back to article So, these guys turn up with AK47s and offer me protection ...

This week's expat is Lawrence Hunt, just returned from four years in South Africa, where he's had quite an adventure. Lawrence was in Nelson Mandela's home town on the day of his death and was told to leave in case ethnic cleansing got going, climbed transmission towers without a safety net, and slept in a bunk bed for months …

  1. Stuart Moore

    Great read. I visited South Africa in 2001 and this brought memories fkooding back

    Could you claim the protection money on expenses? I have heard of similar projects having a budget for "local gratuities"?

    1. goldcd

      Did I think my first trip abroad to SA

      about that time.

      Got a teensy little rental car at the airport, and they showed me the hidden button to press in the case of a car-jack. What does it do I ask? Oh it sets off the GPS tracker to allow us to recover the car again...

      ..'again?'... oh yes sir. (I didn't ask about the fate of the renter).

      On driving to the office the next day and noticing the coils of razor wire by the junctions and the pretty little triangular 'hi-jack signs', I enquired on arrival if this was a real problem.

      Oh yes. I although they tend to break into your garage and wait for you when you get home now.

      Still - been back there a few times since - and love the place.

      People are lovely. Never had any problems (but never done anything too stupid) and just have fond memories of perfect weather and the biggest bluest sky.UK never looks as dreary as when landing back in Heathrow. (Beer, Braai, Biltong etc all excellent).

      I also learnt Coloured != Black, and Afrikaans != White - uniting view seems to be that it's all the fault of immigrants.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      You could charge it as "security services" :)

  2. AsherGoldbergstein

    That was a very interesting read. I don't see anyone topping that for a while.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    "Carjacking's a huge thing - why do you think South Africa's the only country where you can legally buy, fit, and use anti-carjacker flame-throwers?"

    Just, whoa ...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Geez

      Ah! My weapon of choice in Autoduel with the additional rear-facing one for tailgaters.

    2. e^iπ+1=0

      Re: Geez

      "anti-carjacker flame-throwers?"

      Is there an equivalent for electric cars - maybe some kind of taser / cattle prod type fitting?

      I can imagine anyway you don't want to run too low on fuel. Hose the carjackers down then conk out a few hundred yards away, ask them for a lift / tow.

    3. gezzed

      Re: Geez

      This was back in 1998. It was never a success and was taken off the market.

  4. johnnymotel

    I have a relative (distant) who worked at a big datacenter just outside Cairo and stayed on all through the uprisings. Maybe I should get him to contribute. I don't think it will be quite as graphic or dangerous for that matter. Their employer took pretty good care of their safety, they spent most of the day and nights at the centre which had armed guards.

  5. Monty Burns

    Loved it....

    I lived for six months in Umhlanga, just outside of Durban, whilst we completed the new Durban airport. I lived in the Pearls and LOVED it. Umhlanga was so safe (private security on all the streets) that my wife could walk home at 3am on her own after being out with her girlfriends... you shouldn't even do that in London as a lady!

    Of course, the highlight for me was the boxing day test match where England trounced South Africa by an innings and 100 runs (iirc) and then going to my local hotel, The Oyster Box, and bumping in to most the England team! I got to watch five glorious days of test match in fantastic sunshine, drinking cheap booze, paying something like £5 a day per ticket and THEN getting pissed with the England cricket team!.. who bought ME beer, thanks Wrighty, Broady & Jimmy!

    Oh, the airport opened without a hitch too... bonus!

    1. TechicallyConfused

      Re: Loved it....

      Yes, it sounds like you really experienced "South Africa".....

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Have to take his word.

    I've never worked there. I did live there as a child in 1971 and 1972. Spent a month on holiday in 1985 and again in 2010. It was a very different place in 2010. Both times I drove from Joberg to Kruger and back, and the Garden Route between PE and Cape Town. Never had any issues or concerns with carjacking any of the places I drove.

    I do believe the copper theft and the protection scam.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    My company posted me to South Africa in 1972 for a two year tour.

    It was interesting that promotion exams in the Government IT service were more about having the right political answers rather than technical knowledge. Even Chief Operators were appointed by their ranking in the Civil Service - no IT experience required.

