Where The Sun Sets: On A Decade Lived In South Africa
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. Elliott Maddox, an African American who lived in South Africa for ten years, agreed to share his experiences and advice with us. And for all Elliott’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 or goodwill organization. However, what preceded my physical journey to the continent was a cultural and ideological linking 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 from 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 me the vehicle for getting to South Africa.
So, you first relocated through this humanitarian organization. What type of work were you doing?
I was on an an education program in which my previous education background in teaching became an asset. 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 South Africa 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 speaking, we are fewer in population than some other racial groups within the United States.
I thought about relocating to many countries. Then I sat and thought of the pros and cons of each move. One of the things that really just brought it home for me was this thought … Do I want to repeat being the minority? I was 27 at the time and my answer was no, I'm not going to repeat that. Let me try something else, where I'm in the majority.
What part of South Africa were you based in?
Mpumalanga. It translates to “the sun sets in the east”, and that's one of the country’s provinces. I lived in a rural village called Diepdale. The province has some urban areas, but the humanitarian organization placed us in rural areas. So, that's where I touched down initially in 2004. I still maintain many great relationships with the people there. We communicate on a regular basis.
So, after completing my two-year service in Mpumalanga, I moved to Johannesburg. I decided to seek gainful employment in my area of expertise. I have a degree in journalism, so I decided to pursue journalism in South Africa. I felt I had an advantage since English is, unfortunately, my native language.
For the next eight years, I was a magazine editor with a media house that specialized in industry publications. That was my job for the remainder of my time in South Africa prior to returning to the United States.
Wow, that’s amazing. Can you tell us more about the publication?
It's an international media house with offices throughout the continent with headquarters in Kenya and South Africa. It endeavors to showcase African development in terms of construction, architecture, mining and hospitality industries.
And as an African American editor, what was your approach to getting an understanding of the South African context? Was that challenging?
It was not a challenge at all. Prior to living in South Africa, I was interested in international news. I would always look at events occurring all around the world, regardless of which country it involved. However, I recognized that certain issues were paramount in certain areas, depending on what's going on.
I took into consideration the context of the environment, such as the political climate, culture, infrastructure, entertainment industries, or whatever was going on. I did not see that as any kind of barrier. And to be honest, since we're all humans –regardless of where we are from – certain issues were universal.
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. 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. However, I heard about them. And this came from other people's experiences... people from different parts of Africa who were living in South Africa. Now, let's say there’s a Ugandan. This Ugandan would come and tell me that they were being treated with hostility from South Africans, and I would empathize. 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.
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 I, as the African-American, was being treated within that context.
However, here's an interesting thing. If I did not open my mouth, they did not know if I was a South African, 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 as they treat locals Black South Africans.
This treatment was usually negative. Once, I started asking for certain things they would say, "Oh, you're American." I'll say, "Yeah." And they would say, "Okay, come here. Come, let me show you things." And I always 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?
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.
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 (English). So communicating with them was easy.
Socially, linking with them was also easy. I learned a lot of things from them, certain cultural things. For example, I don't celebrate Christmas, but one December during ‘festive season’ they were celebrating Christmas, and decided to slaughter a sheep. There was an associated ceremony and they included me, so I could help them slaughter the sheep.
So, things like that I really appreciated because it had a lot of meaning to it. That's just one aspect. Also, their overall sense of family, how they get along, and how they embrace meetings. If there is an issue going on they have family meetings to resolve problems. So, I really appreciated how they did these things.
Even their wedding ceremonies (are different), I love their traditional weddings. I've been to a few. I even appreciate how they handle the funerals and the personal touch of burying their loved ones. It's so different from what African-Americans are accustomed to.
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 South African burial practices. I explained everything to them, as well as the actual practice of how the family, friends, and community place the final soil over the casket. Not allowing a bulldozer or someone who is unknown to their deceased relative to do the final rites. So, I told my parents that’s how I'm going to do it for them.
Yes, I told them that’s how I was going to do it for them whenever they passed away. Unfortunately, when it happened, and my father passed away, I executed on that. I made sure that I would be the one. I wanted the rest of my family participate, but to communicate the significance to them without them ever seeing it… they would not understand it. So, I decided, I'm going to do that for him on my own. So, I made sure that I did that for him.
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 and just hang out. We would go to a ‘braai’ or barbecuing - that is a major social activity there, like here in the States. We even tried our hand at having a music promotions company … me and some of my friends. It was just great.
One of the things I made sure that I never did –and I do not regret – was going on a safari. 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, Maserati 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 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 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 growth opportunity. 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.
And just to speak about the cosmopolitan life, South Africa has a lot of people in journalism. They have a prodigious media industry. And it's very strong for the various audience markets. A lot of people there are interested in entertainment media as well as news and lifestyle media. And movies as well. So, South Africa is a fertile market for movies. They’re making a lot of films.
The country is an international destination for films and plenty 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. So, media also a great industry to explore in South Africa.
As I said before, South Africa is open for business.