This is Africa — a continent, not a country (Photo: Thinkstock)
I have lived overseas for the past seven years and have had my fair share of silly questions about South Africa. A typical exchange might go like this:
“Where are you from?” asks a friendly traveler (from a country I won’t mention to prevent national embarrassment).
“South Africa,” I’ll reply.
“South Africa! Cool, which country?” he’ll ask.
“Ummm, South Africa, the country right at the bottom of Africa?” I’ll say.
“Oh, OK,” he’ll slowly reply, sounding slightly confused.
News flash: Africa is a continent. And it is not split into two. There’s no North Africa, where people are always fighting, and there’s no South Africa, a vast mysterious area famous for wild animals and safaris. There is a country called South Africa, but it’s not all wild animals and people living in grass huts, with no technology or global awareness. It’s a modern, multicultural country with a rich history and a progressive people. (You’ve heard of Nelson Mandela, right?)
That there is Nelson Mandela, on a South African bank note (Photo: Thinkstock)
Here are some other questions that make us want to laugh at best — or worse, silently back away in shock, shaking our head and thinking, “Did I really just get asked that?”
1. But you’re white. Are your parents black?
Biology and history aren’t your strong suits, huh? Or maybe you’ve never read a newspaper, watched the news, or paid attention to the important things happening outside your bubble. Like in America, Europeans, mainly the Dutch and the British, colonized South Africa and therefore there are white people here — lots of us.
Can you tell who the South Africans are? (Photo: Thinkstock)
2. You’re from Africa, so do you speak African?
Would you ever ask people from the U.S. if they speak “American”? Or someone from Asia if he or she speaks “Asian”? There are about 55 different countries in Africa (depending on whom you talk to) resulting in over 3,000 different African languages. So, no, nobody speaks “African.” In South Africa we have 11 official languages and an incredible multicultural diversity, thus we call ourselves the “Rainbow Nation.”
The South African flag, flying here over Cape Town’s harbor, is as colorful as its people are multicultural (Photo: Thinkstock)
3. Your English is excellent, why is that so?
Like with question No. 1, please go back and check your history books.
4. Do you have pizza, coffee, and hamburgers in South Africa?
A friend of mine living in New York City was recently asked if there is pizza in South Africa. She was too traumatized to give the proper deadpan comedy answer of “No, we just eat freshly hunted antelope, which we cook over an open fire, and the whole village is invited.” Authentic cuisine from all four corners of the Earth can easily be found in South Africa: Thai, Arabic, Indian, and Italian are just a few. And they’re delicious.
South Africans don’t ride elephants, but we do keep a safe distance away from them (Photo: Diego Avila)
5. Are there wild animals in your backyard? Did you ride to school on an elephant?
I once answered, just for fun, “Yes, outside my house there are lions and elephants.” She believed me, and I might have created a slight misconception about South Africa in the Czech Republic. Of course, we don’t ride elephants to school — or anywhere for that matter. Imagine the logistics and the cleanup crew needed. Taxpayers wouldn’t be happy. Wild animals live in protected nature reserves, easily accessible by car or guided walking tours.
6. How did you get here to Europe? How long does it take to drive from Florida to South Africa?
In his 20s, my dad hitchhiked through Africa to get to the U.K., which you can do, but I just hopped on a plane. What’s that? Yes, we have planes. And to answer your second question, if you drive through Central and South America, swing a left to Brazil, fight your way through dense tropical jungle, and then hop a boat, you just might make it.
This is Johannesburg where rhinos don’t roam the runways at the airport (Photo: Angela de Klerk)
7. When pilots land at the airport, do they need to be careful of roaming wild animals?
South African pilots have to take special flying courses such as “How to land without hitting an animal” and “What not to do when an elephant charges your plane.”
Be serious. Land in O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, and you will feel like you have arrived in some superduper First-World country — with a runway clear of hungry, snapping animals and no angry elephants in sight.
Modern highways — yes, they exist in South Africa! (Photo: Angela de Klerk)
8. Do you have electricity and modern technology?
Would the country that built the Gautrain, Africa’s first modern rapid rail and bus service, have problems with electricity or modern technology? I don’t think so. In the cities, houses (generally made of brick or cement) have lights, TV, and high-speed Internet, and most people carry a cellphone.
Unfortunately not everywhere in South Africa is quite so developed. With about 23 million people living in poverty, there are regions that have no access to electricity or running water, let alone Internet and paved roads.
Although some South Africans do live like this in rural areas (Photo: Angela de Klerk)
9. You’re from Johannesburg? I visited Kenya and I met a guy named John, know him?
Would a person living in Romania know your friend who works at Marks & Spencer in London? Don’t be ridiculous.
10. Do you have big cities and proper roads?
Heard of Cape Town? There’s a reason why it’s one of the world’s 6 hottest destinations right now. Do you seriously think a country would host the World Cup without simple facilities such as roads or construction companies capable of building stadiums? South Africa has extensive networks of quality highways and urban roads complete with “robots” (our fun way to describe traffic lights), wonderful architecture, and contemporary skyscrapers.
A giraffe in Pilanesberg National Park is about to eat some leaves… without any birds on the side (Photo: Jacqui de Klerk)
11. Do giraffes eat birds?
Not a very common question, but I’ve heard it often enough and it carries just enough stupidity to piss us off for asking it.
Originally from South Africa, Jacqui de Klerk now lives in Colombia and is a freelance environment and travel writer for various publications such as the City Paper Bogotá and Quimera Divers. She misses her pet elephant every day.