At home with the locals

From our life with South African people


We have lived and worked in the province of Mpumalange in South Africa for six months. Unlike normal tourists we had daily business with local South Africans and lived life the “African way“.




During this time we learned a lot about the culture and the life of black South Africans. In the following Blog we would like to outline the main differences between the African and European cultures.


The first time I came to South Africa in 2011, I got a culture shock. Small houses with metal plate roofs, cattle and goats wandering around, kids playing with toys made of rubbish, five generations of a family sharing a two room house, outside toilet, no running water etc.




As a tourist your first thought is “Oh my god, we are spoiled and live very well in Europe!“ I think it is good that we feel this way and I am very grateful to have grown up in Germany. BUT, life in South Africa is not as “bad“ as it first appears. As you experience the local way of life, many aspects become clearer.





Let us start with the villages, which are often wrongly referred to as “Townships“. We have found Townships only in and around the Johannesburg area. Tin hut next to tin hut. On working days these are usually occupied by workers from Mozambique or Swaziland before they go back home for their free time. Those “Townships“ are, without doubt, horrible!





Township Johannesburg





But South Africa is developing and most people now live in simple but solidly built brick houses.




That is all they need. They use simple bricks for building and yes, they even have glazed windows, proper doors and more than one room. As they never get the cold winters we experience in Europe, they do not have to add insulation for cold temperatures.




It is a common sight to see half finished houses for months before building continues. As in Greece, the simple reason for this is the need to save money for more building materials.




Before you can start building your own house, you need to get planning permission from the local chief (a chief is similar to a mayor).




The one-off cost for a 50 x 50 m² building is 1500 Rand (€95). In addition to this, the owner has to pay 70 Rand (€5) real estate purchase tax. That is all you need! You can then have your own property and start building your house. But you also need to build to a construction plan in South Africa. Most people start with a fence and collect materials on the plot. Naturally, they start with the foundation and finish with the roof - which is the most expensive part.




If you cannot afford to build your own house, you can apply for support from the government. The only conditions are the need to be a South African citizen and to prove you are poor (no job and homeless). On acceptance of your application, the government will build you a RDP house, also known as “Mandela House“.  The RDP house is always the same size, with four rooms - and the government chooses the location of the house.




In the first year electricity is free, after that the occupier has to pay for it in advance (like a pre-paid card in a phone), the same as all other householders.




In this way the electricity provider avoids non-payment of invoices and the householder knows exactly when to renew the electricity service to avoid sitting in the dark. Depending on usage it costs around 100 Rand (€6) per month for electricity.




With this government support, the RDP householder can concentrate on finding a job. The law has ow changed, allowing only people of the age of 40 years or over to apply for an RDP house. The government says that younger people have better chances of finding a job so they do not need the same level of support. (Also, people who work for the government are not allowed to apply for a RDP house).


RDP "Mandela House"                                                                         RDP house with extension



Twice a week the government provides villages with free water for everyone. The residents can help themselves to as much water as they need from public water tanks. As running water is very unusual, people fill any available container, including buckets, canisters and even wheelbarrows and carry them home.





Anyone able to afford their own water tank can buy one. A 500 litre tank costs 2000 Rand (€130). A 500 litre tank can be refilled for 300 Rand. Running water in houses is still uncommon.





Private water tanks on top of the outhouse




Villagers also have outhouse toilets. I have used this kind of toilet myself and I was impressed how clean and odourless they are. The most common odour suppressant is ash. People dump the ash into the hole and this aids biological decomposition.




South Africa has compulsory school attendance until the 12th grade. If both parents are working, children from the age of 6 months to 6 years can go to a creche. The monthly cost of the creche depends on the age of the child. The average monthly cost will be 550 Rand (€35) per child.




Primary and high schools cost around 200 Rand per year per child. However, in the event of parents being unemployed, the child is allowed to go to school without charge as everyone has a right to an education.  




Some schools offer unemployed parents the opportunity to help them in the school with cooking, cleaning or maintenance work instead of paying the school fee.



Every pupil wears a school uniform which has to be purchased. The cost of pair of trousers (€12) and a shirt (€10) are affordable. However, in event that parents cannot afford these expenses, they get financial support from other village residents or family members.




The pupils get textbooks, exercise books, pencils etc. from the government. The only thing they have to buy themselves are blank work sheets.




Most of the villagers work in retail sales. In the villages you can find many small vegetable and fruit shops, barbers and brick stores. Some bigger villages have larger shopping malls offering employment. Also farming, building, and of course, the tourism industry offer employment opportunities




The minimum wage per month is 3500 Rand (€220).


Health Insurance


Unlike Germany, employees are not automatically insured by the employer. Workers either have no health insurance or pay for expensive private insurance.




Generally, very few people in the village can afford health insurance. When they are sick, they go to the village clinic. If they need an operation, they get referral to the local hospital. Surgical expenses and treatments in the hospital have to been paid for by the patient.




We have visited this kind of local hospital and european citizens would be very reluctant to stay for even a day in such a place. I will not mention hygiene. It is a common occurrence for patients to wait outside in the parking area with tubes in their noses and arms


awaiting their operation - and sometimes even afterwards, as the hospitals are crowded and all beds are occupied. (We have seen this with our own eyes).




Those who can afford private health insurance can go to better hospitals with european standards (we have also seen these hospitals).




There are several types of health insurance schemes which cover different costs.


For example:



For 2.50 Rand a day you are covered up to 60.000 Rand.


For 70 Rand per month you are covered up to 20.000 Rand.




The traditional marriage of black South Africans could not be more different to a German marriage.


If a man wishes to marry a woman, he needs to pay a dowry (“Lobola“) to her parents first, in the form of cows. The value of one cow will be determined. One cow can have a value of e. g. 2000 – 6000 Rand. The more educated the wife is, the higher the price. It is quite common to pay up to 15 cows for a wife.




The money is for the parents as they raised the wife, fed and educated her and therefore spent a great deal of money. It is intended as a “refund” to her parents. Often men have to save for a number of years before they can pay the Lobola.



In the event of parents with small children divorcing or separating, only the husband has the right to the kids.




If the kids are older and can choose where they want to live, their choice is strictly regulated.




In the event that a child chooses to live with the mother, it will only have contact to the mother’s family (grandma, aunt, cousins of the mother, etc.). So the child chooses only one side of the family and will only receive financial and personal support from that side.


Child benefits and Pension



As in Germany, parents get monthly child benefits from the government. 300 Rand (€19) per child, per month.




If the parents work for the government, they don’t receive child benefits as they receive other national benefits like a paid accommodation, health insurance etc.





In South Africa, people work a long time to receive their well-earned pension. After 60 years to be exact. The monthly pension depends on the number of working years and the branch but is roughly 1100 Rand (€70).




Last but not least


I could keep on writing and writing but I hope I could give you some important information rather than just point out the main differences with Europe.




My resources are my own eyes and ears - and our fantastic local colleagues at Bongani, who we joined every week on the “Village Tour“ to learn more from them. It is also a pleasure to mention our colleague “TK“ who took time to be interviewed and answer all my questions in detail.




If anybody connects this blog with any kind of racist agenda, they have misinterpreted it and should read it again!




In conclusion I can only say: Let us pack our bags and explore wonderful South Africa on our own initiative.




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