Goethe Institute Johannesburg 

Address on Intercultural Perceptions & Culture Shock, by Anli Serfontein

5 June 2009,  Johannesburg 

Panellists: Neville Alexander, Cynthia Kros, Samia Chasia, Antje Schumann. Chaired by Birgit Schwarz former Der Spiegel Correspondent

Lady Chair, fellow panellists, ladies and gentlemen, 

I would like to start off by thanking the Goethe Institute in Johannesburg and especially Ulla Wester for making it possible for me to be here tonight in Johannesburg my former home town.

Home is a difficult concept to pin down, but for more than 30 years, this city and its sounds and Highveld smells was the place I called home. And yet Johannesburg was never a homogenous city. The Afrikaans suburbs of Randburg where I grew up in the sixties and seventies were very different from the fairly homogenously Jewish Greenside of the 1980’s where my parents then moved to and where the only Afrikaners were dissidents like my parents, and Beyers Naudé. Where orthodox Jews walked to Schul on Friday nights.

There were forays into Hillbrow, then the multi-cultural Sodom and Gomorrah of Johannesburg with its Café Zurich and Café Vienna, with its delicious Schwarwälderkirschtorte and European newspapers. And Fordsburg on the other side of the city centre and later the Oriental Plaza for bargain shopping and samoosas.

No, Johannesburg always had its culturally defined corners, but we thought we were very cosmopolitan. We had segregated suburbs and where apartheid did not segregate us, we segregated ourselves. And we had no television to see how the rest of the world lived.

Yet, even with a father working for the liberal English press and who regularly brought his colourful contacts home, I only met people of my age of different religious and cultural backgrounds when I went to Wits: Apartheid divided us.

My friends at University were Jewish, Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Muslim and Hindu and many were first or second generation immigrants. We hung out in Hillbrow and Berea, and Yeoville, saw foreign films, visited Exclusive Bookshops on Sundays, and later after we finished our studies Yeoville and the cafés of Rocky Street, the Market Theatre, the jazz clubs of Jamieson’s and Kippie’s with the African Jazz Pioneers or Mango Groove - became our hunting ground. That is before we headed back to the northern suburbs where we originally came from - still just in time to enjoy the fruits of democracy and the good life.

By now Melville had become the in place for us in the media. That is the Egoli, Joeys, Jo’burg I left behind in 1995. And that is the young, multi-cultural vibrant city, I as an aspiring but failed, Jo’burg kugel mourned in my first years in Germany.

Today I live in Trier on the Moselle. Home is an old house, in a quiet cul-de-sac leading to a wine farm, surrounded by steep vineyards, in the wine suburb of Trier, Germany’s oldest town. I, born a Calvinist, now live in a predominantly Catholic town. It is the birthplace of Karl Marx and the phrase: “Religion is the opium of the people”, can only be truly understood by living there in the late 20th century.

Trier: Reading from book: Roman(tic) Trier

Two lives and two cultures that sometimes cannot be more different. As far as cultural perceptions go the Moselle area is a melting pot of ancient heathen and Catholic traditions and influenced by frequent occupation by unloved foreign rulers – be it in recent times Napoleon, the Prussians, Hitler or the Americans. For me coming from this young city of gold with its new money aura to a city dripping with two thousand years of history, was a culture shock.I had studied German at University, read Faust One AND TWO, read Handke and Boell and Grass, never finished Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks – this is a confession tonight as my former German professor, Reingard Nethersole is here in the audience. I had watched and analysed the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Leni Riefenstahl. And I even liked bratwurst. Yet adapting to Germany was so infinitely more difficult than I had ever imagined.

The High German I had learnt, proved utterly useless in going about my daily chores. The dialect is close to Letzeburgisch the language of Luxembourg. As wine connoisseurs, their dialect is heavily affected by their love of wine: they continue to speak the morning after, where they left off the night before – that means there is a lot of “shh” in it –Maedschen and like the French they do not pronounce the "e" at the end of a word: Kaes, instead of Kaese; Hos instead of Hose. The cuisine is very similar to Alsace and Lorraine in France across the border. And for centuries these areas swapped rulers between France and Germany. Paris is a mere two and a half hours by fast TGV train, Berlin eight hours. Many people in our region prefer to go on holiday to France. Most would be as unfamiliar as most of you with the North or East of Germany. They struggle with being on time – in fact they are mostly NOT on time, and they have more in common with their French neighbours than with the Prussians in the former East-Germany.

Therefore we have a regional cultural identity and a bit like true Capetonians the locals are dubious of any newcomers - and that is anything or anybody coming from more than a 150 kilometres away. My Bavarian husband had serious problems adapting to the region – his accent, his work ethic and his love of his beer did not go down too well there.

Having left a young city with no memory but a lot of flexibility, I was living among two thousand years of history, where local tradition and seasonal festivals are part and parcel of daily living and resistance to change is ever present.

There are many aspects of German society I still struggle with: the convoluted red-tape, the arrogant teachers, the inability of 80 million people to queue and not crush into a bus or train or for that matter, a plane.

Our own perception plays a role in how we perceive others and how we are perceived by others. I think both Germans and South Africans share the difficulties in being perceived by others as either the unloved big brother or worse still the school ground bullies.  

Some of this perception has to do with their economic standing – both are the economic motors on their respective continents.

And yes in adapting to Germany and in dealing with German red-tape officials and in my book and in my perception of the Germans ,my arrogance at times certainly matched theirs. That made me a very uncomfortable “Ausländer”, or foreigner, but probably it was the only way to survive.

Both my countries share a burdened past. Ten days ago I visited the Reichsparteitagsgelaende in Nuremberg, designed by Albert Speer and forever forged in our memories by the glorifying documentary of Leni Riefenstahl on Hitler. From the rubble of that fascism has risen, in sixty years one of the strongest democracies in the world. 

Last Friday evening, I was in Erfurt at the German Children’s Media and Film Festival Awards – Der Goldene Spatz - started 30 years ago in East Germany and continued today in a united Germany. Two decades after the Fall of the Berlin Wall walking through the beautifully renovated city centre, there is hardly anything that reminds one of Communist rule.

Both countries had gone through enormous social, cultural and political change in the last two decades. My book is very antipodean contrasting these two worlds. In living away from Africa, I discovered my Africaness. After nearly 15 years in Germany I still live between two cultures, and borrowing from the Turkish-German poet Nefvel Cumart poem Two Worlds - sometimes I am seeking to be a bridge between the two cultures and sometimes I am being torn apart by being in the middle. There are some of us here tonight who had or still experience living between two cultures.

The city I am visiting this fortnight is a city; where I still encounter familiar places and smells, but also a lot of unfamiliar new images. It is a city whose social fabric is in constant change while some things remain the same: The smell of a cold smoky Highveld winter evening and the food – the koeksisters and milktart and samoosas and Mrs. Ball’s chutney.

It is a city where the interaction with family and friends is much easier-going and more relaxed than in Germany. But it is also a city where I as an expat am no longer at ease. Where I fear crime, where I make sure I know where the panic buttons are, where I keep on looking over my shoulder. Where I am paranoid about car doors and house doors not being locked. And carjacking corners! In Germany  I cycle with my handbag in the bicycle basket, I have little security, but for that my own watchdogs – my neighbours!

Reading from book on neighbours: A Nation of Know-Alls

Today I am the one fretting about police sirens going past while my brother-in-law calmly continues watching television. I have gone from being a Jo’burg Rock to being a Kraut.