The long, strange trip - Part one


My niece, Tracy, accompanied me to the bank to see what was needed to open an account. Passport didn’t cut it, and my ID is outdated. The officer told me she needed the ID with the barcode. Neither of us knew what that was, but realizing I would need a new ID, a trip to Home Affairs was in order.

Her husband, Danny, dropped me off at 7:30am at the local office. Signed in on the logbook, and at 8am ventured slowly into the building. First stop, cashier, where I handed over R140 for an ID in exchange for a receipt and a number. Next stop, pick up form for temporary ID so I could open the bank account. Then, wandered outside to the independent photographer in a wooden hut just out the gates. Then back to wait for the official photographer who takes the permanent ID pictures.

Word of advice: do not smile at the camera. Especially when you’re a teenager and that’s all you know how to do when a camera is pointed at you.

The numbers were getting closer, until a young lady was sent from the ID counter back to the photographer with her rejected photograph. From where I was standing, it was clear why. She sat, smiled slightly. Rejected. Posed again, remembered to not smile. Broke the computer.

Rebooting took around 15 minutes, whereupon she took her final photograph, returned to the counter queue, and we could all get back to our places.

Funny how the man operating the camera spoke in English to all the black-skinned folk, and Afrikaans to white-skinned. Struck me as rather odd. There was the rebellious part of me that wanted to tell him I didn’t understand a word, but I just pretended I did, and figured out what he wanted.

A shorter wait this time – smiley teen had taken up enough time that the counters had almost caught up with the photographer – fingerprints, and was told that they would SMS me in 3 days. At that point, I realized that I hadn’t actually thought about how long it would take and, if I was leaving on Sunday, how would I get the damn thing? Turns out, SA bureaucracy is pretty damned efficient. Three days.

So, now to get my temporary ID so I could head to the bank at Westgate and open my account.

There are two counters that deal with a variety of issues, and the confusion was clear. No specific lines, rows of chairs that didn’t indicate any order and everyone wanting something different.

One official walking the floor decided to place us all in different lines, and we all dutifully did so.

And then one woman behind the counter, who wasn’t assisting in that area, started yelling that we all had to sit down, in order, and nobody would serve us if we weren’t sitting down. Looking around, we wondered if we should double up and sit on each other’s laps? We reshuffled, and she went on her way. Floor guy did further filtering and moved me up to the 2nd row.

Temp ID, thumbprints, back to cashier to hand her R70, return to counter to show receipt, and wait. 15 minutes later, I had a temporary ID. I searched it for the bank’s required barcode, found nothing, shrugged and went out to wait for Danny to get me to Westgate.

Standard Bank: asked me a lot of questions I couldn’t answer (income? Job? Type of account?) but he still helped fill out a form, promised they would open an account manually and they will call me to come in and finish the process.

I asked about the temporary ID, and that caused more confusion hen I showed them my temporary ID, with photo of my non-smiling face. There was no barcode. He stopped another bank worker, and were asking each other questions – it was only when the one said the words “receipt” did I click. It wasn’t the Temporary ID they wanted, with my photo and pertinent details – it was the receipt showing I had paid for it, and THAT had the barcode!

I presented both receipts, and they were finally happy. Perhaps I could have picked up a receipt on the street and they'd have opened an account on the strength of that? I was confused, but too tired, too Hobbit-footed, and too hot and sticky to say/do anything.

Sat at Wimpy for fish and chips and rest before slogging the couple of miles home – with my swollen feet, and in heat that was becoming humid and very unpleasant.

Several times over the last days, I heard people make comments about “it’s the new South Africa”, meaning to denigrate, to belittle, to sigh and believe that South Africa just isn’t good enough, it’s useless, it’s bad.

I started to counter with my own story: I renewed my Green Card in July 2015. I was told it would be ready around February or March 2016 (despite it expiring in December 2015). It’s now March, and the email I sent enquiring about the delivery date took over a month for them to respond, saying it’s being “reviewed”. This either means I’m on the terrorist watch list, or they’re trying to figure out how to turn on the printer. It’s now the third week of March, and still no word.