    One of the things I quickly learned was that it wasn't a clear cut black & white country. There was a long-established pecking order: Afrikaner; indigenous English-speaking whites; white immigrants; Chinese; Asians; Cape Coloureds; KwaZulu - then the rest of the tribes in order with the Ndebele at the bottom. The Japanese were visiting business people and were officially classed as "white". Everyone knew their group's position in the indigenous ranking.

    All these groups were effectively still fighting their internal battles of the last 400 years. The Boer War and the Battle of Blood River being the obvious ones. At Christmas the mine and urban workers would return to their "homelands" - triggering reports of pitched battles over ancient tribal rivalries.

    Violence was always just under the surface. You were warned that you didn't insult a white man's ability with a gun, car, or women. People were shot in cases of road rage. You didn't drive at night with your car doors unlocked.

    The Police emergency phone number wasn't free - you needed a "takkie" (6d) coin. After a mugging by three men with knives and machetes the police came to see me. As an English person - they were more interested in looking round my flat to see if there were any banned books, posters, or record covers. IIRC the previous year a third of the Police force in Pretoria were officially alleged to have taken part in burglaries while on duty.

    One poster was regularly banned and unbanned. The poster was of two people on a beach at sunset. The banning debate was about whether the woman's silhouette had a bikini top or not. The telephone directory for Hout Bay near Cape Town was recalled and pulped because a Kodak advert had a picture of a woman in a bikini. The funny thing was that it was very modest by any standard - and nothing like as revealing as the "string" ones worn on beaches at Durban - "The Blackpool of SA". It was said that Bloemfontein still had a local law that men and women had to be at least 18 inches apart in the swimming pool. Copies of Amateur Photographer regularly went on sale with their front cover removed by customs.

    The liberal Jo'burg Star newspaper reported with glee that a pastor of the dominant NGK Church had said - "If God had intended us to walk about without any clothes - then we would have been born naked".

    Tom Sharpe's two novels from his SA experiences in the 1970s - "Indecent Exposure" and "Riotous Assembly" - are not as over the top as they might appear.

    The Progressive Party was a brave attempt to change apartheid from the inside - and they probably helped the peaceful transition. Similar small groups are still fighting against institutional corruption.

    The experience was my coming of age regarding politics. I learned that a political situation can have many nuances that are generally disregarded by those with an axe to grind outside that country. The last 50 years have often confirmed that when the oppressed gain power - then they often behave in much the same way as their previous oppressors. Sadly - in spite of the Rainbow Nation constitution - it sounds as if much has not changed. A new elite gets rich - and the old poor stay poor.

    What really worries me is seeing Britain apparently moving towards the same scenario of corruption, hypocrisy, and distrust of the Establishment. It is easy to drift into an effective Police State in the name of political expediency if you make enough voters fearful.

  8. Lost In Clouds of Data
    Thumb Up

    Really thought we'd been invaded by another planet on my first day in CapeTown

    It was the mid 90's and my first full day in Cape Town.. Driving around Bellville in my little Toyota Corolla Rental for the first time, radio on, Coolio just finishing the last bars of 'Gansta's Paradise' on the radio, sun shining and it's a beautiful Summer day (late November).

    Music stops, traffic report starts.

    "And the Robots are out on De Grendel Road and Herbert Baker Street, so take care driving."*

    Robots? ROBOTS? We're under attack by soulless automatons (Daleks, or even Cybermen perhaps) and I'm been told in a soothing Suid Afrikaan tone to take care driving? WTF???

    Then I found out, a Robot is a traffic light.

    Yeah, driving was fun! Red light rule. Stop (if in daylight and surrounded by other cars). Now slowly edge forwards. Once 50% of the vehicle is over the line, hammer it. If at night, accelerate through the lights as fast as your gas pedal will take you. You'll be fine.**

    Motorway driving: Drive Really Fast.

    Yes, I mean it, really fucking fast, as fast as you can***. In the outside lane. Stay on the outside lane until you exit at which point cross over all the other lanes really quickly to exit. Don't worry, you'll be fine, everyone else will know you're exiting so will avoid you.****

    I miss Cape Town. Had a absolute blast there.

    *Or somewhere around there.

