It’s the day of national elections in South Africa as I write this. I am on a plane descending, about an hour away from OR Tambo (Johannesburg) International Airport. After I land, I will grab an Uber, go say hi to my mom and then go home to drop off my bags before I head to the voting station. It’s an important election year in South Africa (SA) because it is our first since our previous president left office. He almost crippled our country because his [ruling] party let him get away with things a president should not even be involved in. The damage he did in nine years will take at least two decades to undo if all goes well. Will we see change after this election? Will the voice of the people be recorded on their ballot papers to show their dissatisfaction with our current state of affairs in SA? Or will we see more of the same? The next few months will tell. It’s an important time for me as I return to South Africa from Canada – having experienced everything SA can be, I hope this election will produce change in the country I love so much.
For those who haven’t been to Canada before, I wanted to share this. Previous visits have been holiday mode and more focussed on just having fun, but this time around I decided to record some of the things I find interesting, peculiar, funny, frustrating or great about Canada in comparison to SA. Some of it is inconsequential and I put it here just because it might be interesting, but other things matter a lot when I think about how much better SA could be if we implemented or adopted some of them…
They drive on the other side of the road. I will start with driving and car related stuff, my favourite thing in the world. So hang in through this bit and you’ll see the other important stuff that follows. I’m not really sure if we drive on the wrong side or if they do. Or if there is a wrong side. Come to think of it, why isn’t this just standardised across the world like many other things? This is an obvious one, even if you haven’t been to Canada, you’d be expecting it when you arrive. But trust me, you can have a proper freak-out when you turn onto a main road on the side where your brain is expecting cars to come from in a head-on direction. Every time the driver you’re with turns or crosses lanes you’ll find yourself doing a shoulder check to the wrong side as you get a phantom-like feeling you’re going to get hit by cars that aren’t there. It literally took me weeks to settle into it. Another strange feeling is driving a left-hand drive car. You have all the feelings I just described as a passenger, but I also realised I get a phantom-limb feeling. When you drive, you get a feel for a car as if it is an extension of yourself (similar to how a golf club becomes an extension of your arm when you swing it). I am used to holding the steering wheel with the gear selector to my left, driver’s door close to me on my right side and the rest of the car to my left. Now it’s all the other way around. My perception of depth and distance to my right and left sides change completely and I have to be careful not to drive too far to the right.
Their indicator lights are red (sometimes). I find this very strange because at first it looks like something is wrong and the driver ahead is tapping his brakes, not indicating. The indicator lights on the front of the car are orange, like South Africa’s cars are, but the back can be red or orange. I pay a lot of attention to cars on the road, but even after multiple visits to Canada I still haven’t figured out if it is a brand-specific thing or random that some cars have orange indicators at the rear and some have red indicators at the rear. In my mind indicating is very important for someone behind you to see and making this the same as the colour of the brake doesn’t make it ‘pop’ out.
Drivers are very respectful to each other. Yes, very strange if you’re South African. In SA, if someone ahead of you indicates to move across into your lane, we generally take that as a challenge to close the gap before they have time to execute their intention. In Canada, they would rather bring the entire highway to a standstill than cut you off or stop you from entering the lane. If a driver shows their intention to change lanes, you slow down and let them in – a general rule that everyone respects.
Drivers respect pedestrians. Too much I think, sometimes. Pedestrians have that confidence that Trevor Noah describes in one of his stand-up comedy shows when sharing his experience of New York. When the little man on the other side is green, they walk. They don’t look left or right, they just walk. Where there are pedestrian crossings but no light, they also have right of way. I noticed that many pedestrians have a somewhat arrogant attitude about their right of way. In SA, when you pull away at a traffic light or 4-way stop and you’re turning, you generally drive and the pedestrians wait. In Canada you wait and the pedestrians have right of way. If there are many pedestrians and the light eventually changes back to red while you waiting, too bad. Canadians also slow right down when they pass someone jogging, walking a dog or strolling down the road. They also make extra space between the vehicle and pedestrian when possible. I have experienced this a lot when taking walks there.
Turning on red lights. In SA, no matter which direction you’re going, when the lights ahead of you are red then you wait. In Canada, if you are turning right (the equivalent of turning left in SA), you may drive if the light is red and there are no cars coming. In other words, if you’re turning into a road and not crossing over the road to turn, just turning into the direction closest to you and if the light is red, you’re allowed to go.
