I never thought I would say this.
In fact, there was a time when I regarded anyone who moved to Australia as a traitor, and quite possibly racist. The sort of person South Africa would be better off without, as Pallo Jordan might say. When JM Coetzee moved to Australia and learned how to smile, I felt personally affronted. I never met the man, but he was one of ours and he had betrayed us. That Nobel prize was earned off writing about our horrible history, not theirs.
The truth is that at the beginning of the month, I climbed aboard a Qantas flight to Australia — on a one way ticket.*
Oh, I am not going to talk about the E-word. Emigration is too final, too loaded — too redolent of bitter Castle Lager-fuelled conversations standing around the braai. It reminds me too much of the fabled chicken run of the early 1990s and beyond, the people to whom the usually conciliatory Nelson Mandela said “Those who have not got the courage and the patriotism to remain in their country, let them go! It is good riddance!”
My reasons for leaving South Africa for Australia are both complex and obvious, generic and personal. As they are, perhaps, for most of those South Africans who leave.
For a start, I was offered a great job, one to which I could not say no. I get to work on one of Australia’s biggest advertisers, in one of its biggest and most successful advertising agencies, with a friend I have always liked and respected. I never did take the gap year or do the London stint in my twenties, like so many other South Africans of my generation. I’ve felt for some time now that I have missed out, that I need to experience working in a different country, a different culture.
Johannesburg had become such a comfort zone, its roads rutted by memory. Even the ambient fear had become oddly comforting in its familiarity, in the rituals of panic button, locking doors, checking the street for lurkers as I approach my garage and scrabble in the dark for the opener. If I did not make the leap now, as I remind myself that in a couple of years’ time my biological clock is going to start screaming for attention, then when?
Of course, there are the attractions of living and working in a country that is for the most part without the constant possibility of personal harm; I won’t lie about that. There’s the usual whinge about Eskom and Jacob Zuma yada yada, but for me it’s the relative freedom that is a huge attraction. That, and the chance, not only to step outside of the familiar, but to enjoy an element of anonymity. I like the idea of being an observer for a while, rather than a participant.
Why write about all of this on a platform like Thoughtleader? Well, I have long been interested in the relationship between South Africa and Australia, and how both have addressed the task of nation-building in an era where nationality no longer equals ethnicity. Both are addressing the challenge of multicultural societies, albeit in different ways and under different circumstances.
Then there is the fact that Australia is regarded by so many South Africans with an awkward mixture of jealousy and resentment. If I were moving to London, nobody would bat an eyelid. But Australia — Australia is too similar to South Africa, too much an example of what might have been if … who knows? As I wrote in my first book of South African insults,
The South African rivalry with Australia is to be expected. Like us, they’re an ex-British colony, although, unlike us, they can’t get over their fetish for old women wearing crowns. They play the same sports as us, at which they beat us soundly and repeatedly. In the family of those nations that once saluted the Union Jack, Australia is the golden-haired, blue-eyed sibling who wins all the sporting and academic awards at school and can do no wrong. Meanwhile, bolshy and resentful, South Africa — the black sheep of the family — loiters in dark alleyways, dragging on a joint and scratching listlessly at a mildly Satanic tattoo.
In the weeks and months ahead, I plan to reflect on this rivalry — which is, for the most past, hopelessly one-sided — and the ways in which South Africa and Australia are similar and different. Compare and contrast, you might call it. It’s a subject that receives relatively little coverage, and those column centimetres it does score seem to laden with an overt agenda: proving the disloyalty of expats, or the ineptness of an ANC government.
I’d like to write about moving to Australia with a little less aggrieved patriotism, perhaps a little more dispassion. After all, if JM Coetzee can learn to smile for the cameras, anything is possible.
*Mainly because if you get the International Organisation for Migration to book a one way ticket for you, you get a 40kg luggage allowance, which can come in handy when transporting a winter wardrobe.