Adolph van der Walt grew up in Johannesburg but is currently living in Germany with his wife who grew up in Minsk. Since 2013 the couple has been visiting Belarus at least twice a year. As part of the city comparisons series at BelarusFeed, Adolph has bravely embarked of a highly challenging mission of comparing the almost incomparable – the suburbs of the Belarusian capital with the suburbs of the biggest city of South Africa.
Johannesburg is very diverse, one can hear the 11 official languages being spoken and daily can see plenty of immigrants. Kolodischi is pretty much a monocultural suburban area of Minsk, which was founded in the early 90s and still is only partially inhabited.
Once Johannesburg used to be a gold mine and Kolodischi-2 was a military training ground. Both places have unofficial names, that preserved this part of history: Johannesburg is called Egoli (“place of gold”) in Zulu, one of the official languages of South Africa; and Kolodischi-2 is called Polygon (“military training ground”).
While Johannesburg has some of the tallest buildings in Africa, most of those are not used for housing per se. Suburban living is a norm in South Africa whereas in Belarus it seems to be an exception.
Minsk was founded in 1067 while Johannesburg was only established in 1886. The population of the metropolitan area of Minsk is 2.6 million people whereas the Johannesburg metropolitan area boasts 9.6 million. Although the comparison between both places seems impossible to make, the suburbs of Johannesburg and Minsk have far more similarities than the cities themselves.
I grew up on a farm-like area in Diepsloot which is a suburban area within Johannesburg with a rural feel to it. It was a lovely 2-hectare property with a large vegetable garden and many fruit trees. We had a swimming pool at our house and often had to throw stones at snakes to get them out of the pool. We had two large dogs and ten cats.
There were no shops close by except for a small shop which South Africans call a café and a Belarusian might call a “selpo”. The area was idyllic and some of my greatest memories are from living there. The downside was the neighbor’s alarm systems as well as our own were constantly going off, and when the electricity turned off the beautiful night sky lost its beauty and a feeling of fear set in.
Over the years, our house was emptied by thieves, our cars were stolen, we had robbers with guns coming into our house 17 times and it was time to move somewhere else.
The next house we lived in had a property of half the size, the house itself was very large and also had a swimming pool, the street had a long row of jacaranda trees with purple blossoms. Generally, it was much safer too, but there we were robbed twice as well. Opposite our house was a large golf course and a few kilometers away was a small shopping center.
In Kolodischi the streets are not as beautiful but they make up for that with the fact that almost everyone has a sauna, and even though they have their own, they often go visit their neighbors’ sauna.
In Kolodischi people have gotten used to living in the city, therefore they often complain about the lack of infrastructure.
In Minsk the architecture of the city is full of huge skyscraper houses with a few thousand people living there and therefore a grocery store, a polyclinic, a kinder garden, swimming pool and everything imaginable is extremely close by. Thus people expect things to be similar in the suburbs. For me, it was normal to have to drive a long distance to get anything.
Another difference in the daily living is that people in Belarus work very hard in their gardens and homes, whereas in South Africa people with an average income would pay for someone to clean their house and some have a nanny and a gardener
In South Africa, if it took too long to build a house normally they would sell it and someone else would come in and quickly finish the job, whereas in Kolodischi for the past 7 years I have seen people slowly building their houses using very few helpers. My in-laws have been building their house for 13 years and it is still not finished.
The last difference I noticed about housing in both countries is the climate difference. It sometimes snows in Johannesburg and gets to -1° which feels quite cold, as we do not have central heating or any insulation. In contrast, a Belarusian house feels too warm for me.
South Africans do not like walking, either they would blame it on the weather or say it is an issue of safety. South Africa is a large country and people tend to buy large properties and have a lot of space between them and their neighbors. This means that to get to a shop, a restaurant, or simply to school requires you to drive.
While I was growing up, there was no train or bus system, and the only alternative was by minibus, the majority of which were unofficial taxis, and considered “dangerous to use”. Well, not too different from a Belarusian “marshrutka“.
Most of my friends’ families had cars and everyone was driven around by their parents. Recently, however, a fancy train and bus system has been put in place, and the government has invested more in taxis and Uber has made it possible for us to get around.
This contrast to Kolodischi is huge. Indeed many people have cars as well, but there is a bus stop at our doorstep and soon you are at the metro and before you know it, you could be reenacting your 80 days around the world.
In South Africa, the mini buses only leave once they are full so your 80 days around the world may take a bit longer. For me a bus coming every hour is a luxury; however, for most of our local friends the idea of visiting us in Kolodischi is too far away, even though public transport is very affordable here.
In Kolodishi people are excited to go do something in Minsk city centre. In Johannesburg, there is not much reason to go to city centre – rather you would go to a shopping mall.