Three levels to the driver’s license. In Canada you have three levels to your driver’s license. I am not going to go into the detail because I don’t know the ins and outs of it all, but what I did learn was that you get an L (learner), N (novice) and then your full driver’s license.
No License Discs. In SA we have a license disc that needs to be renewed annually and displayed in the bottom left corner of the windscreen. In Canada they put a sticker on the number plate and every year the colour differs from the previous, so from a distance you can see if it is up to date or not.
Bakkies (Pickup Trucks) are really big. In comparison to SA bakkies, the pickups in Canada are huge. Some of them sporting a double wheel base at the back. You’ll also find the parking bays are bigger than South Africans are used to and in many parking lots there will be parking bays dedicated to small cars.
No mobile phone use while driving. It is normal to see drivers on their phones in SA, texting or calling. In Canada I noticed few (actually nobody that I can remember) being on their phone. They either use Bluetooth or that thing you stick on the dash with the magnetic disc that fits on your phone. It is really wonderful to see people adhering to this law. Canadians just seem to generally respect this law.
Car prices. Cars are generally cheaper when I do layman’s conversion of CAN$ to ZAR. What was interesting to see though is how they put prices on cars. All the dealerships I visited had a small sticker on the car where South Africans put a license disc. This shows the price and sometimes additional costs. In SA you can see the price of a car from the road most times because it’s a huge sticker across the windscreen. In Canada you need to find the small sticker first. The price on the small sticker excludes tax (GST), so what you see on the car is not the actual price, unlike in SA (although in SA you also find the price excludes a bunch of small things you never expected when calculating the final price).
Okay, I’m done with car related stuff…
Restaurants. Food is cheap in SA. Again, this is when you do layman’s conversion, not accounting earning Canadian Dollars and paying in Canadian Dollars. By way of example, a pizza will cost you R160-R250 depending on the restaurant (in SA you pay between R95 and R140). A meal at McDonalds will cost about R120 for the equivalent R80 meal in SA. When eating at a restaurant, you will pay tips starting at 15%, not 10%. You don’t write it on the bill, the card machine prompts you when you pay. The food is good.
Shopping. I haven’t earned money in Canada, but it seems that grocery shopping to them is cheap. My South African brain still converts everything and while some stuff seems on par, other stuff makes me want to poop my pants. Things like bread, chips packets, juice, milk, toothpaste, Listerine etc. also come in mega sizes. It’s like what you see on American TV, stuff is just bigger. Clothing seems to be pretty much the same in terms of pricing. Sunglasses are expensive – I found out after losing my Oakley’s.
Almost everything you buy costs more when you get to the checkout counter. Again, this is taxes. The price on the rack excludes tax. So if you’re shopping on a budget, take a calculator with if you can’t do quick math. I don’t like this because I believe consumers are entitled to know what the true cost of an item is as advertised on the shelf. My understanding is that certain taxes that are recoupable can be excluded from a price you see because you can claim them back. As an end-user or consumer, you can’t exactly claim tax on chewing gum during tax season, so I’m not a fan of their system in that regard.
Most retail (grocery) stores have self-checkout counters. In SA this is not viable because of unemployment challenges. However, what I found interesting about the self-checkout was the actual process and system – you scan your items, there is a placement area where you put your items once you’ve scanned them, even if it’s one small item. This is a large and very sensitive scale that knows the weight of what you scanned, so it knows if you put it down or not. It also prevents theft (along with the cameras) because you can’t scan one item and put two in your plastic bag. The plastic bags are also already open and lined up for you on a simple little steel jig that they have on the scale. The scanner also doubles as a small scale for weighing fresh produce, nuts etc. So you do that at the checkout counter. You have to pay by card obviously at self-checkout counters.
Plugs. If anything you want to take there has a cord coming from it, go buy adapters. None of our plugs are the same.
Systems of measurement. Canada seem stuck between thenmetric and imperial units of measure.. It’s weird. You run 10km’s and lose a pound. If that sentence sounds normal, you’re probably Canadian. If not, you’re probably South African
Electronic Payments. In SA we are used to EFT’s and e-Wallets and GPS payments. These things are normal and we forget how advanced our banking systems are in comparison to many first-world countries. They have similar payment methods with small differences sometimes but they have not had it for as long as we have and they’re only moving away from physical cheques now. I think our tendency to secure things for fear of fraud and theft in Africa has helped us keep ahead of many other countries where they still prefer to use cheques and cash. I know of companies in Canada that prefer cheques and are sceptical of electronic payments. We would find that absurd.