    ** Usually. But don't blame me if you're not.

    *** If you're unlucky enough to get caught for speeding you can take part in the wheel of fines game. Spin the wheel and see how you deal.

    **** Actually, no they won't, but somehow luck keeps you alive.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Really thought we'd been invaded by another planet on my first day in CapeTown

      "Motorway driving: Drive Really Fast."

      I am not good at this. Fortunately, during a job there in the early 80s, it snowed. In Jo'burg. My goodness that was funny, watching these people with fast cars trying to get moving by accelerating hard. A big BMW or Merc with its back wheels spinning frantically in a little groove in the snow is quite entertaining to watch. The approach of South African white drivers really did seem to be, if it isn't working, just do it faster.

      My little hire car coped with it admirably, rolling along at a nice steady 30, except that the heater didn't work because it filled up with snow, and I didn't dare stop to clear it in case I couldn't get moving again. I was told it was the first snow in 18 years, and of course most people had no idea what to do.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Really thought we'd been invaded by another planet on my first day in CapeTown

        "My goodness that was funny, watching these people with fast cars trying to get moving by accelerating hard."


        The long dry winters meant that the first spring rains made the roads in Pretoria very slippery from the accumulation of rubber and oil. There was a regular sound of cars ramming into each other as they misjudged a right turn - a crunch punctuated by a continuous car horn.

        Cars didn't need a road-worthiness test until they were sold. My 1956 Landrover had its first test in 1973. On the other hand if you sold a new car after a few months it needed a test. The tests were done at a one government site for a city - and there were no appointments. The queues started at 5am - and you could waste a whole day and still not get a test. You could pay a garage to get your MOT for you. This often went further than someone queuing for you. They would do a pre-test inspection and replace any defective tyres etc. After the test they would put the old parts back on again.

        There was a minor industry in making number plates for cars. Every time the owner moved a few blocks into a different area then the car had to be re-registered with a new number plate. The car population was quite small - but some number plates had many digits after the alphabetic district code.

        The subject of "robots" (traffic lights). Different areas had different configurations. English-speaking areas had the British convention where the "amber" light meant "prepare to stop" and "red and amber" meant "prepare to go". The other towns had the ambiguous "amber" that could mean either "prepare to stop" or "prepare to go". The locals travelling at speed often chose to interpret "amber" as "prepare to go". The assumption was that if they were wrong then they would still clear the junction before the crossing traffic actually moved.

        English area four way junctions had traffic lights on all four corners. The others only had them on two corners. Unfortunately that placed them on the farthest side of the junction as you approached. An unknown junction at night left you guessing where to stop - as the crossing road could be a two lane street or a full six lane highway.

  9. Lee D Silver badge

    Is it just me

    Or is there no amount of money you could pay me to put me in a town with random people wielding AK-47s and all the other trouble?

    Not suggesting where I live is "safe" but... sod that...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Is it just me

      Indeed, or AR-15s, or the various Glocks... that rules out any 'open carry' state. or any non 'open carry' state.

      Anon because gun nuts are scary.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Is it just me (Yes AC)

        You're just a pussy. It's NOT the gun nuts you need to worry about, it's the targets.

      2. Jeremy Maccelari

        Re: Is it just me

        AR-15s are as scarce as rocking horse excrement. They are expensive. More commonly used by miscreants are R4 and R5 rifles (a derivative of the Israeli Galil) which are stolen (or sold) en masse from the army and police services.

        As for pistols, Glocks again are rare due to expense. More common are cheap rubbish like Norincos or the excellent Vektor Z88s (the standard police issue pistol - again stolen or sold/rented from the SAPS).

    2. Lost In Clouds of Data

      Re: Is it just me

      You mean like the USA, where you can walk around your local Kroger* with an Automatic slung around your chest.

      But make sure you're wearing shoes and a shirt because they'll kick you out if you're not - gun or no gun.

      Yeah, that's fucked up, I know...

      * Supermarket chain.

      1. Dan Paul

        Re: Is it just me @Lost in Clouds of Crack Smoke

        Really, it is just you, lost in a cloud of Crack Smoke...

