Saturday, February 25, 2006

The myth that will not die...

I’ve been having some work done in my house. The previous owner did some remodeling and one of the things he did was replace the original lighting in the kitchen and dining room with down lighters. These give a nice, almost indirect glow of light to the rooms…but only when they work. And there’s the problem…almost half of them don’t work. The last owner also remodeled the kitchen and, while the effect is quite nice, he didn’t leave much space for a fridge. That hasn’t been a problem up to now, since Hubby’s fridge was narrow enough to fit the space available. Unfortunately, the fridge has fully packed it in (not a heartbreak for me since it is waaayyy too small) and we decided on a side-by-side so we could have enough freezer space for more than a carton of ice cream and a bag of frozen veggies. So, I’ve had workmen at the house moving a bank of cabinets to make room for the fridge and pulling the light fixtures out of the ceiling to see why they won’t light up.

Thursday (yesterday) is ordinarily a busy day around here because both the maid and the new gardener work. Yesterday was particularly hectic because the handyman, Graham, was added the mix, along with the delivery of the massive monolithic slab of white steel that is my new refrigerator. It was hectic…the cupboards slated to be moved first had to be emptied, which left the dining table and all available flat space covered with a muddle of dishes, bowls and tchotchkes, and the normal Thursday cleaning had to be done around the jumble. And, throughout all of this, the threat of further power cuts hung over our heads, prompting everyone to gou maak with the tasks that required electricity before we once again found ourselves cast back into the Dark Ages for a span of hours. When we sat down to lunch on the patio…the dining table was still buried under a mountain of cupboard disgorgings…we had a moment to chat. Over roasted chicken and koeksisters, Graham, who is a member of a three-man handyman team and new to our household, asked the inevitable question: why on earth would I leave the bounty of America for a place like South Africa? Christopher, the new gardener, chimed in saying that everybody knew that America was a rich place where nobody had to live in shacks and everybody had a job…a good job. I had to shake my head.

How does America manage to export this myth and…more to the point…keep it alive? Don’t tell me it’s movies and TV…American movies and television show the ugly underbelly of crime, poverty, substance abuse, abuse of authority, and homelessness right along with the vast expanses of neat middle class tract homes that look like they could have been teleported direct from the Cape Town suburbs and dropped, unchanged, onto American soil. Perhaps America is not so much exporting the myth as other nations are casting America in the role of a secular heaven…an idyllic land of universal wealth, a place where you need only arrive on its shores to be showered with everything your heart desires. I really don’t know. But what I do know is that the image of America in the eyes of much of the rest of the world has very little to do with the reality of the place.

One of the most frequent questions I am asked here is why would I want to leave America for a place like South Africa. It still makes me laugh because the query itself reveals at least two things about the questioner: a dismal ignorance of the reality of the US and a serious lack of appreciation for this country. My standard answer is “My husband and I did the math: we can live better here on one income than we could live in California on two.” This answer is universally met with raised eyebrows, but it is the truth: we do live better here on one income than we could in California on two. Yes, there are cheaper places to live than California, but if we are going to compare apples to apples here, we have to stick with comparable locations: I didn’t live in the American equivalent of Pofadder or Mamelodi, I lived in an area much like Cape Town, both in terms of affluence and climate.

The first thing people find shocking is the news that domestic workers are very rare in America and very expensive. Graham asked me if that was even true of people who had several children and both adults worked…his eyebrows took a rapid trip upwards when I replied that was especially true of such people. People whose jobs put them at the very top of the earning scale…the American equivalent of managing directors, for example…might have domestic help, but those domestic workers often earn more than their PAs. This is no bull…I was an executive PA in the states and at my last job (2003) I earned $216 a day (a respectable but not especially high wage for an executive PA)…I had to pay a domestic worker $250 for one day’s work cleaning my house…and that was after every stick of furniture had been removed from it! My boss, the one who paid me $216 a day (and that is before deductions for various taxes which ate up fully one third of the gross amount) paid more for her Tuesday cleaning lady than she paid me. And a gardener who will come and work a whole day in your garden? Forget it! You can get casual labourers who speak little or no English for $10 an hour if you are willing to pick up strangers standing on a street corner, but a regular garden worker? Or even a garden service to mow and trim? Very, very few people employ such a service domestically.

Living in America is very costly. The American dream of owning your own home is increasingly out of reach of Americans. A co-worker of my husband is a young (24) single female professional…an engineer. She has just started her career…she has been employed for about a year. She has already bought a brand new car and a townhouse. She can afford, on her income alone, to do this. It is not because she is being paid an extravagant salary, but because the ability to buy your first home on a single professional income is alive and well in South Africa. My husband did the same thing in 2002…he bought his first S2000 and a four bedroom house in an upmarket Cape Town suburb, all on his income alone and without borrowing a cent from family members. This is simply impossible in the place I lived for the last 30 years in America.

