SA through my eyes


Our daughter, Thea Boulogne, is working in Engeland. She comes back to South Africa about once a year to visit us and friends.

On her visit in February 2015 she brought a friend, Alex Merriman, with her to visit. Alex visited South Africa previously as a tourist but this time she came as a house friend. We asked her if she can tell something of her experiences and impressions as a non-tourist. She agreed and we call it “Alex Merriman’s travelogue on South Africa”.

We will bring Alex’s travelogue in three episodes. – Pierre and Heilie Boulogne, Parys.

By Alex Merriman

I’ll start with my confession. I confess I’m fairly well travelled and I came to South Africa this summer, my second trip to the nation, thinking, “what new things could they show me?”

Travelling with a South African friend meant I knew I would see more of life for a South African than I did as a tourist previously and I had seen on the map that I would be going to a different part of South Africa. Additionally I knew that my hosts had a very old car and am old engine enthusiasts.
I could see some new opportunities but surely my trip wasn’t going to be too much different?

Over the last 20 years I have visited many countries and just a month earlier I had returned from an around the world trip seeing world renowned sites like Angkor Wat and the Sydney Opera House. I’d visited South Africa in 2000 as an unguided tourist to the north of Johannesburg and to Cape Town so I’ve seen a bit of the country too. So, really, what would be new? My arrogance was shamed immediately on arrival from the UK for the welcome I received and I hang my head for I was shown a view of South Africa that I didn’t expect – both good and bad.

I met my friend’s family, her children (or should I say, her adults?) first, living in Kempton Park, Johannesburg. I’ve lived in a notorious city in Britain for 15 years where there have been riots and stabbings etc but the fear can’t match that of when, in Johannesburg, the taxi driver paled and stated, “We are being followed”, late at night on our return from a celebratory birthday meal. A few devious turns and the other car left our tail but it sent me a clear signal.

There isn’t much in the media about South Africa in the UK and when there is coverage – what to trust? I would always be wary of the motivation of the UK media for publishing a story, their angle or sensationalism. Is it a fair representation of the status quo or is it an outlandish story or a once-off incident? What little I’d heard of South Africa is generally through friends and the now-ubiquitous social media drawing my attention to certain situations as mocked in the Nando’s ads.

I’d also heard how friends and friends of friends have been held up at gunpoint and had cars taken or other terrifying situations. But I’d taken it all with a pinch of salt. I’ve lived in a big city in Britain after all, I’d been randomly attacked in the street, stopped someone breaking into my house and into my car etc. But that first night in the taxi cab, I reset my measuring stick and with good reason. In 2012, the murder rate in the UK was about 1 person per 100,000 people, or 653 that year (which is a hundred more than the previous tax year). South Africa has 31 per 100,000 or more than 16 000 every year. (All numbers lifted shamelessly from Wikipedia).

I’m used to crime rates in my home which Wikipedia ranks as 27th safest in the world (218 countries listed) and I needed to adjust to being in a country which is 11th unsafest on the same list.

Suddenly I saw reason for the security bars on windows and the high fences. A realisation of the differences. Back in the UK I’ve now moved from the city to a quieter rural town. Not so long ago, my postman left a note saying that he hoped it was ok that he had shut my front door as it was wide open and no one answered to his knocking. My house doesn’t have a fence, there’s a patch of grass between the front door and the road and there are no security bars. I’d left the front door swinging in the wind when I’d gone out to work for the day. Even in the city I lived in, the only deterrent was a locked door when I was out and a garden gate with no lock; a lock being a ridiculous addition as the wall was only 80cm high.

More to tell next week.

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