The four things South Africans are obsessed with

It was a little over two years ago that I returned to live in Johannesburg after spending most of my adult life abroad — in New York, Berlin and London. I must be in the minority, as most people I encounter want to know “why” as they scamper to find an exit route from SA with either a foreign passport or relative who’ll give them access to one.

I haven’t yet discovered a social group for those who’ve returned to live in the place of their birth (I imagine I’m not the only returnee) but one of the first things that struck me about returning to live here was how friendly South Africans are, whatever their language or colour.
Perhaps it’s the weather, perhaps it’s the way we were taught to speak to our fellow human beings, but I’m glad to say that South Africans don’t indulge in arrogance, unfriendliness or being snotty.
A colleague and friend who was born here but lives and works in London remarked during the bleak and damp days that have marked winter and the Covid-19 pandemic under the Boris Johnson premiership how “cold” people in the UK are.

“Somehow they’re not very warm,” she was telling me over the phone. “You always have to stand on ceremony. People don’t pick up the phone easily and just get in touch for a cosy chat.”

My friend didn’t have to do much more explaining. I knew precisely what she was talking about. I promptly replied that living in SA that’s not the case — or certainly not my experience. Here people are open, welcoming and polite. I’ll admit, not always great when it comes to customer service or reliability of service providers, but all that for another day…
But what has struck me quite profoundly about South Africans are their likes and favouritisms: this comes up regularly in the consulting rooms as couples sit on my couch and tell all about their recreational habits or activities.

I have concluded that the four things South Africans are obsessed with – and not necessarily in this order — are:
• Having or going to a braai;
• Going to the bush;
• Drinking – beer or anything else; and
• Smoking weed.

Let’s talk about the braai for starters. I always feel terribly inadequate when it comes to having or inviting friends over for a braai. While I’d say I’m a relatively deft hand when it comes to cooking or churning out something on the stove or in the oven, I’m not sure I have the knack of the braai.

Braai is such a South African phenomenon — it’s hard to translate and hard to export the skill, even if so many ex- South Africans live abroad and try to show others how to do it. No-one else seems to get it
A friend pointed out that an invitation to a braai is really a smokescreen for getting friends, or even acquaintances, to “come to my place, hang out and get pissed”. It can start at, say noon, with plenty of booze, hanging around, no rush to start up the fire, and the drinking will most likely continue all afternoon — and then the grub is only served around 4pm.

I’ve yet to discover the art of being able to braai superbly. One of my neighbours, who comes from a farming family in Calvinia in the Cape, had me over for a braai some weeks ago. Naturally it was the real thing — with a coal fire. I’m still pondering over the special skills he possesses, but it was certainly the most delicious chicken I’d ever tasted off the braai.
Braai is such a South African phenomenon — it’s hard to translate and hard to export the skill, even if so many ex- South Africans live abroad and try to show others how to do it. No-one else seems to get it.

Then going to the bush and having a braai there seem to go hand in hand. With lockdown and the continuation of the pandemic, nearly everyone I talk to has either been camping or gone off to the bush at some stage or another. Somehow it has even more attraction than the ocean. Whether you live in Johannesburg or Cape Town, the bush seems easily accessible, and it’s another concept that foreigners don’t quite get.
Both the braai and being in the bush lend themselves to the last two observations on my list — drinking can successfully be done with both; it’s safe to drink while chatting around a campfire waiting for the coal and wood to burn down. And then offering around a joint must be the perfect way to complete what I imagine is the ideal South African combo.

Indeed, perhaps this is what South Africans can treasure and be proud of. And perhaps those from further afield can only look on with envy.

Michael Kallenbach is a therapist based in Johannesburg.

As featured in the Sunday Times on the 25 April 2021.

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