There are always going to be people who will dispute, on the basis of their own (or a friend’s) brief sojourn in the US, the things I relate here about my homeland, but it is my opinion that knowledge gleaned through more than fifty years of living there is a bit more reliable than a few anecdotes collected on a holiday visit or even a short residency. I didn’t live in one isolated corner of the country, either, so I have a bit of perspective on more than just California…I lived in four of the fifty states, visited more than two-thirds of them, and lived in three distinct parts of California (the third largest state in geographic area and the largest, in terms of population). California is a long and narrow state that takes up more than half of the western coast of America, and the various regions of that state are as distinct from each other as chalk from cheese. I lived just south of San Francisco from 1974 to 2004, an area colloquially known as “Silicon Valley,” and I worked in the high tech industry for most of that time. I owned three houses during that time, raised three kids, was married, divorced, remarried, widowed and married again there. (Earlier in my life I also lived in San Diego and Santa Barbara.) I have been in Cape Town for two years now and I can assure you, Cape Town is more like the parts of California where I have lived than different from them, the primary difference being cost.

South Africans nurture a notion that America is virtually crime free, a fatuous notion that sometimes amuses me greatly. I had locks on my doors…and on my windows. Many of my neighbours had alarms on their houses (even in middle-class neighbourhoods that didn’t hold the promise of riches to be found in upmarket areas). My neighbour across the street had bars on all her windows and a security door, and the man next door had an iron cage around his front door. Few American houses have masonry walls around the front of the property but the reason is NOT because crime is non-existent…it is because the police have told us not to do it because once a burglar scales that wall, he cannot be seen by neighbours or passersby…it protects him from discovery. Police also tell us to keep hedges and bushes near windows trimmed down to prevent the burglars from having hiding places, and to make sure trees and trellises to not afford robbers a means to climb up into our second stories.

America has gangs. When I was a youth, they were pretty much an East Coast thing, but by the time I reached adulthood, they were all over the country. With them came new words in our vocabularies: “drive by shooting” and “turf war,” for example. There were the Bloods and the Crips, the Norteños and the Sureños, and they ran unchecked through our streets, our schools, our prisons. America has school shootings and drug dealing and violent attacks in the schools: students all over America are checked daily for weapons when they enter their schools, and yet assaults, including shootings, continue to happen (one in Roseburg, Oregon…a quiet little town I have visited many times…just this week). It is not unknown for a student to be killed by another student because he would not give up his new Air Jordans or leather jacket or simply because he wore a shirt in a colour that one gang or another had declared as its own. America is not free of violence or crime and you are no safer in your home in San Francisco or Salt Lake City than you are in Cape Town…for a chilling illustration of this fact, Google the names “Polly Klaas” or “Elizabeth Smart,” just two of numerous American girls who have gone missing in the night from the supposed safety of their own homes.

Americans are not all rich, nor do even the majority of Americans work at jobs that pay them princely wages. That staggering $216 a day I earned as an executive PA was a paltry sum when measured against the costs of mere survival in my area. I inherited a 40-year-old house (along with its bond) that cost me $1550 a month plus gas, water, electricity and telephone, just to keep a roof over my head (easily another $500 a month). Then there were things like petrol for the little bakkie to get to work ($40 a week and going up every day), insurance for the bakkie (mandatory under state law and $150 a month) plus little incidentals like groceries, doctor bills ($300 a visit since I had no medical aid), clothing. That seemingly comfortable wage was subject to tax…deducted before I received my pay, and when the tax man got done with me each month, I had to make $3000 stretch to cover everything. It wasn’t easy because, invariably, something unexpected would always come up, like a burst water pipe or geyser, new tyres for the bakkie, a leak in the roof…there was always something. When you consider that I was supporting only one person on that wage and it was so much of a struggle, imagine what people with kids go through! (And, to any person who wants to suggest that I should have sold the house and gone to live in a flat, those bond payments…on a 20 year-old bond…were considerably cheaper than rent on even a small flat. My bond was $1550 per month…the people who bought my house took out a bond with payments of more than $4000 a month and she was an executive PA like me…and her husband was an engineer like mine…and they didn’t have any kids to support, either. The bond payment was more than her gross salary, and this was for an older house in a working-class neighbourhood!)

America has poverty…real poverty. People live under bridges and beg in the streets in America. They sleep in parks and doorways and in makeshift shelters made of cardboard. They live in old cars with their children, or in tumble-down shacks without running water or as squatters in abandoned buildings that have no power. They eat out of dumpsters and go hungry, every winter people literally freeze to death on the streets in the winter, and there is no child maintenance money guaranteed to indigent mothers…Americans are as unsympathetic to their own poor as they are sympathetic to the poor of other nations. The gardener was astonished to learn that my life started in a little two room shack with no running water, that I was intimately familiar with the long-drop toilet (called an “outhouse” or “privy” in America), as my grandmother did not get indoor plumbing on the farm until long after I had started school (and moved to the city). I know about homemade dresses, shoes with holes in the bottoms, letting out the seams and hems of my dresses so I could wear them another year, and colourful quilts made from old clothes, a stack of threadbare blankets tufted and used for the fillings. Today, in America, there are people who live no better than those in squatter camps here…and the local governments, instead of bringing in clean water, chemical toilets, and electricity (which cuts dependence on dangerous items like paraffin stoves and lamps) like they do in South Africa, bring bulldozers and destroy what little these indigents have and force them to move on.

