Your Typical Errand in South Africa

Moving to South Africa, or to Africa in general, and adapting to life there, is most of all an exercise in patience.

The irony is that when you arrive, you are all ready to go go GO! for months you’ve been busting your backside getting visa applications filled out, securing coveted waitlist spots for your children in a South African school, and making sure your packers don’t accidentally pack the potatoes they find in the pantry into your container (which, trust me, you want to avoid). You’ve shown an almost superhuman effort getting it all organized while firing on all cylinders, so that by the time you step out of the glass doors of OR Tambo International, you are buzzing with the energy of five triple-espresso shots, ready to take life by the horns and subjugate this new country to your wishes.

And then South Africa does what it does so well: It puts on the brakes. Sloooooow down, it tells you, not so fast young lady, no need to get everything checked off your list on the first day. Or ever, really. Welcome to Africa!

For the first few weeks, most expats fight a valiant fight, flailing their arms and willing things to happen NOW, not JUST NOW or even NOW NOW. But in the end, South Africa wins, so that eventually you are totally resigned to the fact that an errand, any errand, will always take the better part of a day, if not week, even if it is ever so small.

African humor
Living in Africa will teach you to be relaxed while running errands. Source: Unknown

For the budding and newly-minted expats among you, I’d like to share some typical errand stories, just so you can get an idea of what expects you in your new life. Take this story from one of my readers:

I went to the post office to pay a traffic fine of ZAR500. I waited in line for 15 minutes, then the guy looked up my fine and told me how much I owed. Then he told me that traffic fines can only be paid in cash (even though there is a sign at ever post office window saying “Pay with Visa”.) I didn’t have enough cash on me.

So I left and tried to find an FNB ATM. There isn’t one at Campus Square. So I went shopping at Pick-n-Pay so I could get cash back (long line, surly checkout person, and in the end one of the pawpaws I bought was rotten on the bottom). I went back to the post office and waited in line for 45 minutes — it was packed and hot and unpleasant. I got to the front and the same guy tried to pull up my fine. He tried on three different computers and finally, after about 15 minutes of trying, told me that “the system is down.” So I left without paying my fine and wanting to stab myself in the eye with an icepick.

I went to Postnet to see if I could pay the fine there. They charge a ZAR 80 fee, which I declined. A guy overheard me and told me you can pay traffic fines directly through FNB online banking. I went back home, logged into online banking, clicked the “traffic fine” link, and paid my fine in 30 seconds.

To be sure, online banking and payment via EFT is a bright spot in South African bureaucracy, making some dealings easier than here in the U.S., where we still use – gulp, can you believe it? – checks. Handwritten and sent to contractors in the mail.

Most often, however, it is a case of South African Bureaucracy Driving You Nuts. Like Going to the Bank in South Africa. Or A Typical Day of Shopping in South Africa. If you happen to run your errands in one of the townships, you enter a whole new dimension of dysfunction. Read Alexandra Tour Guide for a Day, and tell me if you don’t feel like pulling out your hair follicle by follicle just after reading it, let alone living through it.

And yet. In the end, it will grow on you. Like every expat before you, you undergo Type A Remedial School, and eventually you go home “as one cool lady or very medicated.” You will think back to your life in Africa and think:

“Those were the days. If only everything wasn’t so darn efficient here!”


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