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If you love Africa so much why are you leaving?

By Nicola Soekoe

It’s not only in South Africa that news of a Yale acceptance letter travels quickly. Soon after I was accepted my whole community knew and my parents and I received many congratulatory remarks. While some were congratulating the fact that I got into one of the greatest academic institutions in the world many were simply congratulating the fact that I got into “somewhere else”. That I found a way to join the global conversation or as many phrased it had “found my ticket out of South Africa”.

This get-out-while-you-can attitude has driven many of South Africa’s most talented abroad. Although the brain drain is partly due to better pay and more security abroad, it’s the negative outlook that many South Africans have about their country that drives the move. I was always on the other side. I prided myself in being a South African that stayed — even though I was too young to have made that decision for myself — and silently criticised those that left for fleeing at the first sign of hardship rather than staying and trying to keep our country afloat.

With this attitude in mind I was set to give a talk on, you guessed it, my love for Africa. At the rehearsal I was advised not to mention that I would be studying in the US as it would leave people questioning my dedication to Africa, or as one colleague put it: “If you love Africa so much, why are you leaving?” I realised I was being judged similarly to the way I had judged South Africans who left for Australia, the UK and other developed countries when our country’s future looked unstable. Suddenly the fact that I was studying abroad made me one of them.

Why was it so hard for anyone to believe that I would come back? That I would choose South Africa — with all its problems — over the US?

It bugged me for the first semester, the selfishness of my choice to study abroad. I would ask myself: “If I am as dedicated to uplifting South Africa and Africa as I say I am, why did I choose to study abroad? If I am so quick to boast about the beautiful South African people to the my American peers why didn’t I stay and live with them. Surely that would leave me better equipped to one day play a part in uplifting my country?”

It was with this guilt that I began attending talks and discussions related to all things African. I joined the Yale African Students Association, Yale Undergraduate Association for African Peace and Development and attended events hosted by the Yale Council on African Studies. If I can’t be in Africa the least I can do is “meaningfully” discuss it from a distance. But my preconceived perception of this type of meeting — that people sit around debating issues in Africa without ever actually doing anything about it — was shattered.

Yes people sit around talking about issues, and yes, in the short term, there isn’t much being done, but these students, from all over Africa and the world, are so highly informed about the subjects they are discussing that positive action in the future seems inevitable. They project an aura not only of passion but of capability and possibility. In fact I believe that if there is anyone who is going to change Africa it will be my peers abroad and not the ones back home.

Maybe it’s the fact that you have to be taken out of a situation to analyse it objectively or maybe it is the sense of “anything is possible” here at Yale that makes these dreams of uplifting Africa seem so tangible. For the first time I find myself in a position where I feel like I can do something, some day. No longer am I the lone dreamer wanting to discuss the education crisis in South Africa. I now attend lectures on the topic and have lively discussions about it. Even though people back home might think I sold out and did something to benefit myself as opposed to benefitting my country, being here makes me feel like when I do come back (and I will, despite what many think) I will be better equipped and more inspired to affect change.

Nicola Soekoe is a 20-year-old South African student majoring in African studies and political science at Yale College. She believes passionately that African youth have the ability (and responsibility) to affect long-lasting and positive change on the continent. An advocate for quality education for all, Nicola recently founded the youth-led non-profit organisation “With Love from the World”. It provides high school scholarships and mentorship to underprivileged South African students.

Nicola was chosen as a speaker at [email protected] Town in 2012 where she spoke about her relationship with Africa.

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    • ‘whiteness’

      It is good to read this written by a young South African. I dropped (white) friends of mine off at the airport to emigrate to New Zealand 22 years ago. They did it for the sake of their children’s future. They felt are would not be the same opportunities here for bright young white kids as there would be for bright young black kids.

      Despite that, when they visited I said, come back to SA, it has such potential. I was very positive. However, this last Christmas (we correspond once a year), I said to them, after the last four years of SA politics and no light on the horizon, you made the right choice, you got out at the right time. Good place to visit, but the stress is too much.

    • Skerrminkel

      a) It’s fine to go, just come back
      b) Do not look over your shoulder the whole time. If you only concern yourself with African issues while you are there, you might as while have studied here. Try to experience the local/international/American way as well. That will give you a better “objective” view. Is that not the whole reason why you are studying abroad?

