This is why we can’t have nice things.

Nothing lasts forever.  I say that all the time, but since I’ve lived in South Africa for a year and a half now I can cut the modifier “forever” and just go with “nothing lasts”.  Period/Full Stop.  Let me explain: For starters, most commonplace items here are not exactly, well, durable.  Take the set of four knives I bought last September for example.  They immediately went dull, forget about sharpening (most steel doesn’t hold an edge any better than cardboard) and one sheared off at the handle when I tried to cut……cheese.  Right.  That was all before the end of October.  I wasn’t really upset, I didn’t pay that much for them anyway.  The cost of living in SA is pretty low and one can find cheap products easily.  I’d been making my purchases with the attitude that “it only has to last me two years”, but let me tell you folks, the products one finds here really take “cheapo junk” to a whole new level.  Here are some more examples of really cheap stuff I’ve wasted money on thinking it would last two years (boy was I wrong):

White Collared Shirts – R20 ($3.50) a piece on a clearance sale.  Threadbare and discolored within 6 weeks.  Hand washing definitely expedited their unraveling.

Scissors – R7 ($1.00) Dull Dull Dull….I think I opened a couple packages and cut a few dozen shapes out of a cereal box for my geometry class before getting frustrated and buying a more serious scissor for a whopping R35 (five bucks).

Stick-on Labels – R6 ($0.85) for a pack of 16: No adhesive!  What kind of a sick joke is this???

USB cable – R14 ($2.00) Damn thing shorted out after a month of use.  Of course I hacked it back together and I still use it, but it requires occasional wiggling and coaxing curse words.

Good people, please bear with me here.  I promise this post is not just a huge complaint about the unreliability of Chinese merchandise.  After all, if I wanted only to whine about the poor quality of imported products I could have stayed in the USA.

Another reason that “we can’t have nice things” here in South Africa is that many things just aren’t taken care of very well.  Let me rephrase that; many spaces aren’t taken care of very well.  You see status symbols such as cars, clothes, phones and computers are actually taken care of a bit too much.  They’re treated like the holy grail.  Take my host brother and his BMW for example: every week he pays extravagant amounts to have his car cleaned meticulously, interior and ext, even has the tires polished.  This is typical behavior for South Africans with expensive cars.  I’m like “Man, we basically live in a dustbowl.  Don’t you think this is a losing battle?”  But I digress.  Regarding spaces:  All the buildings at my schools are falling apart.  The windows are busted out, the paint is decades old, the desks are worn down to splinters.  Now I know what some of you are thinking; I thought the same thing at first.  “Of course the place is beat to hell; these poor African schools have no money to fix even the basic necessities!”  OK, deficient funding may be the culprit in some cases, I can tell you the disrepair in my workplace is not due to lack of capital.  It’s due to lack of responsibility.  Nobody is specifically allotted the job of infrastructure maintenance.  The potential is there.  The money is there.  Shoot, the materials are even there.  Both of my schools have a storeroom full of spare parts, tools, old paint and every discarded item dating back to the apartheid era.  The room is a disaster area; it looks like a bomb went off!  Again, this is because no one is responsible for it all.  The reasons are several.  One is this problematic attitude of “let’s compensate for apartheid by not doing any work which could be considered menial or lowdown.  Hooray for democracy!”  Another, related, reason is that people just don’t want to get their hands dirty.  Scuffed shoes or dirty fingernails = instant loss of respect.  Really though, when it comes to the dilapidated state of the built environment, there is one factor that stands out from all the others in my mind.  God bless the little children; they’re almost as adorable as they are destructive!  Classrooms of 30-40 students are frequently left alone and unsupervised.  Also, many of these kids are orphans or live with other kids simply because their parents work through the week in faraway towns.  In modern South Africa the distribution of jobs is grossly unbalanced, much like the distribution of wealth.   So I live in a place which has unmotivated teachers, a great number of single moms trying to support several children, and a certain pandemic which is ironically cruel because it’s spread by the same means which children are created.  The combined effects give the youth ample free time to experiment with all sorts of destructive behavior.

