South Africa Diary 23 August 2002
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Today was a long haul of traveling. I went all the way from Coffee Bay to Durban. I got an introduction to South African security forces at work on the way. I was waiting at a petrol station to get picked up by my bus when one of the ATM machines had its money topped up. A couple of guys drove up in an armoured car. One, with a submachine gun, got out and stood around the back of the ATM, the other guy, with a bullet proof vest, stood by the car. Twenty minutes later, another two armoured vans turn up and another couple of heavily armed guys got out, cleared the whole area of people and waited. Anther guy, dressed in the full 'commando' gear ran around swearing at most of the rest of the guys, the public and generally looked nervous. At this stage, the money was transferred across and in to the ATM. Guys with guns I'm not too worried about. Nervous guys with guns I have a real problem with. Thankfully, nothing untoward happened, but these guys are obviously nervous for a reason...

We picked a guy up on the way to Durban. He was a hitchhiker of sorts. His lift, whom he had paid to travel with had dropped him off early, no refund. We picked him up and our driver offered to take him in to Durban, for a price, of course. Bongai, the hitchhiker ended up sitting next to me, squashed up as we were on the front seat. Bongai was wearing a rather nice Nike embossed jacket, a red cap, embroidered with the name of the company that he worked for, a good pair of jeans and a rather nondiscript T-shirt. Bongai's black. We got chatting and he began to tell me a little about himself. He works in Umtata, but lives in Durban. He has a girlfriend - and a three year old daughter - both of whom also live in Durban. He was trying to get home in order to see them both the next morning. He's not, he explained to me, allowed to 'stay over'(night) at his girlfriend's place as she lives with her parents. The two of them met about four years ago whilst watching an international football match. They very much wanted to get married, but he couldn't afford it, yet. The system over here necessitates the payment of a dowry to the bride's parents to secure her hand in marriage. It was going to take him approximately four years to save up enough money to enable them to get married. So in the mean time they had to make do with the current arrangement. He worked a day's journey away in order to get a job that paid relatively well, but only saw his girlfriend and daughter for two days in a month.

We talked about a few other things and then the subject of his family and education came up. Bongai's family is a little complicated he told me. His father died when he was very young and his mother, a heavy drinker, wasn't the most maternal of people. At four years old, he was watching cows for a living. This earned him 4 Rand a month. After two years of this, he ran away to his aunt and uncle. They extracted the money that he'd earned and looked after him. Well, they provided him with shelter, and the money that he had earned paid for his schooling and food. The money soon ran out and once again Bongai was watching cows. This time, at the age six he was earning the princely sum of 8 Rand a month. Now eight Rand doesn't buy you much, at today's prices you'd probably get a couple of beers (allowing an extra little bit for inflation). However the money that he earned was enough to pay for the first five stages of his schooling. Unfortunately the money was still being spent at a greater rate than he was earning it. This meant that he had to do part time work as a cleaner in a white person's house to enable him to pay for school uniforms, food etc.

After Bongai had completed his years of school, he wanted to go to college. Without any money behind him it meant that he couldn't, not without working first. So he became a laborer. Not a big guy by any means, a slim build and he can't stand more than 5 foot 5 inches high, it must have been very tough. Eventually, he had enough money to start college. He did very well, well enough to be granted a scholarship that meant that at least the fees were paid for. He now has a diploma, or maybe a degree, I'm not quite sure, in business management. He works as a manager in a sports clothes shop. He earns 1200 Rand per month. Of this,300 goes to his daughter, around 200 is transport to and from Umtata, another 300-400 rent on his place in Umtata and 200-300 goes to his uncle and aunt for when he stays in Durban. With what remains he has to eat and save for the dowry.

Things were beginning to look up for him though. He'd just quit his job and was due to start a new one as a 'trainee manager' on a salary of 2600 Rand per month. The only problem was that the job was based in East London which is even further away from Durban than Umtata. It will however mean that he'll be able to save up much faster than before. He'd had to spend much more traveling from Umtata than he'd bargained for. This left him short of cash to give his daughter. He was also going to arrive in Durban too late to be able to catch a taxi home to the township where his relatives lived. He planned to walk about town until the shared taxis started up the next morning.

We talked quite a lot about money. About how much things cost here, and back home and also in other places in the world. If you don't leave your own country, then your standard of living, what you can actually do with your money, is a much better measure of wealth than an exchange rate. Exchange rate is no measure of a person's wealth. It just makes lucky foreigners look much more wealthy than they really are. We chatted about different places that I'd been, people I'd met and what they had and what they didn't have. He found it amusing that many people would find it jealous that I'd been to South Africa on holiday, that to many people it's something that they might have to save up for. A holiday here was a 'once in a lifetime' thing that meant working for almost the whole year - even with a good exchange rate - to be able to afford. There are very rich people, I told him, of course there are, but the vast majority of tourists that come to a place like this are just riding on the back of a fortunate exchange rate.

To tomorrow

Created by Dan Leigh 24/08/02