        If you think that fully automatic rifles/pistols are easily available in the USA, then pass the pipe because that's a more valid concern than your ill informed. mentally deficient opinions about guns. You have to get a Federal license for a true automatic (good luck getting approved) and that's available in only a very few states but then you wouldn't know any more about guns than MSNBC or Rachel Maddow.

        The vast majority of US states do not allow "automatics",concealed carry or otherwise. That fact seems to get in the way of your deluded little mind. Only Rifles are slung around your chest and even Ted Nugent leaves his in the pickup truck when he goes to Kroegers.

        Handguns are never "automatic" unless you are either a hitman or Mexican Cartel drug runner and they dont care about ANY laws. Most (95%) of gun crime here is between criminals not ordinary citizens or police regardless of what lies you have been led to believe.

        An armed policeman in Paris MIGHT have been able to stop the massacre at Charlie Hebdo or at least be able to delay them until more police could have made it there. Sure were ALOT of "militarized" SWAT cops running around AFTER the shootings. Don't see the leftist news outlets complaining about THAT now do you?

        Just proves that everything you hear about guns is slanted BS, presented by liars who think they know better but have no understanding or experience. A gun is as safe as an automobile if you know how to use them properly. Learn, dumbass!

  10. Rainer

    At a previous job

    we had a receptionist who was from South Africa.

    She's mixed black/white and she said that after Apartheid was over, security went down and corruption went up.

    I'm not sure I could live there for a prolonged time and not get shot.

    Currently living near Zurich, where shops leave heavy stuff like flower soil out during the night because it's too burdensome and apparently nobody steals it anyway.

    Copper gets stolen though and of course the cash and jewelry that people who don't trust the banks keep at home...

    With reports like the one in the article, is it a fair assumption that South-Africa is basically a failed state where the government has lost control over at least some parts of the country?

    I assume that in the above case, the police wasn't called to apprehend the two groups with AK47s.

  11. russell 6

    South African joke

    If you know anything about the reputation of SA taxi drivers you will get where this is coming from.

    Archbishop Desmond Tutu and a taxi driver die at the same time. Arriving at the pearly gates, St Peter says sorry but the allocation for today is almost full and only one of them can be let into heaven that day.

    St Peter apologises to Desmond and says he will allow the taxi driver in first. Confused the Archbishop asks why this is. The answer, St Peter says, is that the taxi driver put the fear of God into more people than he ever did.

  12. Mark 110

    Missing Tank

    Once playing World of Warcraft our tank, a South African, went offline and didn't come back. We muddled on with a sub but it was a bit of an aborted raid. When he finally came back online a few days later it turned out that guys with guns had come and taken his gaming rig :-(

  13. Nash

    Guns in Clubs

    a friend of mine from SA told me that in nightclubs, clubbers are searched on entry and made to hand over their guns to a "cloakroom" style attendant who then hands them a ticket for collection at the end of the night......SO......a Sober person hands the gun over, and at the end of the night a Drunk/Drugged clubber collects said gun and heads home.......just think about that one.

  14. Jeremy Maccelari

    A fantastic country with a multitude of problems - my folks emigrated there during the 70s and I finally ended up spending over 3 decades there. However, I have two points to to make:

    - the car flamethrower. Yes, one was made and marketed some 15 years ago, but it was never a commercial success - just some nutter selling some crazy device. In all my years in SA, I never saw one or heard of anyone who had one (or anyone who knew anyone who had seen or knew anyone who had one - you get the gist). It has become a bit of an urban legend.

    - 'kakkies' is 'khakis'. The song 'De la Rey' was about a Boer general who fought the British during the second Anglo-Boer war from 1899-1902. The British uniform during the war was a khaki colour, hence the term becoming slang for a British soldier. Another term from this era for Poms is 'rooinek' (red neck) from the habit of the Brits getting sunburnt*. So 'khaki' has nothing whatsoever to do with 'kaffirs'. The song was about the general saving the Boers from the Brits and has come to be a bit of nostalgia comparing the current Afrikaners' situation under the current black government to that under British oppression**.

    And yes, good biltong, droëwors (dry sausage) and boerewors (farm sausage) are heavenly. Pineapple Fanta is a matter of opinion, though.