Lower level of materialism. I found in Canada that people are not impressed by material possessions. Or at least not to the extent that South Africans are. Obviously I haven’t studied this and lack imperial evidence to back my opinion, but I believe it may be due to their large middle class. Also, I spent all my time in Canada in Vancouver. This is a place that many wealthy people tend to go to from all over the world, so it might also be that the bar is raised for what impresses people. Therefore, when social status is not achieved through material possessions, people spend less time acquiring those things because they matter less. How much do your possessions mean to you and what do they say about you to others? I also found that people cared more about doing things than owning things. I have always been fascinated by the subconscious motives of people who own ‘fancy’ things in South Africa and I learned that Canadians are far more mature than us in this sense. They do not presume things or judge people by what they own. You cannot always look at a Canadian’s clothes or car and try assume their social status. Those are not the things that matter to them. I like that because it changes the motive for success across the board. Less of earning money to keep up with the Jones’s and more earning money to provide a good life for your family and experience things.
General respect. This is what made me fall in love with Canada. They are often teased about being overly polite and this is an exaggeration. But what stood out to me, especially on this trip is the general respect for the law and toward one another as humans. Now, there are a lot of things in this blog that will be untrue for the exceptions. So, I want to state before I carry on that this is a generalisation. I am not referring to the exceptions. There are very materialistic people in Canada and there are people who will not give way to pedestrians or not let someone into the lane when they indicate. Those are the exceptions in my experience, and I am not speaking about them. That said…
I found that people want to obey the law and they understand the good of the greater picture when everyone obeys laws. They recognise the greater good when most people show respect for others around them. Their country is clean, litter-free almost. They are not as aggressive toward one another. They respect law enforcement. They respect one another’s property. They respect another’s right to live freely. Here is an example – on my last weekend there, I passed a lemonade stand on the sidewalk in a residential area. It was 19h45 in the evening (still light outside because the sun sets late). The stand was managed by two little girls, maybe 10 years old. No parent nearby that I saw. People were passing by on foot, on their way home or maybe to the store or wherever. Some stopping to buy, others just passing. I was shocked to see there are places where it is safe for two young girl to man a lemonade stand at this time of night on their own.
I am not going to bash SA or list what would probably happen to them if they tried this in SA – we know this already – but as a South African, this was probably the most impactful moment of any trip I have ever been on to another country. In that moment I saw everything I wished South Africa could be. In that moment I saw the meaning of living a free life. I saw the meaning of having freedom of movement and choice. I saw love – there is no way two little girls or their parents could feel safe in that situation if there was not love and respect amongst the people in that community. I saw opportunity – this love and respect nurtures opportunity in that someone at that young age can go and experience what it means to provide value and be compensated in return. Those young girls are way ahead of most South Africans their age just by having the opportunity to freely run their little business. Lessons learned here that others would only learn at an age where they are physically in a safe enough environment to try this. Yes, there are very safe places in SA and yes, youngsters can do this in some places in SA – it’s not the Walking Dead. But there is a myriad of considerations before it will be done this way. By the time a kid in SA has got to the point where they have considered everything they need to and eventually found a place to run a small business like this successfully, the kid in Canada has employed her friend because she is needs to open another stand 5 streets down. And in SA you will always have to consider those factors no matter how old you are and what business you are starting – Where is a safe area to start? Can I keep cash on hand? Will my stock be stolen? Do people have enough money for my product? The opportunity is so much more accessible in a place like Canada. I mean accessible in a physical way too. In SA it is very difficult to walk up to someone’s door to sell them cookies because you can’t see the house behind the big wall and gates or you can’t get past the entrance to the complex. In Vancouver, I hardly saw walls and fences. The homes that have a wall and gates leave their gates standing wide open. As a young entrepreneur, you have direct access to the front door and your customer.
To sum it up – I am not pointing out the flaws of South Africa to make it a Canada vs. SA conversation. I’m also not trying to convince you to move there or why it’s better. This is a conversation about South Africa’s potential. This is me asking what do we need to do and where do we start to have this in South Africa? Each and every South African deserves it. So I hope that you learned some fun facts that you might not have known, but most of all I hope that my experiences can make us all think about our part in making South Africa live up to its potential – the potential I experienced in another country. The fact that I could experience it made it real for me. I know that we can and should live like that because I saw it with my own eyes.
I didn’t take many pictures, but please enjoy some of the ones I did take –