Opportunity is thin in America. It is so over-regulated that opening a new business is a costly, time-consuming nightmare, and maintaining that business even more so. My husband has a South African closed corporation (a “cc”). It cost less than R500 to set up that cc, and it is a one-time charge. My late husband owned a printing business…he had to pay sales tax on supplies and equipment he used in his business and then, once a year, make a list of his supplies and equipment and pay a “use tax” simply because he had them. He had to pay for his business license every year. He had to charge sales tax on everything he sold and give it to the government, and he had to pay it quarterly, along with filling out complicated forms. This, of course, was in addition to the income taxes he had to pay every year, and the payroll taxes for his employees (American employers are required to pay certain taxes FOR their employees, such as matching the employee’s mandatory contribution to the Social Security fund…which is bankrupt because the government has stolen the money and used it for things other than for which it is collected). It is much easier…and much less costly…to start and maintain a business in South Africa, and the proliferation of small businesses here is proof of it. Many people who find themselves retrenched simply start a business of their own (like the three guys who do handyman services for us) and many of those people become quite successful at it (like my previous handyman who is now too busy as a builder to come unblock a drain!). In America, the cost of entry to even the simplest business is often prohibitive and even if you scrape up the funds to get started on a shoestring, the government hounds you mercilessly at every turn, sucking your pockets dry.

I think part of what keeps the myth of America as a place of unlimited wealth and opportunity alive is that most people in countries outside America don’t meet “average” Americans, they meet the ones who can afford international travel. A round trip ticket to Cape Town from San Francisco cost me more than $2000…do you have any idea how long I scrimped and saved for that money? And if my then-boyfriend had not provided accommodation and meals, there is no way I could have made the trip. The average wage-earning American cannot afford to spend money on travel unless they max out the credit cards or unless some kind of cash windfall drops in their lap and they decide to throw caution to the winds and do something totally frivolous with it…like my friend Aisha who will soon be receiving a year’s salary in her retrenchment package, but who has always wanted to come to South Africa (she loves sharks). Another things that locals don’t realize is that stuff is much, much cheaper here than in the US, so when they see American tourists spending wads of rands at Waterfront stores and tipping extravagantly at up market restaurants, they think not only are the purchasers rich, they presume they are representative of Americans as a whole.

My husband’s auntie and uncle went to India on holiday a couple of years ago, and brought back a whole suitcase of things…she paid only a few rands for beautifully embroidered and decorated saris, items that would easily cost R500 or more here. Interestingly, saris of the same type I saw in shops in America for $500 and more. Surely the Indians perceived our thoroughly middle-class auntie as rich due to her spending thousands of rupees on fancy saris…just as South Africans perceive Americans as being wealthy spendthrifts when, in fact, they are buying at what they perceive to be bargain basement prices.

This is not to say that America is a terrible place, either, only that America is a real place, just like South Africa, with its faults marching in lockstep with its virtues. And like South Africa, it is neither heaven nor hell, but a combination of the two, depending on how you view it and what you make of it.


  1. Most legitimate businesses have all the paperwork and taxes you mention, You have the informal business sector to which those Bakkie builders belong, When those start growing they aso get bogged down in paperwork.

  2. Guy, my late husband had a small business in America and my present husband has had a registered CC in South Africa since 1999. Every year, in America, we had to close the business for a couple of days and "take inventory"...not just of the items we had for sale, but of our equipment and supplies, like reams of printer paper and toner cartridges for the copier...and even the copier itself. And then we had to pay a tax on it!! We had to pay a "business license" tax annually just to keep our doors open...and we had to pay for all manner of useless "permits," every one of which were nothing more than another way for the state and local governments to get their hands into our pockets without returning even a hint of a service in exchange.

    So far, the South African government hasn't requested anything more from Hubby's CC than a tax return.

  3. Followed your blog here from MyADSL - found your posts on Koeberg interesting. I've found this entry enlightening - I didn't know that about the US.

    BTW, do you have an RSS feed to your blog?

  4. Hlo, Claymore...

    I am sure Blogger supports RSS but I haven't a clue how to set it up! Can anybody help me?

  5. Hopefully this will help...

  6. Claymore---I went to the link and...well, totally Greek to me. I did figure out that RSS is not supported on my version of Blogger, so I went to something called FeedBurner and signed up there but I am clueless what to do with it after that! Nothing written there made any sense...I know diddly squat about RSS. I got this URL from them, however, in case it helps. If you can help me put this together, you can email me at Thanks so much!

    at: ViewfromOtherSide

  7. Perfect - that does the trick! What I do is take that URL, and syndicate it into Livejournal. Livejournal will then periodically "pull" info from your blog (in this case, via Feedburner), and make it available as a URL and a snippet for Livejournal users, like me. The URL on Livejournal is - it's empty right now because it hasn't pulled any entries yet. I then get to see it on my Livejournal "friends page", and I can click on the URL to open your entry directly and reply.

    If you want to let other people know that you have an RSS feed, you could possibly put the Feedburner URL on as a link on your blog's main page. (No idea how to do that - I've never used blogger).


  8. Hi S.V A very interesting post! Always look forward to your updates! M


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