Where The Sun Sets: On A Decade Lived In South Africa

After initially moving to South Africa as a volunteer, the Rainbow Nation became Elliot Maddox’s home for a decade.

After initially moving to South Africa as a volunteer, the Rainbow Nation became Elliot Maddox’s home for a decade.

One of the greatest things that South Africa specifically gave me, was a sense of no longer being in the minority.
— Elliot Maddox

Is South Africa on your travel or relocation radar? Are you looking for first hand reflections on what it’s like to live there? Then you’re in the right place. Elliot Maddox, an African American who lived in South Africa for ten years, agreed to share his experiences and advice with us. And for all Elliot’s gems of wisdom, be sure to listen to our FULL audio interview with him as well below.

How were you introduced to South Africa?

The short answer would be a humanitarian goodwill organization. However, what preceded my physical journey to the continent was a cultural and ideological thinking with Africa.

As a child, a fervent sense of self-pride was inculcated in me by my parents. You see, they always encouraged me to learn about the contributions of Black Americans. However, I took it a bit further when I was in high school and university. I began to read a lot. And what I learned was more about myself, my origins, and the contributions from people who came before me.

So, having such a mindset and outward disposition, I amassed a diverse group of friends. And many of them were immigrants, or maybe first generation Americans, with parents who originated in either African or Caribbean nations. So, with that background and when the opportunity presented itself, I decided to travel and live outside of the United States.

I sought different jobs and learning programs to achieve my overseas desire, and in the end, it was a humanitarian organization that provided the vehicle for me to get to South Africa.

Elliot conducting a teaching clinic for South African educators.

Elliot conducting a teaching clinic for South African educators.

So, you first relocated through this humanitarian organization. What type of work were you doing?

I was on an education program in which my previous education background in teaching was being used. I'm a former educator. So I came on to help train teachers in rural settings in South Africa.

How was your integration into your volunteer work and into living in South Africa?

For me, the integration into South Africa was seamless. And one of the things I always tell my fellow African diasporans is that one of the greatest things that South Africa specifically gave me was a sense of no longer being in the minority. In America we always associate ourselves with being the minority, with being less than. And that’s because demographically we are in the United States, so as I understand.

I had thought about going to many different countries. And then I sat and thought of the pros and the cons. And one of the things that really just brought it home was, do I want to repeat being the minority? I was 27 at the time and I said, do I want to repeat being the minority? And I said no, I'm not going to repeat that. Let me try something else, where I'm in the majority.

Diepdale, a village in Mpumalanga, South Africa.

Diepdale, a village in Mpumalanga, South Africa.

What part of South Africa were you based in?

Mpumalanga. It translates to “the sun sets in the east”, and that's just the province, and that was a rural area. The province has some urban areas, but within that, they took us to the rural area there. So, that's where I touched down initially in 2004. I still maintain many great relationships with the people there. We still communicate.

So, after Mpumalanga, I stayed there for the humanitarian organization’s tour for two years. Then after that, I moved to Johannesburg. At that time, after I was done volunteering, I decided to pick up on my degree work, which I have a degree in journalism. So I decided to pursue journalism in South Africa, feeling that I had a little bit of an edge being that English is, unfortunately, my native language.

So, yeah. So the next eight years, I was editor at one of the magazines there, with a media house that specialized in certain trade magazines, trade publications. So I was the editor there for the remainder of my time, before I returned here.

Wow, that’s amazing. Can you tell us more about the publication?

It's an international media house. They have offices in Kenya as well as in South Africa. And they endeavor to show African development from the terms of construction, architects, design development, as well as mining and hospitality developments.

And as an African American EDITOR, what was your approach to getting an understanding of the South African context? Was that challenging?

It wasn't a challenge at all. I always, even back in the States, prior to coming to South Africa, was interested in international media websites. I would always look at things all around the world, no matter what country it was. So I recognize that certain issues are paramount in certain areas, depending on what's going on in the context.

I took the context of the environment and their political climate, or their liberal development, entertainment industries, or whatever was going on. I didn't see that as any kind of barrier. And to be honest, we're all humans, regardless of where we are. So there are certain issues at any publication that are universal.

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do you feel you were welcomed by South Africans?

Ninety percent, yes. For the other ten percent, there were heightened periods of xenophobia. And there is some social context to that and to what was happening. And just for a brief overview, some people just have a natural state of hating anyone who is not like them, right? They don't really care who you are or where you're from, they're not even interested in you opening your mouth to explain anything.

I never really encountered those kinds of people much. I heard about them. And I heard about other people's experiences...other people from different parts of Africa who came to South Africa. Now, let's say there’s a Ugandan. A Ugandan would come and tell me that they were being treated with a lot of hostility from South Africans. However, that wasn't my experience.

As I spoke to some of my South African counterparts and friends, even the woman who I eventually married, they told me that South Africans have a favorable view towards anything international, especially if you're coming from overseas. But if you're coming from within the continent then no, they feel like you're coming here to take something from them. You're less than us.

So I definitely understood the difference. Not to say I understood, but I recognized the differences between how my Ugandan counterparts were being treated, and how me as the African American was being treated, from that context.

However, here's an interesting thing. If I did not open my mouth, they didn't know. Many times they did not know if I was a South African, or they didn't know if I was a Nigerian or a Ugandan. So, let's say I'm going to a shop owned by an Indian or by a white person there. What would normally happen is they would treat me however they were treating the locals.