Ouch. When I left America, the discussions about racism there were front and center. Every day, everywhere – ongoing conversations about what it is, why it is, how it manifests decades after the Civil Rights era. The discussions were brought to prominence by the too-frequent killing of black men by mostly white police officers, and it’s an important discussion to have.

My arrival in SA was greeted with anti-racism protests in various cities, and student protests and subsequent violence on campuses.

What I’m missing from all of this activity is what the definition of “racism” actually is.

And it seems like a lot of people truly, honestly, do not know.

“I’m not racist. I don’t see skin color. My nickname for this (adult black man/colleague) I adore is ‘monkey’. We’re great friends.”

“Why are you walking to the shop? These black people are crazy. It’s dangerous.”

I have heard shades of the above comments from several people. I cannot decide whether to patiently educate them, or throw up on their shoes in disgust. So far, I’ve kept quiet – an unusual thing for me, but a deliberate choice I’ve made in these early days of my return. I have decided to listen, and to learn. I’ve been away a long time, and all those discussions I’ve followed in American media have served to educate, inform, enlighten me so I return with a heightened sense of awareness, of sensitivity. To tackle such a complex issue in a conversation with anyone who has entrenched views, or a level of cluelessness, becomes exceedingly difficult.

BUT - if South Africans truly want to tackle racism, we had better start by telling people what it is, instead of attacking some because they’re ignorant. Seems to me, from what I’ve seen so far, almost everyone is ignorant in some way.

On the Monday, I head to my niece’s office and my first stop is breakfast at the superb bakery nearby. The waiter, realizing my foreign-ness and indecision, tells me he will create a breakfast that he recommends “for the best experience”. I find myself falling in love with Africa.

Traffic! Such aggressive driving, South Africa! It’s eye opening to see cars trying to fill every inch of space, with little to no regard of the most basic rule of driving: consideration. There’s plenty of space – a whole 5mm! This is going to take time to adjust…

Lunch at Tashas, Sandton: Heirloom haloumi salad with pomegranate seeds and other yummy stuff; Rooibos and Rose Crème Brulee: delicious infused custard, with a curl of tea-leaf dotted wafer, and a pile of pink candy floss. A rock shandy to wash it all down, and I’m a happy camper. The one thing this country has always gotten right is the food.

Well, maybe two things :)

I had a list of things I wanted to do in Joburg. Not one thing on the list was “Home Affairs” or “Standard Bank”, but that does feel those two items filled my 10 days in the city – all being resolved the day before I left. My niece’s family did get me to Braamfontein to linger at Neighbourgoods Market, and it confirmed my belief that the country, again, gets food right. We settled on the booth with the shortest queue, being the Greek food. It was worthwhile, and chowing down massive chunks of Haloumi cheese got me wondering. Haloumi was available at one supermarket in Eugene, and is generally an unknown cheese to Americans. In SA, it’s piled alongside the Cheddar, and Gouda, and is on fast food menus. My degree of bliss inclined sharply.

Two things that struck me as I wandered around a local mall: Baby changing pods - an excellent idea. And the Christian bookstore that stopped me in my tracks.

Saturday rolled around, after a lovely week with my niece and her family, including spending one night chatting about our shared family until the wee hours – a conversation long overdue, and, I felt, much needed. It made me more comfortable with my decision to leave the past as history and to not revisit it on my way through the country.

My car was delivered, and it’s beautiful. Unbeknownst to either myself or the seller, it would be a long, frustrating effort to pay for it, since most of my money remained in America. My niece’s husband couldn’t wait to drive it, and I really could. I had seen Joburg driving and wasn’t about to do it until early Sunday morning when I would be the only one on the road trying to figure out how to drive on the wrong side of the road, the wrong side of the car, and with a whole lot of bells and whistles my old Camry had only dreamed about. It was far noisier than anticipated, and with an odd scraping sound every time the foot was removed from the gas. No lights flashed, so Danny and I reckoned it was probably nothing serious, and could wait until the next service.

So, Sunday morning, the family gathered to say goodbye, and I hit the road. My first experience with the GPS was to take me around the block in a long u-turn (it should have been a warning of things to come), but eventually it got me to the highway, and I was off.