With this glut of labor you might expect that things would move briskly, but in fact they generally move much slower than their American analogues. If you want, you could spend hours between your last cup of coffee and the check in a restaurant. Minus some strenuous arm waving, the friendly staff have no intention of disturbing your leisure.
Today while one attendant pumped petrol for me, another cleaned my windshield with lavish dedication. First he got a bucket of sudsy water and lathered the windshield. Then rinsed, and squeegeed; lathered, rinsed and squeegeed again, and then got a fist full of paper towels and rubbed particular spots that were somehow not yet satisfactory. The whole operation took longer than the time to fill the tank (and I might add that the pumps can not be set on automatic, they need to be held, and furthermore the attendant filling the tank took a breather in mid-operation, so it's not like that task was efficiently dispatched either). This doesn't even count the time required to run my credit card (and for some reason they need to record not only your license but also your odometer reading). All in all it was about 20 minutes of care taking for my vehicle. You might picture me drumming my fingers on the dash with mounting irritation, but I have learned that in Africa you have to "embrace the pace." Any efforts to accelerate a process will be both futile and bad for your mental health.
Which brings me to a critical point: there is a sort of flip side to African time. It is easy to look at the standard of life in the townships and get frustrated at the slow pace of change since the end of apartheid, especially in the last 10 years. In some ways it is hard to see how life has improved at all for the poorest South Africans. But as one teacher pointed out to me, it is instructive to compare the transition in South Africa with the efforts to achieve racial equality in the U.S. Even if we don't start the clock until the civil rights era in the mid 50's, the U.S. has had triple the time on task. In addition, the African American population in the U.S. forms about 12% of the total population, whereas in South Africa the oppressed population constituted more than 80%. That's a lot of people's lives to improve. South Africa has far fewer resources to accomplish that goal relative to the United States, and has additionally been battling a full fledged AIDS epidemic for the last 10 years (and by the way, there is universal free health care in South Africa). With more time and resources has the U.S. really had a larger impact on racial inequality? One need look no further than our own school district's data.
All of which is not to excuse the slow pace of change in South Africa, but to put it in perspective. And this is where "African Time" comes in. As I said, you have to embrace the pace. Transition has been slow and painful, but also largely peaceful. That same attendant who was cleaning my windshield has had to wait a long time for some big changes. Patience and acceptance of a leisurely pace have kept this country in one piece.