    • Alexo

      Nicola while I empathise with your loyalty and faithfulness to South Africa and Africa but you should follow your dreams first and second, remember and support your homeland – never the other way around.

    • Richard

      Europe is full of “proud Africans” and their descendants. Even into the second generation they call themselves Nigerians, Zimbabweans, Jamaicans, etc. But ask them if they would actually go back to Africa? None I have ever spoken to would do so, yet they go on about Africa and how proud they are to be African, and many espouse ideas of how superior they are and their ways are, yet they would never return to what they are so proud of. They complain bitterly about where they are living, and how much better Africa is. Deep denial, and very confused people. It sounds, though, as if you have the right balance of pragmatism and idealism.

    • Nicola Soekoe

      @’whiteness’ I think so many families are constantly debating between doing what is seen to be best for their family and living in the country they love. I don’t think there is a universal “right”. For me, South Africa is the best option. I try to remain realistic, but optimistic. :)

      @Skerminkel Thank you! For the purpose of this article I focused only on my involvement with African issues from abroad, but I am indeed actively involved in other spheres of typical college life in America.

      @Alexo, Thanks for the advice. Luckily I am in a position where the two overlap considerably :)

    • ‘whiteness’

      I have had more time to think about this.

      “If you love Africa so much why are you leaving?”

      My grandfather was a Christian missionary though I’m not religious. He organized the building of schools to teach reading, writing and arithmetic in very rural areas over half a century ago.

      My parents were farmers who benefited from apartheid, despite the fact that they sent their tractors into ‘homelands’ to plough and plant the fields of the victims of apartheid at no cost.

      In one year in the late 1990’s my parents had 9 friends and acquaintances murdered on their farms in nine separate incidents. Two years ago their neighbor was supervising the dairy milking of cows, youths came in and shot and wounded him. They then went to the homestead and shot his wife in front of their two grandchildren. Although he could not crawl there to help, he says he knew she was dead when she stopped screaming.

      But we have a president who came to power singing “bring me my machine gun” and an ex-ANC youth leader that gleefully sang “kill the boer”.

      I must be completely mad to still be living here and still want to make a contribution to South Africa.

    • I already sold out

      Is your view now the corporate solution, if not yet it will be – write gain in 10 years time?

      Mcdonalds burgers stores on every corner.and mortgages instant meals, cholesterol and of course taxes to pay for a biiiig war machine used to create more markets – after getting a monopoly on resources.

      Come back soon, Africa needs you to help itself in the colonisation efforts from within by those that must know best – look how happy Archie and veronica are.Else those remote areas will continue to have a closed self-sufficient economy without the joys of fast-food, carbon monoxide, luxury vehicles, private property and disposable nappies.

      Your ideals may be different but who can afford the pay check for the goodies you want or will want? The only way to freedom is to spend only what you have. The rich do not lend for benevolence but for influence and control and manipulation and self-interest. They sepnd up big on the PR machine to promote how altruistic this is. Maybe your talk was one of those events?

    • Bill Smith

      You,as a Black person,have a much better chance to get ahead in South Africa.
      Whites, as you know, are sent to the back of the line.
      It’s called apartheid and it lives on.
      Is that OK with you ?

    • The Creator

      Isn’t it rather bizarre that someone has to go to America to take African Studies? Says a great deal about our university system.

      (Remember how they’ve been downsizing and denigrating African Studies at UCT?)

    • Hugh Robinson

      What is it with the fake guilt trip? Get over it girl. Your hard work aside you are more than lucky your were accepted into the Yale programme for Africans. At best you will be able to have a degree that is worth the paper then return to comand the best wage.

      Social studies are way down on my list of the best dregrees but what the hell better than what you will have from ZA.

    • DeeGee

      Firstly, congratulations on gaining entry to one of the world’s premier learning institutions.

      I’m not sure where the guilt emanates from that people feel when they leave SA. Whether temporary or permanent, no-one can deny you your birthright. Also, as I’m sure you have encountered, Yale is full of people from all over the world – my guess is they don’t feel a tinge of guilt about ‘leaving’ their homeland. It seems to be a SA thing, probably due to our terrible history.