Usually it was bad. Usually it was negative. Until I started asking for certain things, and they'd say, "Oh. Oh, you're American." I'll say, "Yeah." And they'll say, "Okay, no, come here. Come, let me show you things." And I told them, "No. I don't want you to change how you treat me now. I want you to treat the same as you were treating me before because you thought I was a South African. Don't try that shit. I see who you are." And then I got off into something else. I had to put them in their place, many times. Many times. So that's where I am with regards to that.

And you said that you eventually got married and had a child. Is your wife South African?

Yes.

How did you two meet?

At work. That's the simplest answer. She worked at a different company, but we were all in the same office park. Nature happens.

And did you have a traditional wedding or a court wedding?

Yeah, we just had a court wedding. I requested, always being sensitive to culture. So, I spoke to her father about paying lobola and everything and he was adamant about not accepting that. He was like, "No. Just take care of my daughter and just get married." And I said, "Okay. If it's going to be like that, let us save some money, and we'll do a ceremony or something later, if she so desires." So, it's still on the table to do that. But we haven't done that as of yet.

And how was it integrating into her family?

It was quite easy. One of the things I've always appreciated about many of our brothers and sisters born on the continent, is their multilingualism. The fact that they can speak multiple languages, including ours. So communicating with them was easy.

Socially, linking with them was also easy. I learned a lot of things from them, certain things that they would do culturally. For example, I don't celebrate Christmas, but one December festive season they were celebrating Christmas. So they decided to slaughter a sheep. There was a ceremony around it and they brought me in so I could help them slaughter the sheep.

So, things like that I really appreciated and that had a lot of meaning to it. That's one aspect. But just the overall sense of family, how they get along, and how they have meetings. Or how if there is an issue going on they have family meetings. So I really appreciated how they did that.

Even weddings. I love the traditional weddings. I've been to a few. I even appreciate how they handle the funerals. It's so different.  

Yeah, my husband's grandfather was 101 and he passed away in December 2018 in their Namibian village. But for me, the funeral arrangements were culturally eye-opening and it was just very beautiful to watch.  

Absolutely. To piggyback on what you're saying, my father passed away last June. So, one of the things I would always express to him and my mother when I got back was how they buried the dead. So I explained everything to them, as well as the actual practice of putting the dirt on the body themselves, the family and loved ones. Not allowing a bulldozer or something that's so separated from their loved one to do it. That's how it's done here in America, right? So, I told my parents that that's how I'm going to do it for them.

That's beautiful.

Yes, I told them that’s how I was going to do it for them whenever they passed away. Unfortunately when it happened, when my father passed away, I executed on that, and I made sure that I would be the one. I wanted the rest of my family to do it, but to communicate that to them, they'd never seen it. They don't understand it. So I decided, no, at least I know it. This is my father, so I'm going to do that for him. So I made sure that I did that for him.

Elliot with his mother at a mall in Durban, South Africa.

Elliot with his mother at a mall in Durban, South Africa.

What was your social life like in South Africa?

Overwhelming, in all facets. It was great. I had a number of friends and we would go clubbing. We would go to parks. We would go frying or barbecuing; that was the major thing there. Still is. We would go to parks and just hang out. We tried our hand at a little music promotions event, me and some of my friends. It was just great.

One of the things I made sure that I never did, though, and I do not regret it, was I never wanted to go on a safari while I was there. That's something I did not do. I was never interested in it, although I love animals. I did not want to be part of that because a lot of my friends and family from America, they would call me and keep asking me about lions and bears and tigers and shit. I said, "Well, I never seen that. I see buildings and Maserati's and mansions and shit."

What areas would you encourage those interested in entrepreneurship in south africa to look into? And immigration wise, how feasible is foreign investment?

Yeah. Let me just say to your listeners, that in general you will have to take it case by case. Whenever you're ready to go to a country, I always say that you must research. Research many things: from the political climate to the weather climate all the way down to what is feasible business-wise.

And it's different from when you're going to visit. When you're going to visit you just look for a fun place to travel to and to see if they have tourism going on in that area. But to live, you got to look a little bit deeper.

Don't quote me on these facts, but I think they have eighty or ninety percent mobile phone use there over desktop and tablet. Now in terms of smartphone use, there is a great opportunity for app developers. A lot of the countries look to connect with their audiences via cell phones, via certain apps. The app market is not as strong as it is in the United States or wherever they’re making these apps. But they still have access. They have access to those apps because they have iPhones and Galaxy S10’s. They have all of that.

But for local companies, like if you know all about the app market and that's your area of expertise, I would suggest to anyone who is in that profession to come to South Africa and look at the opportunities for you to create apps for local companies. And then take home the bag. You can set your own price. You can make a great living there.

Now when it comes to investment, it depends on what you want to invest in. Real estate will always be a great investment tool or profession anywhere. Of course they have the minerals there but you got to watch out because there is a diamond mafia out there. You don't just go there and just start pitching your fork.

You can also invest in human capital. There's a lot of people I know who started HR companies there because having highly qualified, reliable, and professional staff is a major thing. So, if you're into HR, you can start an HR company. Make sure you train your people properly. Education is another area. If you want to start a school, it's there. Of course they have many schools there. But it's all about your angle.  

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And just to speak about the cosmopolitan life. South Africa has a lot of people in journalism. They have a prodigious media. And it's very strong for the different channels. A lot of people there are interested in entertainment media as well as news and lifestyle media there. And movies as well. So in South Africa there is a fertile market for movies. They’re making a lot of films.

There’s an international destination in South Africa just for films and a lot of American and European films are made there. A lot of local films are also being made there for the global market, the local market or even the television market so media's also a great industry to enter in South Africa.

As I said before, South Africa is open for business.

Listen to Elliot's full interview below for his advice on immigration, stereotypes, and more.