Have you ever thought about leaving South Africa? Do you feel like spitting on someone who would even consider it? Or have you already left?

At one point or another, I’ve been all three. So perhaps that’s why I’ve found that Should I Stay or Should I Go, a collection of writing about leaving South Africa (or, in some cases, returning or staying put), has a special resonance.

The stories are always riveting, always compelling, sometimes infuriating. Andre Brink’s piece was written after the brutal murder of his nephew. He wrote why he chose, in the aftermath of such a tragedy, to stay in South Africa. Brink harbours no illusions about this country — and he captures, with brutal precision, the corrosive decline of our young democracy, weakened by corruption and its leaders’ contempt for the rule of law. But his decision to stay is because of his love for South Africa — a love that even this most seasoned of scribes struggles to define or explain, but which so many of its citizens, myself included, have experienced.

I relished Ways of Staying author Kevin Bloom’s appreciation that South Africa is the best possible place to map out his own identity. It is in this place of bewildering complexity and excitement, that the writer can determine his own place in the world.

Journalist Gillian Tucker’s grappling with homesickness is understandable, but the conclusions drawn from her visit back to South Africa after living for 14 years in Canada, were not. She contrasts the opulence of her accommodation with the shoddy service she received. To her, this somehow embodies what South Africa has become. I found that strange — poor service is an issue in many parts of the world. Her bad luck to experience it both in Johannesburg and Cape Town is more indicative of insufficient research on TripAdvisor than a meaningful truth about the country.

I wondered whether this was merely the excuse she found for finding the country she had longed for no longer “worthy” of that longing. South Africa has changed hugely in the years since she left. In some ways it is a different country — one that she may simply no longer have an affinity to.

Another excruciating piece was by Barry Levy, who dedicates much of his article on establishing his anti-apartheid credentials and undoubtedly genuine love for South Africa. One wonders why he hadn’t bolted back to Mzansi ages ago. He devotes merely a cryptic line to answer that — claiming “life had conspired against me”. That doesn’t wash.

I wonder whether, like Tucker, he can’t quite come to terms with today’s South Africa. Despite him loving it and wanting it to do well, perhaps there’s a subconscious impulse to remain anchored in Australia’s safe, if staid harbour, far from the storms and raging uncertainty that can beset his homeland.

Only one contributor (to my knowledge) was black, the indispensable Jacob Dlamini, whose eloquent musings in Business Day every week are a must read.

The ensemble’s lack of ethnic diversity is my main gripe about the book. In some ways this is understandable. Emigrants tend to be from the middle class (those who can afford to leave if they want to), and because of our tragic history, that middle class is overwhelming white.

Nevertheless, there are many of a darker hue who have left South Africa. Some left during apartheid — apparently Golders Green in London is a haven for exiled ANC apparatchiks lacking the stomach to return home. Others left later: lured away to Perth and other pastures when the democracy dividend didn’t quite deliver what had been hoped for, or because opportunities arose overseas that weren’t available back home. It would have been nice to hear these voices.

Angst and political tones tend to shade South African emigration, regardless of why people have left. Perhaps this is because some of those that have left are embittered racists that can’t bear blacks attaining political power after centuries of oppression. Then there are those who have gone because they’ve lost faith in the new South Africa, or in its capacity to provide a safe and secure environment for their families. Others (like me) have departed for more prosaic reasons. I moved because I was offered a job here in London.

Regardless of the reasons for people leaving, South Africans — of all races — face huge uncertainties. They live, after all, in a country where crime is rampant, corruption has become endemic, law enforcement is toothless and basic services often remain inadequate or continue to deteriorate. Meanwhile, ruling party demagogues get away with murder (or at least urging it — “I’ll kill for Zuma” springs to mind). If certain factions in the ANC have their way, then nationalism is on the cards, agricultural property rights are threatened, and media freedom is on the verge of being neutered.

Against this backdrop, staying or leaving is a valid conundrum for anyone with the means to consider it. But it is a conundrum made all the more complicated by the kind of place South Africa is. It is a nation of warmth and colour, vibrancy and breathtaking beauty. It also has superb quality of life (the space, the food, the weather!) for those privileged enough to afford it.

We easily forget that emigration — and migration generally — is a global phenomenon. As contributor Daniel Ford points out, most people don’t have the same hang-ups about it, and leaving one’s country is not interpreted as a sign of betrayal. Perhaps South Africans should attempt to be a little more liberated about this vexed issue. No one should feel forced to stay or go; it’s up to them, and their own circumstances.

My favourite philosophical approach to emigration was summed up in the piece by peripatetic English teacher Anne Townsend. “Life,” she wrote, “is just too short to spend it all in one place”.


  • Alexander Matthews is the editor of AERODROME, an online magazine about words and people featuring interviews, original poetry, book reviews and extracts. He is also a freelance writer, covering travel, culture, life and design. The contributing editor for Business Day WANTED, his journalism has also appeared in House and Leisure, MONOCLE, African Decisions and elsewhere. Contact Alexander here: alexgmatthews(at)gmail.com


Alexander Matthews

Alexander Matthews is the editor of AERODROME, an online magazine about words and people featuring interviews, original poetry, book reviews and extracts. He is also...

Leave a comment