      That aside, best of luck in your studies. Come back, don’t come back; it shouldn’t make any difference. Pursue your dream, that’s the most important thing.

    • Murray

      Nicola, you have done brilliantly; feel proud of that achievement! Congratulations.
      Pride over geographical origins is more tricky. I grew up under Apartheid and left a country I was not proud of (also to study at another of the world’s top universities).
      If it were to come to that, I would not be going BACK, as the country has changed into a different version of its former self; I would be going TO. The New Apartheid that Bill notes and the self-evident levels of corruption render me not proud of the New South Africa either. Yet living in the UK, I need only begin to speak and I am marked as the South African I have no intention of disguising, the difficulties notwithstanding.

    • bewilderbeast

      Forget the guilt. Go for it. If you do come back, great. (And don’t forget there will be cadres who won’t welcome you back, so don’t be surprised if you aren’t welcomed with open arms! ‘Exiles’ and ‘Stay-at-Homes': The battle for supremacy!).

    • Antman

      Nicola congratulations! You are experiencing something most young people in SA can only dream of! Forget about us for a while and become `Top of the Class`there so that others can see what potential there is in SA!

    • Nicola Soekoe

      Thank you all for you comments.

      @Bill Smith I am white! And as an informed white South African I recognise that some type of program must be put in place to tip the “wealth” scale in the other direction, so that it is eventually balanced. I know the current programs in place are not effective at targeting the right people, and I will fight for the introduction of new, more effective programs of redress.

      @Hugh Robinson, that is one of the most surprising things have learnt at Yale so far. In South Africa I thought that the only respectable career options were in medicine, engineering, or business, but I have learnt now that that is such an outdated way of thinking. What if more of South Africa’s brightest students went into politics?

      @DeeGee thank you. This sense of guilt is a tricky one! Hopefully people return because they want to, not because they feel like they should.

      @Murray Thank you for your comment. I spent the week end with a group of older South Africans who fled during apartheid and I remember thinking how different our perspectives are. As you know, the “new” South Africa isn’t all that it promised, but it is many amazing things. I think the most important thing is to stay informed.

    • Philip Cole

      ‘In fact I believe that if there is anyone who is going to change Africa …’

      Africa is already one of the most rapidly changing continent in the world, with this change generated largely by the people who live here. To whit:

      1. While Africa still has the lowest rate of urbanisation in the world, that rate is increasing faster than anywhere else in the world. More and more Africans are living in urban areas, which will increasingly shape the continent’s future.
      2. Although from a small base, the numbers in Africa’s middle class are similarly increasing more rapidly than anywhere else in the world. Again, this rapidly growing middle class will increasingly shape the continent’s future.
      3. Massice infrastructural investment is starting to come on stream across the continent in roads, rail, water, electricity, telecommunications and ICT. By 2050 almost all parts of Africa will be easily connected to the rest of the world. Business investment and trade will follow, as it always does.

      There are of course massive tensions that are being generated by these rapid developments, notably in access by the poor to land and resources. Hard choices will need to be made on the path of development to ensure equitable returns to all. But we do not need to wait for the ‘African diaspora’ to start returning home. Massive change is already happening – driven by the pople that live in Africa!

    • Greg

      Great, questioning article. Without experience of the outside world how does ANYONE think they can add to what is needed, be it entreprenuerial business-sense, political will or social development…the young should travel, and soak up other cultures/lands/economic climates. They should educate themselves, not wait for older generations to tell us what to do, what to learn.

      What is then needed is for people in countries like SA/Nigeria/Zimbabwe/India to recognise that the so-called “developed” world (the “old world”) is actually on it’s knees, bankrupt, society is broken, people have lost hope and live only for themselves…riots, television culture and declining education standards all point to this – go, learn about the world, then go/come home and make it work, enjoy the hope on the streets, the smiles on the faces and turn your back to the neighsayers, eventually there will be enough of us, the young and educated, pulling in the same direction to rid the country of the old, corrupt politics, the out-moded hatreds, the bigotry and the senseless violence. Brazil is a country to hold up as an example.
      Yes we have problems but don’t think, because you’ve not experienced them that European/American countries don’t…live life, love life, share life.