Johannesburg and South Africa in general is somewhat famous for crime, it is not common for anyone to walk around at night.
Here I find it liberating to walk around at night but once I made the mistake of walking around without a “flicker” and the police stopped me and gave me a warning. In the Minsk metro, I must come across as very attractive as the security often ask me to the side to look in my bag and step through their metal detector machine.
While living in Diepsloot we grew and ate a lot of our own food. In Bryanston, we only bought from shops.
Somehow being in Kolodischi I have a nostalgic feeling of childhood, the neighbours come by with baskets of food and most have a greenhouse for their plants and everyone has a cellar full with all their previous year’s harvest.
What surprised me about Belarusian grocery shopping is the possibility to buy vegetables still covered in dirt
I find it exotic and I suppose it is better for the environment. In South Africa, some grocery shops sell already peeled onion and garlic, and they try to sell only the prettiest-looking food.
Fun and eating out
In Kolodischi I often hear “what is the plan for the day”, and people deliberate for a long time what to do.
In South Africa, the answer is mostly the same “let us go to a shopping mall”. Most entertainment activities are all in one place, restaurants, cinema, grocery shopping, cafes, arcades, adventure golf. In South Africa, it is far more common to eat out with some families aware of every special for each day of the week, “Monday madness”, “wacky Wednesday” and “thirsty Thursday”.
A birthday, an anniversary, Christmas, Easter, all are reasons to go eat out somewhere, whereas in Kolodischi eating out is more foreign. Inviting the neighbours and guests over for a home-cooked meal in Belarus is more common, and of course, everyone brings with the food from their dachas.
When it comes to eating meat Belarusians are nearly as fanatic as South Africans but their “mangal” is not quite as good as a South African Braai. South Africa even has a national holiday called braai day where everyone goes outside to grill on the braai.
When Belarusians do go out to eat most seem to eat Belarusian food and few international dishes are available. Whereas, in Jozzi – a nickname for Johannesburg – you could eat food from a different country every meal time. My gastronomical upbringing included many spices so for me Belarusian cuisine could have a bit more spices – for example, when I make Borsch I spice it up and even add apricots (and my Belarusian family seem to enjoy it that way 😉).
South Africa is famous for performing the first heart transplant and inventing the C.A.T scan but, if you plan on getting sick, you are better off with private health insurance. I thankfully have spent little time near hospitals in Minsk but my wife was in a hospital and visiting her was like visiting a prison, there was no place for visitors and there were plenty of restrictions.
Regarding healthcare, I would rather mention the similarities between Belarus and South Africa in resorting to the help of traditional healers. If bees are found in a house in South Africa, many would first suggest calling a sangoma, who is similar to a Belarusian babka (a traditional healer – note BelarusFeed).
In case people lost anything, need to find lost relatives or are genuinely sick, then they call a sangoma. Sangoma, however, usually make your visit much more spectacular compared to babki. They wear traditional outfits, with splendid beadwork and sometimes even smoke a long wooden pipe.
Another issue related to healthcare I would like to mention is the care after the elderly.
In Kolodischi I see old people walking alone in the forest and dragging heavy bags to the bus stop or travelling to visit the cemetery. Here old people are lonely. In South Africa elderly move to an old age home, sometimes close to a seaside resort and come visit their families during the weekends or on holidays.
If they stay to live with their families, it is usually several generations of relatives living together so they help with the household and look after the many children.
Something which Belarusians do that we do not do at home is to go into the forest and pick mushrooms and berries. I find it great how some people here live close to nature and interact with it in a respectful way.
In Kolodischi, however, there are two ecological issues that are very present: disposing of waste and overuse of resources. South Africans, by the way, are very skilled at turning all waste into beautiful art which I feel is missing in Kolodischi.
Regarding resources, living in South Africa one gets used to electricity shortages and limits on the water which teaches you to respect and value that they are limited resources not available to everyone.
South Africans used to joke that the plastic bag is our national flower, so Belarusians can proudly replace the cornflower not only with plastic bags but also with “bahily” plastic shoe covers, which they wear over “dirty” shoes to keep things “clean” but as a result heavily pollute the planet.
My in-laws often ask if we would prefer to stay in the apartment in Minsk or at the house in Kolodoschi and I always choose the suburbs. There might not be a lot of entertainment in Kolodoschi besides digging up old bombshells from the vegetable garden or being smacked with juniper twigs in the banya. Surprisingly, despite all the differences, Kolodischi gives me that nostalgic feeling of being at home.
To enjoy more of Adolph’s writing, follow his blog. He collects biographies of people named Adolphs to improve the reputation of the name many people have issues with.