many non-whites are beginning their own businesses … and hire other non-whites … it’s coming. An example, this month’s trendy House & Leisure Magazine writes about 100 up-and-coming young business stars – roughly one-third are non-white … that’s a good sign in a country where 90% of the population is non-white.

Who has a better life here, whites or non-whites?

Of course, now that non-whites are starting companies, getting hired by companies, thousands of non-profits, getting government jobs, many non-whites have moved into the middle and upper classes. They can afford big houses and expensive new cars, just like the whites. And if merit doesn’t help earnings, it is said that corruption does. The remote Kwa-Zulu Natal new house of President Zuma (said to have cost millions of rand) is actually a relatively inexpensive house that should have cost only thousands … where has the rest of the money gone?

Whites say they have a wonderful life – better than they could have anywhere else they can name. But ask a white person how long that great life will last? Most don’t answer … or if pushed, suggest maybe a generation or two.

Everyone is relieved that the country didn’t erupt in violence when President Mandela passed away. All are watching as non-whites begin to get equal education (during apartheid non-whites purposely received lesser education to prepare them for menial jobs), and continue taking over jobs that whites used to do. If people we talk with were really pushed to tell the truth, they would probably tell us they have their suitcases packed for when the time comes …

But no matter what white person you meet (and already we discover that person knows someone we know) and wherever you go … there are whites enjoying themselves.

Whites drink wine – and probably non-whites, too. It is affordable by all. And it doesn’t make sense to buy wine by the glass in a restaurant because a bottle is so inexpensive. Restaurants are used to replacing the cork for leftovers for the trip home. It’s almost sinful NOT to buy a bottle. And for far less than half of what you would pay for a glass at a NY restaurant, you get the absolutely best wine we’ve ever had.

By the way, there are tributes to the man who saved the country everywhere (Mandela). At the museums, the botanical garden, guest houses, village squares, the opera … I will start a list … remember when portraits of JFK were everywhere?

And moving beyond the basics … Granted we have been traveling in largely white areas, but here are some observations about lifestyles of whites vs. non-whites:


We almost never see non-whites in the restaurants we visit. And many of those are simple roadside establishments or local hangouts – the equivalent of the Long Island diner. That was true 10 years ago, and that’s still true today. Perhaps in Joburg, where there is a higher concentration of non-whites, we have seen a few more non-whites … but not many. Even in Darling, where the non-whites also make up 90% of the population, we have never seen a non-white in a restaurant we have visited. On a recent trip we had dinner with the former owner of 6 KFC franchises – that’s still where you will see the non-whites … practically every dorp (small town) throughout the country – except Darling – has a KFC … the place of choice for non-whites on Sundays, and throughout the week if funding is available.

We have been looking for non-whites in what we would classify as cultural places –

We saw only whites at Kirstenbosch Gardens, first planted in 1562 when the first Europeans came to the Cape

We saw no non-whites the other day at the galleries and workshops of a very hip Design Center in Cape Town.

We saw a hand-full of non-whites in a musical at the Fugard Theater called Orpheus in Africa, about a black singing group from the American South that toured South Africa in the late 1800’s.

We saw a few non-whites at Fugard’s Heart of Redness, a contemporary look at a famous 19th century Zulu legend.

We saw one non-white couple at West Side Story at Artscape, Cape Town’s Lincoln Center equivalent

We saw only a hand-full of non-whites attending Voorkamerfest, the three day performance festival of some of SA’s top professional performers in everything from opera to stand up in living rooms throughout the Darling community (even though more than half the living rooms were in the non-white section of the village … and the majority of performers were non-white).

Darling Music Experience (classical music with a South African twist) in its 11th year, we are guessing attracts only whites … even though heavily promoted throughout the village and throughout the entire Western Cape.

Actually a good sign – We did see some non-whites on the historical tour to Robben Island where President Mandela and his associates were locked up for 18 years.

Needless to say, we saw no non-whites in three museums we visited recently, the historical Darling, Outdsthoor, and Swellendam Museums.

We didn’t even see non-whites at the southernmost tip of Africa, Cap Agulhas, where we went last week – just to say we had been there.

What we did see, was mainly only non-whites working in all these venues.


Searching for whales in Walker Bay near Hermanus. Howard's favorite saying was "thar she blows" for days.
Searching for whales in Walker Bay near Hermanus. Howard’s favorite saying was “thar she blows” for days.


Rugby is for whites, and football (or soccer as we would call it in the US) for non-whites.

Mandela used a big rugby game against Australia to unify the country … even though rugby had been a whites-only game. If you saw the World Cup Rugby finals last month in London, third place South Africa finally had a few blacks on its team. My guess is you won’t see many non-whites abseiling, shark cage diving, bungee-jumping, surfing … or even hiking, one of the biggest sports in South Africa. And we already spoke about biking – mountain or motor – big sports here.


13 official languages here, including sign language. The majority of non-whites speak Xhosa or Zulu as their first languages. Whites speak only English or Afrikaans, although some schools teach whites a tribal language … like American schools used to teach French, and now Spanish or Chinese. The majority second language for non-whites is Afrikaans, although everyone agrees that English is what will help move people ahead economically.


I’m afraid to date they are all white, and with our allergy attack, we haven’t had much time yet to reach out to more. We’re blessed to have Simeon and Lee Stoch, who watch out for us every day, even when we don’t know we need it; Barbara and John up the street from Durban, who delivered us Durban Curry while we were sick; and Alfred and Jutta Legner, who are our main connections to Darling’s cultural life; and soon we hope, our just discovered across-the-street neighbors, Hendrik Hofmeyr, perhaps the most famous classical music composer in South Africa and his partner, a wonderful painter. And then there are my new yoga and Pilates friends, with whom I really haven’t had time to make playdates with but will soon. And my walking buddies, whom I also never followed up with since I learned about the snakes … AND jUDDE, originally FROM BROOKLYN, who teaches yoga at the nearby beach, and is THE ONLY OTHER AMERICAN HERE.


Sorry there have not been a lot of non-whites wherever we’ve gone. In Kimberly there was a business group talking about emulating WASPS, at the Big Hole, the Great Karoo, the West Coast, Namaqualand, Hermanus, Agulhas, Wilderness, Oudtshoorn, Swellendam – non-white service people, white tourists.

TV – eh, we haven’t been watching much …

Before I forget – 3000 Years of Jewish India 2017 tour page is now fully updated. And you’ll find this blog (and much more) on my Facebook page.

Hope you will let me know what you think … and Share it with your friends if you like it.

Thanks so much to Richard Schaye, Howard’s pal since grade school, for inspiring our “routine vs not routine” theme. Please email us with more questions and comments – to inspire future themes, posts, even South Africa tour planning for 2017 – iburkat@burkatglobal.com

Relatively new and only remaining visible shipwreck at southern most point in Africa, L'Agulhas. Hundreds of ships were lost up and down the South African Atlantic and Indian Ocean coasts over hundreds of years, the worst being the Arniston, where 375 perished in 1815. If only the ships had been using GPS!
Relatively new and only remaining visible shipwreck at southern most point in Africa, L’Agulhas. Hundreds of ships were lost up and down the South African Atlantic and Indian Ocean coasts over hundreds of years, the worst being the Arniston, where 375 perished in 1815. If only the ships had been using GPS!