    • ‘whiteness’

      My type of thinking; “@Bill Smith I am white! And as an informed white South African I recognise that some type of program must be put in place to tip the “wealth” scale in the other direction, so that it is eventually balanced. I know the current programs in place are not effective at targeting the right people, and I will fight for the introduction of new, more effective programs of redress.”

    • ep potter

      I left because I was first, not white enough and now, I’m not black enough. When will it be my day in SA? When will I be a citizen? Not second class citizen…………..NEVER WILL I BE ACCEPTED BECAUSE APARTHEID EXISTS.

    • Dave Harris

      Actually Nicola, people that leave SA should never be judged so quickly! There are a myriad of reasons why people choose to emigrate and most of them are primarily personal/lifestyle/career issues and secondarily political/racial issues. Furthermore, many expat South Africans have contributed greatly to elevating SA’s status in the rest of the world.

      I’m hesitant to congratulate you on your acceptance to Yale since “Ivy League college admissions” is just another fashion statement – another vile white practice to make others feel inadequate and peddle white supremacist mindset. But I do congratulate you on getting into a university overseas where you will have the opportunity to dramatically expand your perspective and also see how racism is, especially in the country of your birth.

    • http://ifyouloveAfricasomuchwhyareyouleaving? proactive

      What a young refrehing breeze & uplifting spirit! Guess, you managed to puzzle many by their assumption of your race through your name?

      May you be from whatever shade of the rainbow- you are an asset by opting to assist to dynamically change the country by expanding your views through education and not by joining the army of opportunists led by populists.

      Your hint of more bright youngsters going into politics is a great idea & needed- probable a path strewn with many thorns and frustrations to overcome the many “unafrican” accusations so ignorantly uttered by racially challenged & wayward leaders!

      Trust, we will read about you in the next 10 years!? Good luck!

    • ep potter

      You have a useful and recognised degree……go for it. I wasn’t able to use my degree to its full potential. Just not the right colour… present SA

    • Stephen

      I left SA over a decade ago, and have never regretted it. I live in a peaceful and safe first world society. Professionally I get back to SA often and I read the daylies on-line. Under the thin veneer of braaivleis, rugby, sunny skies and Chevrolet, lies a deeply troubled society. It worries me greatly what the future holds for my nephews and nieces living there; I urge them to leave once they have completed their education.

    • Nicola Soekoe

      @Phillip Cole. Thank you! I am sorry, I did phrase it wrong in my piece. Though Africa is undergoing major development and economic growth, many believe that a fundamental “change” still needs to take place in politics. They believe that the development of African countries relies heavily on an eventual shift in the way we think about leadership and democracy.

      @Greg, some beautiful words, Thank you :)

      @Ep Potter I understand your feeling of isolation but no longer think it is justified. There is no “reverse apartheid” or any apartheid happening in South Africa right now. There are problems with redress, but any country will have HUGE problems with redress after going through what we went through.

      @Dave Harris Thank you. I know that expats shouldn’t be judged so quickly. There are very justified reasons for leaving, I just believe that “for the good of the country” is never a reason for staying. I don’t think it should override other, more serious, reasons, but I think it should be brought to the table more often than it is. As for the Ivy League Schools, there are many people that feel that way. Know that they have, in the last few decades, had a total reform and are now make up of a very diverse student body.

    • Nicola Soekoe

      @Proactive. An earlier commenter said, “You,as a Black person,have a much better chance to get ahead in South Africa. Whites, as you know, are sent to the back of the line. It’s called apartheid and it lives on. Is that OK with you ?”. I thought it funny that I was assume

      Thank you for your kind words. And I can only hope so!

    • grant

      I went to Yale, it is most certainly not one of the most prestigeous universities in the world, just one with one of the most effective marketing depts….I studied harder for lower marks at UCT (granted, pre-1992)….

      I find patriotism so boring. It’s an accident of birth after all….

    • Nicola Soekoe

      @Grant. I studied at Stellenbosch for a while before coming here. Marks/grades are relative, an “A” is >70% at UCT and >95% here. 70% is South Africa is brilliant, but it’s bad here. Again, marks/grades are relative and therefore not a good indication of rigour.