There’s certain tradition here that all my Peace Corps training and research about South Africa never really made clear.  The best way I can describe it is: Whenever a South African adult needs something, they send a child to fetch it.  It doesn’t matter what it is.  It’s like:  “Hey you!  Child!  Take that heavy box of chemistry glassware from the top shelf and bring it to the classroom!  Quickly now!  And don’t forget the hydrochloric acid!”  The student body is like and an ant colony: kids scurry around frantically, carrying loads which exceed their own weight without any reluctance.  If there’s some physical object that you require and it’s not within arms’ reach, that means it’s time to yell for the nearest youngster and send the little tyke scampering off to retrieve whatever it is you need.  Again, doesn’t matter what.  Could be a box of books, could be a case of beer, could be the hickory switch required to give the brat a serious whuppin’.  This is why we have rooms full of haphazardly scattered school supplies that never get distributed properly.  This is why we have children who can’t tie their own shoes buying beer and cigarettes for the unemployed drunkards who hang at the local car wash.  This is why anything which is transported around here inevitably gets dirty, broken, lost and abused.  This is why we can’t….aw, you know the rest.  I’ve been told that this tradition is to instill a sense of respect in the children, letting them know that adults are to be revered and assisted, because you know, they’re busy doing so much important work.  Personally, I think it has more to do with the physical limitations of South African adults.  Many of them carry excessive loads 24/7.  😉

Anyway, before this little quip of mine devolves into a truly tasteless stream of sarcasm, I just want to talk about one more factor contributing to the decrepit state of my current location.  You see, there’s a certain social ailment which continues to plague South African citizens regardless of race, gender, religion or social status.  I’m actually not talking about HIV this time.  What I’m talking about is the pandemic of “paranoia”, “distrust” and “transgression”, along with its’ symptoms “lock”, “key” and “hastily welded steel security bars over every aperture bigger than a human hand”.  Where’s the love, SA?  Where’s the Christian sense of community and “love thy neighbor”, or the African spirit of compassion and Ubuntu which I’ve heard so much about?  OK, I’m sorry.  That’s not fair.  In fairness, being protective of property in SA is perfectly reasonable, and in fact very smart.  There is an uncomfortably high rate of crime in this country.  I’ve heard that some motorists in Johannesburg actually install custom modifications including undercarriage rotary blades and flamethrowers to deal with hijackers.  I’d imagine this is somewhat hazardous to street vendors:  “Take that you punks!  Oh…sorry pal, but you really shouldn’t be peddling stolen goods at this intersection.  Damnit, now I have to wash my car again.”  Of course crime is generally much higher in cities than rural areas, and South Africa is no exception, but the rural attitude towards security here is no less paranoid in spite of this.  Rural areas don’t have bank robberies or hijackings, but there certainly are thieves.  Who are they, you ask?  They’re the naughty boys who couldn’t make it through school (see also: lack of parental guidance).  They’re the victims of unemployment, illiteracy, and discrimination (see also: corruption, greed, apartheid etc.)  They’re the clever but misguided citizens who realized that a stolen 40 inch plasma screen has a higher cash/labor ratio than 3-6 years of expensive schooling and a crummy job, usually by a factor of thousands (see also: glorified crime in popular culture).  Local crooks?  I know them well.  And don’t worry, as per Peace Corps policy I have my very own set of hastily welded steel burglar bars for my humble abode (see also: unsightly fire hazard).

Speaking of fire hazards and overdone security, I think it’s worth mentioning that one of the disorganized storerooms at school contains 21 fully charged fire extinguishers, doubtlessly intended for the 21 classrooms of said school.  It’s clear to everyone at school that the fire extinguishers would be mischievously discharged within a week of their placement into unsupervised classrooms, so into the storeroom they must go!  Let me explain the process of entering this storeroom.  When I need to get in there, it takes me approximately 4 minutes to track down the gatekeeper who has the keys, and another minute or two to fumble through a huge keyring and grapple with the 2 ancient mortise locks between me and the interior.  Now imagine the same scenario with the addition of cackling flames and crowds of overeager, panicky children, all pushing and shoving eachother, trying to get in the door where they’ve been told to fetch the extinguishers…..only once the door opens, they’re doomed to trip over piles of rubbish and be subsequently trampled by the masses pouring in from behind them!  I shudder to think.  That’s a theatrical, exaggerated and somewhat paranoid example, but the point is that having everything under lock and key is a serious pain in the ass!  If one forgets something in their office and needs to retrieve it, it suddenly turns into this whole process of finding the right combination of people and keys.  And there are so many damn keys.  We don’t even know what half of them go to any more, but for god’s sake don’t lose any, because they just might be needed to open something really important.  Keys do get lost though; it’s inevitable.  My neighbor had some burglar bars installed shortly before I did.  Within a month of their installation he was calling the welder to come back and grind out some bars so he could get into his own house.  That’s a true story; draw your own conclusions.

Now if you’ll excuse me I have to go collect the scattered pieces of a class attendance register which students somehow managed to defenestrate in spite of the obstructive security bars.  You see?  This is why we can’t have nice things.


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