    * Another endearing Afrikaans epithet I was labelled with on occasion was 'soutpiel' (salt dick). Apparently we English in southern Africa had one foot in Africa, one foot in England and our gentleman's titbits hanging in the Atlantic Ocean.

    ** And if you read your history you'll realise just how oppressive it was. Not a nice piece of British history - ever wondered where the concentration camp came from, for example?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      khaki and khaki? Or is there another word that sounds like it?

      When I lived there I joined the scouts. At some point my mother went to tea and said something about how nice the scouts looked in their khaki uniforms. Apparently that was good for a laugh and they explained to her that khaki was their euphemism for what babies leave in their diapers.

      And ironically, that other 'k' word is originally an Arabic word for infidel, used by the Arabs somewhere in time on the Europeans. Somehow the Boers remembered it and turned it on the blacks. My impression at the time (early 70s) was that it was casually used in a not-necessarily-intended-to-be-offensive way, much as the 'n' word in America was. At some point it became de-facto offensive, just like the 'n' word. l would not be surprised though to learn that in certain circles the 'k' word was always meant to be derogatory.

  15. Curiosity

    I don't listen to Bok van Blerk and don't have an opinion about him, just get your facts straight though: Fighting the 'kakkies' means 'khakis' = British soldiers in 1899-1902, and has nothing to do with the derogatory 'k...' word for blacks.

  16. This post has been deleted by its author

  17. Sam Haine

    Professional development?

    Great article Mr Hunt Very interesting.

    I'm going to ask a really boring question though: did the experience you gained through working out there aid your professional development?

  18. Spotfist

    Aaah memories

    Misspent my youth in the good old SA and have also pretty much done all the "don't do" items in this read, always had to go and buy booze from the shebeens, and the beer was always cheaper in the locations lol being white I kind of stuck out a bit but leave the staff a tip and it actually wasn't too bad (during the day that is) I have been to some REALLY bad places though where I honestly though, WTF am I doing here.

    It's funny because I recently lifted up the old carpet in my house and found loads of news paper they used as underlay from the fifties and one of the article was about South Africa and how dangerous it was even back then, it went on about how people can buy handcuff in shops, guns etc. Reading the article I realised how if I removed any reference to apartheid it honestly could have been written yesterday, "massive divides between blacks and whites, terrible poverty, high crime and fear from the opposite side" it's a real shame that after 60 odd years the country still suffers from the same problems but now has the added corruption element, sad, sad times :(

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Aaah memories

      "massive divides between blacks and whites, terrible poverty, high crime and fear from the opposite side"

      Presumably the "poor whites" are no longer heavily subsidised by government hand-outs as part of their ideology? In 1972 government offices with a lift often had a white guy as the "operator". Except the lifts were all automatic and they didn't have to do anything. They were usually characterised as alcoholics. Hard drinking permeated white society at all levels.

      In the townships there would be row upon row of shanties - then suddenly a luxurious house. After Apartheid no doubt the owners of these houses, and affluent Asians, moved into the richer neighbourhoods previously reserved for the white oligarchy.

      The Apartheid government was keen to retain some international vestiges of free speech. The English-speaking press took great delight in pushing the limits. If they were censored then they left a white space where the article would have been. The Cape Times cartoonist David Marais was very good at exposing the hypocrisy of the Establishment.

      The racial divides today are probably still mainly due to the many tribal nuances irrespective of people's colour. Note the long-standing friction between the ANC elite and the leaders of the KwaZulu. In 1972 Illegal immigrants from neighbouring black countries found that working in SA could set them up for life when they returned home. There are now more political refugees as well as economic migrants - particularly with Zimbabwe's stricken economy. From news reports it appears that they are now often ill-treated or murdered - being seen as competitors for the lowest paid jobs.

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I was there in 2006..

    One thing that got me was the shanty town's underneath the electric pilons on the outskirts of the city. Tin shacks with satellite dishes on top, and then a run of wire going up to the pylon. Presumably they had a transformer in there somewhere....

    I did wonder how many people died trying to get TV....

  20. Riccardo Spagni

    Plenty of nonsense here...