      As for Patriotism, I’m sorry you feel that way. I love it and think it is very powerful in places like South Africa for creating a sense of unity.

    • Momma Cyndi

      You go Nicola!

      Having traveled extensively outside of SA, I can honestly say that you only really know your own country once you have seen it from the outside. The different perspective you get will be invaluable in future years. It also makes you appreciate it so very much more when you return home.

      There are many South Africans living and working outside of South Africa but they all make me proud, regardless of where they are. I have never heard someone say ‘that doctor is from South Africa and he is useless’ or ‘that pilot is from South Africa and she is rude’. They may not be inside the country but they polish our brand, none the less.

      You may take us out of Africa but you can’t take Africa out of us

    • Lisa

      A white girl who wants to go into politics. Seriously?

      You are kidding yourself.

    • katynomad

      @ Greg – Let’s not discuss leaving and not-leaving in terms of trashing the other side – the ‘old’ countries of the ‘first world’ are not on their knees, and South Africa is not the basket-case some seem to think it is. The passionate love of home and the need to be there, to breathe the air and soak in the sun and connect with people who know where you’re coming from is enough reason to return after a stint away, quite apart from an active social conscience. I hope, Nicola, that whether you come back or not you enjoy your amazing opportunity to spend some years at one of the top universities of the world and then go on to live a long and happy life realizing your dreams in some form and making whatever contribution to the world around you life allows you to do – but NOT being driven by guilt and the judgements of others into skewing your life to serve some ideological ends that may well leave you with only a bitter taste in the mouth in the end.

    • -Sterling Ferguson

      @Momma Cyndi, black Africa is suffering a brain drain because of the low pay offered to the people with college education and for political reasons. If one is not a member of the ruling party or a member of the right tribe, one will not be given a job in Africa. If one has five degrees from the best universities in the world, one will not be given the jobs if that person doesn’t have the right religion. In Africa, employment is used to control the people and this is why educated people in Africa keep a low profile. One should check out the people that are getting the BEE deals in SA to see what I am talking about.

    • -Sterling Ferguson

      @Grant, Yale is listed as one of the top universities in the world. This school leads the world in research and academic papers being published every year.

      @Nicola, the grading system in SA stinks with the 30% passing scores. You are right seventy in the US would not be a good passing score and most universities will not accept you.

    • -Sterling Ferguson

      @Richard, people are leaving Africa and most of them are black. The rulers of most of Africa are chasing the educated Africans out of Africa. I was shocked when I went to Rio and saw all of the educated blacks from Angola with college degrees that will not go back home. Most of them expressed a hatred for the Santo’s government and will not go back home. In Kenya, the government was encouraging the doctors to go abroad and work to send foreign exchange back home so, the government could steal it.

    • Momma Cyndi

      -Sterling Ferguson

      If you are only going to rely on government to employ you or supply you with a BEE deal, then yes, you are likely to be up against some problems. If, however, you are prepared to work for yourself then Africa is a great place to prosper in.

      University is only a small part of the journey to education.

    • -Sterling Ferguson

      @Momma Cyndi, the big myth about an Africa that if one is black the door will open for them. In most places in Africa, the ruling parties controlled the economies of these countries and one can’t just start a business without government approval. When I say approval, I mean paying off the people in the government with bribes.

      In SA, since 1994, the government has passed labor laws that make it hard to start a business. A good example of what I am talking about, the law that says the employer can’t fire their workers once hired. The government in SA has appointed managers to jobs and they are not performing their duties, the government can’t fire them. Most of these people are given golden handshakes to leave the government. Why do you think the Chinese are bringing their own workers from China to work on a project in Africa? Oprah was exposed to the South African labor laws when she dismissed that lady at her school and the lady took her to court.

    • Murray

      @Nicola Two things:
      First, I did not ‘flee’ – I came to do a one-year masters degree, but got the chance to follow on with a PhD, knowing full well that it was probable that given my age, etc., I may have settled into a career, relationship, house, etc., around the time of completion.
      Second: I can’t agree more with what you said in response: “I think the most important thing is to stay informed.”
      Again, wishing you all the best for the next phase of life!

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