Jarred Cinman
Jarred Cinman

The pitter-patter of the ex-pats

Somebody told me a while ago that there are now a million South Africans living in Australia, and a similar number in the UK. I guess between Canada, the US and elsewhere, there must be at least half that same number again out there looking for a better life. Or having found it already.

I have no real idea if these figures are correct, but I assume they’re in the ballpark. Kind of a scary statistic, and one that immediately causes two thoughts in my own head. First, what has this country lost, to the gain of the Australians or the English? And second, have these people been wise to cart their belongings off to far shores, leaving us tend the ticking bomb?

There is no doubt that if we have lost in the region of two to three million South Africans, the vast majority were educated and skilled. These other first world countries have, to borrow a brilliant mixed-metaphor I heard recently, cherry-picked the cream of the crop. This is obvious since the entrance requirements into these countries are notoriously stringent. Wealth, education, experience and talent are all prized and selected for. To say nothing of the money one requires in any event to undertake such a move.

If these people were still here, there is also no question that some things would be very different for those of us still here. There would be far fewer young executives, many of whom were promoted long before their time through sheer lack of available talent in the generation above. There would be a lot more competition for resources, and a lot more competition in general.

Now you may well argue that growth would also be faster and innovation greater, thus creating more for everyone. This may be true, although I do tend to think many of the emigrants are not the innovator class, but those tending to be more risk-averse. Emigration is, after all, a lot to do with diminishing risk. We all know there is plenty of money to be made here, and probably a lot more easily than in big first world cities where competition is indeed fierce.

As to whether we have the bomb and they have the freedom, that goes to how one looks to the future. In the past six to 12 months, this country has been gripped by Afro-pessimism that I haven’t experienced since 1994. And that combined with global recession fears, high oil prices and the Zimbacle up north has generated what feels like steady stream of people leaving.

As with any fears of this nature, they are part truth, part falsehood; part informed by personal experience, and part informed by the rantings of the mass media and alarmism at the water cooler. In the end, the decision to leave is a selfish one, one focused on self-preservation and personal gain. That is not to judge it as wrong, simply to notice that an essential part of the decision is to make a break with your country, your home, and to put yourself, and your loved ones, first.

It doesn’t take much to make people feel insecure. And in a country in which we have lived with insecurity for the better part of 50 years (at least) it takes just about nothing to persuade South Africans that doom is upon us. We have all expected that moment for what feels like forever anyway.

In the past year we have faced the prospect of Eskom plunging our country into perpetual darkness (it’s now been something like three months since the last load-shed, three months of cold winter nights I might add); xenophobic attacks on foreign nationals in the townships (horrible, but apparently largely under control now); the ridiculous Zimbabwe elections (even this, I may note, seems to be finally being negotiated toward a settlement) and lots of bad economic news (including what now appear to be vastly over-stated inflation numbers).

In the past 15 years, we have had to rebuild an economy crippled by sanctions, and sitting at inflation levels of over 30%; the ravages of HIV/Aids; having to build houses and provide electricity and basic services to millions of people living in the most abject poverty imaginable; and relentless, and often brutal, crime.

No one can argue we have won any of these battles decisively, or overcome the obstacles without tripping up. And maybe we never will. The point I’m making is that there has always been reason to pick up and leave, to go somewhere quieter, law-abiding and economically stable. And there always will be, at least for the farthest foreseeable future, I can imagine.

Which means either one accepts that nature of South Africa and stays with that acceptance, or one stays living in a hell of fear and misery, constantly looking longingly over the ocean to paradise on the other side. Which, let’s face it, is no way to live.

The ex-pats are gone. There is not going to be some day in the future when all is well back home, and they come streaming back in their millions. Many who left in the 90’s now have children that are Australians or Canadians. Like my parents whose parents came from Lithuania or Estonia or Latvia, this generation has only tenuous links back to South Africa. And their children — a generation already a twinkle in the eyes — will have even less. They will hear stories and talk, and they may visit, but their connection to what we are here will be severed.

Those who have left are lost to us, whether we like it or not. We can be resentful and angry, as I sometimes am, and say “good riddance”. Or we can feel sad for the loss of so many good friends and smart citizens.

So, in fact, there are no South Africans living abroad, because their South African-ness is gone. There were many returnees in the late 90’s, some who had been in exile, some who had left earlier in the decade and not found what they had hoped for and wanted to be a part of the rainbow nation again. But those who have left since, or who have not returned are of a different ilk. Like my grandparents or the Italians or Irish who went to America in search of something new, this group are not temporarily displaced. They have thrown their lot in with another team, and we must consider them permanently out of ours.

We who remain, I believe, must endeavour to accept the South Africa we are a part of, and do our best to make it work. And those who have gone must endeavour to leave us to it, and get on with becoming the best Americans or British they can be.

The work ahead is to try and be a country in which the reasons to stay outweigh the reasons to leave. The world has become a far smaller place anyway, for all countries, and moving around has never been more possible or desirable. So we are vulnerable at a time when the borders are paper-thin.

But the most important perspective to keep is that South Africa remains a country of great opportunity. Look at the cranes towering over Sandton’s skyline; listen to the stories of South African business success out into the African continent, and you will realise an undeniable fact: that we are still building something here, building the greatest and most powerful country south of the Sahara. And sure, you may not care for that, or for how its turning out, or for the hardship inherent in the project. But if you do there is a great deal here to look forward to.