    There's a lot in this "interview" that is true, but there's also a lot of rubbish that I can only attribute to Mr. Hunt having been in utterly bizarre situations and exposed to weird small-town mentalities.

    - Cisco has a SIGNIFICANT presence in South Africa, Juniper to a lesser degree. Cisco even has a Security Research division in South Africa: There's no shortage of enterprise customers, and a large number of world-class data centres. SMEs tend to buy cheaper brands like D-Link / NetGear / Belkin / Linksys, with TP-Link being quite the up-and-coming manufacturer in that segment. I've never seen a "Cisce" router in 15 years in the industry, and I've never heard of networking gear being "of questionable provenance".

    - Amazon has the bulk of their EC2 admin and development staff in Cape Town (, which is unsurprising considering that EC2 was invented and built by South Africans: (who clearly also hadn't ever seen a "Cisce" router). Amazon also has a massive call centre in Cape Town that services the North American, UK, and German markets.

    - Anti-hijacking flamethrowers aren't a thing. Nobody owns one, and nobody sells them.

    - Small town business practices are the same all over the planet; people get complacent because nobody checks up on them. That lax attitude is not the same in Cape Town, Johannesburg, or Durban. To give you a small example: when collecting items from our post office in Cape Town, our staff have to show their identity document and have a company stamp with them. When collecting items from the post office at our satellite offices, they just scribble down their ID number and everything's cool and relaxed. People regularly collect mail for the wrong person, and it just somehow winds up at the satellite office eventually. It's a small town thing, not a South Africa thing.

    - The only people I know that have failed their driver's license are those that didn't bother to read the K53 driver's manual, or thought that their driving instructor would somehow tell them everything. The test is strict, sure - you'll fail if your car rolls on an uphill start or you touch one of the posts when parallel parking - but I know of maybe 3 classmates among my several-hundred-strong matriculant class that failed their driver's first time. Regardless, you don't need a local driving license, you're perfectly fine with a foreign license.

    - Nobody goes to townships except people that live there, or foreigners going on township tours. I've been to a shebeen a few times when I was much younger, but there's no real need - bars, pubs, and restaurants abound in every city, especially the tourist-focused places like Cape Town.

    - The racial tension thing is going to take many, many generations to move past. America's civil rights changes happened in the mid-60s, and yet 50 years later there's still significant racial tension. The UK is by no means excluded from this global problem: - it's not something that just goes away. South Africa had a particularly skewed and horrid past, and the "old guard" on both sides needs to die out before any balance is returned. Nonetheless, most people born in the mid-80's and beyond don't care that much about the colour of one's skin, and the majority of us went to racially mixed schools in the late 80s/early 90s already.

    1. comet_jockey

      Re: Plenty of nonsense here...

      The flamethrower was definitely real:

      1. Riccardo Spagni

        Re: Plenty of nonsense here...

        Oh I know that someone released one - it was called the Blaster, and was released in 1998 and pulled off the market in 2001 because they only sold a handful. For this interview to resurrect it 15 years later and claim it's presently available, in use, and relevant, is incredibly stupid.

    2. gezzed

      Re: Plenty of nonsense here...

      I am in the IT industry working in Pretoria, and this guy's perspective is so far from my own experience that I had a hard time taking him seriously.

      And the flame-thrower? Seriously? The inventor was nuts. How many kids would have accidentally incinerated the family pooch?

  21. Valerion

    Close to home

    My wife grew up in Johannesburg. The tales of the driving test are not exaggerated. You had a choice: Bribe the examiner and pass, or fail. She, and most others, just didn't bother taking the test and a few rand to the cops if they pulled her over was all that was required. She took her test when she came here and passed straight away with flying colours.

    The reason she left? Her dad - who owned a pizza place - was robbed at gunpoint on 3 occasions. The "trick" was to keep cash in 3 or 4 places as they would never believe that was all of it if it was all in the till.

    She can reel of names of several people she knew who were murdered, including one fairly well publicised case where they were tied to a tree, shot and their throats cut. Jo'burg is in general worse than Cape Town though, I believe.

  22. Swarthy

    A Request for the ExPat files

    Can you try to interview US-ian ExPats about working abroad? I would really like to hear about how working abroad from the US works.

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