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Saturday, 15 June 2013

A Canadian's Reflections on Five Years in South Africa

Most of my blog entries are theological in nature and I don't often get personal. However, as this weekend marks five years of residence in South Africa for me, I thought I would share some personal reflections. I am turning 30 in a few weeks' time. I spent the first 25 years of my life in Canada (Grimsby, Ontario, to be precise), and the last five in South Africa (4 1/2 in Durban and the last six months in Cape Town).

Canada and South Africa are very different worlds. One can start with the weather, which isn't as different as  one might think. The heat of summer is fairly similar in the two countries, although of course it occurs at opposite times of year due to being in different hemispheres. Durban can be unbearably humid but the temperature highs in Jan-Feb (30-35 degrees) are similar to what one can get in southern Ontario. As to winter, Canadian winter temperatures are significantly colder: -5 to -10 is typical compared to 15ish in Cape Town, getting down to single digits at night. However, the South African winter can actually feel colder because buildings (including our apartment) are not insulated or heated. Thus in Canada, it can be -20 outside and 20 inside, but in South Africa, if it is 13 outside, it's probably 15 inside.

A more fundamental difference between the countries is economic. Canada is a developed country, usually voted as one of the best places to live in the world. South Africa is a developing country. It is classified as a middle income country but this is misleading because of its high GINI index. This statistic measures the economic inequality in a country - the gap between rich and poor - and South Africa had the highest value in the world as of 2009. Thus in Cape Town, for instance, you have suburbs that resemble upscale Canadian neighbourhoods, only a few kilometres away from slums where people eke out a living in squalor. Unfortunately, after a few months of living here it ceases to be shocking and becomes just part of the scenery.

Of course this inequality, which is very much along racial lines, is the enduring legacy of the country's apartheid history. Many whites have emigrated to the developed world over the past 25 years, and most white South Africans I meet tell me they have family in Canada. Many people are surprised that I, as a white Canadian, would go against the flow and choose to make my home here. Sure, many affluent people from  Western countries come as tourists, or to volunteer for a few months, but to settle down here? Why? This country which, according to some, will quickly degenerate into anarchic chaos once the ailing Nelson Mandela passes away?

The question of why I settled in South Africa is a complex one, but I think the shortest answer I can give is that I believe God called me to come here. My experiences have given me a great appreciation for the story of Abraham. No, I don't have any delusions of grandeur that I've come here to start a great nation. What I mean is that I believe God called me out of my comfort zone so that I could grow as a person, and perhaps be a force for good in this existing great nation of South Africa.

This brings me to the greatest difference between Canada and South Africa. As our pastor mentioned a few weeks back, for all of South Africa's problems, one thing it has going for it is that this is a nation which is spiritually alive and where the Spirit of God is very active. In this country it is acceptable to express one's Christian faith openly without being called a bigot or a violator of human rights. The president can make reference to the Second Coming in a speech, prayer is offered in public schools, and churches are full of people of all ages and cultures. The forces of secularization have not succeeded in pouring cold water on the Spirit's fire in South Africa as they have, to a great extent, in Canada and other Western countries.

The work of the 19th century missionaries from Europe and North America has borne great fruit. While their natural descendants back home have largely rejected the gospel of Christ, the people of Africa and other newly evangelized parts of the world have become their spiritual heirs, much the way that the Gentiles of the Roman Empire became the spiritual heirs of the Jewish apostles. The locus of global Christianity has shifted from North to South. God's purpose has not been and cannot be thwarted.

For this reason I feel grateful to be in South Africa, in spite of uncertainties about the country's political and economic stability. While I miss my family and friends in Canada and the USA very much, God has given me a family here, and many rich experiences and relationships that have helped me to grow in a way I never could have had I stayed put in the land of my birth. 

I do not know what the next five years hold, but the past five have given me many reasons to praise God and His Son Jesus Christ, and great hope that no matter what happens, He is in control.