The South African Series

Mzansi Fo’ Sho!

‘Mzansi’ means ‘south’, but refers specifically to South Africa. South Africa, for all its development and westernization is still Africa, and has some of the most amusing quirks I’ve ever encountered. Most have to do with policy, language barriers and culture.

No, you can’t have it your way

The first time we went out for lunch at a fast food chain, we were pretty excited. The kids were going to be able to eat something familiar, and neither of us was going to have to cook that evening. We walked up to the counter of KFC in Plett and got ready to order. Every drink on the menu came with a Coke, a brand I’m loyal to, so my meal was easy to order. Marshall, on the other hand, prefers non-carbonated drinks, and opted to get an orange beverage.

“You can’t have this with an orange drink,” the cashier told him. “It comes with Coke.”

“But I don’t want Coke,” he objected.

“If you want Coke, you have to pay extra,” she informed him, “and it will be a smaller size.”

(This particular meal came with a jumbo can of Coke – there are no drink/soda fountains here.)

“Okay then,” said Marshall. “I’ll pay the extra for the drink.”

Look, I just want to make a phone call!

It took us almost 2 weeks to get a cell phone after we first arrived here and unlike the US, none of the service providers sends you a monthly bill for your minutes. Each plan is pay as you go, and you pay for every minute you use. Largely unaccustomed to this communication method, Marshall set off in search of more air time.

“I need to charge my phone,” he told me, grabbing the keys to the car. “I’m just going up to Kwik Spar. I’ll be back soon.”

I looked at the plug in the wall. He had taken the cell phone with him without plugging it in. I thought he wanted to charge it? Ah well.

45 minutes, he came back home, rubbing his temples.

“What took you so long?” I asked. Kwik Spar is a 3 minute drive away, literally.

“I kept telling them that I wanted to charge my phone, and they kept thinking I needed to plug it in!” he said with frustration. “I just wanted some stinkin’ air time!”

“Ohhh,” I laughed. “You should have said you wanted to ‘top up your minutes’. Charging your phone means something different. You’re in Africa now.”

He said something about getting used to phrases and lingo and finally made his call.

Please dear God, all I want is some chai…

Poor Marshall.

Since he’s been here he’s been on a search for a good cup of chai. He’s come close several times, and failed astoundingly. One of the most memorable failures happened at Seattle’s Best in Cape Town. Brittany was ecstatic, because they carry the same brand of coffee as Starbucks, and Starbucks is impossible to come by in this part of South Africa.

I ordered something cold with whip, and Marshall, as part of his undying search for chai, implored for the liquid sustenance.

“Is this real chai?” he asked.

Yes, it is chai,” the woman answered tersely.

“Is it soy?” he continued hopefully.

“What? What is soy?” she spat.

“Never mind. What is this chai made with?”

She was aggravated by his line of questioning.

“Some chai is powder and some is liquid,” she snarled. “Ours is powder!”

By this point, I was looking down at the counter trying to contain my laughter. Customer service is SO lacking in Cape Town. It’s like being in New York. I advised him just to take the cup and ask no further questions. The cashier rolled her huge eyes at him and prepared to make his drink.


Ma’am… just make the car stop doing what it’s doing.

The VW microbus (aka ‘kombi’) we’ve rented has all kinds of issues. The driver’s seat is broken in half. You have to put a stick somewhere close to the door to make it start – and you have to make sure it stays in while the vehicle is in motion. The fuel gauge fuel gauge doesn’t work and you have to refill it every 600 KM…that’s when it’s estimated that the tank is empty.

Oh!  And the alarm is touchy.

While we were in Cape Town for the weekend, the 90’s style alarm on the bus went off in the middle of the night. The guy from the front desk called our room.

“Ma’am, it seems there is a problem with your car,” he said in his Colored accent.

“Oh? What’s the problem?”

“The alarm is on on your car.”

“The alarm? Oh! The alarm has gone off.”

“No,” I could hear him shaking his head. “The alarm is not off, it’s on.”

“Yeah,” I confirmed. “It’s gone off. I’ll send my husband down.”

The man paused on the other end before he spoke again. Clearly, I didn’t understand what he was saying.

No ma’am! You’re alarm is not OFF, it is ringing NOW!”

“Okay…okay. I’m sending my husband down now – to turn it OFF.”

“Aha. Thank you.” Click.


Waka waka – All you can do is laugh.