Foreign fields are greener?

2013-08-23 00:00

WE’RE off to Australia for our two-yearly visit to children and grandchildren. It takes a major bite out of our piggy bank, but otherwise there is no relationship with them.

There is the phone, of course, and Skype is wonderful. But I’m not good on the phone. Grandchildren are not good for long on Skype. It’s not the same as taking walks together or reading them bedtime stories. On Skype, you can’t admire their skills on the soccer field. A relationship with no physical presence isn’t much of a relationship.

Yet I am lucky. I can still travel. A recent survey of the retirement complex where I live revealed that an amazing 52% of us have children living overseas. Not all of us can afford to travel to see them. In the care centres of all retirement villages, there are elderly people with children in New Zealand or the Bahamas, who have no one to visit them or to care.

So why don’t I go to live there, in Australia where they live? Because I also have children and grandchildren here. Because my South African savings won’t go very far overseas. Because those countries won’t let me in as a resident. But also, because I don’t want to live there. Despite frequent frustrations, I have a commitment to South Africa. This is where I belong. I like Australia. But I have worked all my life trying to be a good South African.

Why do our children leave? A secret part of me feels embarrassed, that the children have let the side down by leaving. Were they unpatriotic? Did they take the benefits of a South African education and then flee without any payback? There were complicated personal reasons for their leaving, of course, there always are. But part of the reason was the fear that their children would have no secure future here. There were fears about the safety of girl children. There were fears about future employment for boy children. Was this just white prejudice? Should they not have stayed to make a difference?

Or perhaps it is human nature for successive generations to move on to pastures new. Perhaps migration is embedded in our evolutionary nature. If human life began in Africa, how else did the equivalents of “Lucy” find their way to Europe, Asia, and the frozen north?

Some years ago, I presided at a church service in Imbali. After the service, as is customary, we senior men gathered in the vestry for tea. Tea was brought to us by women from the mothers’ union, but they did not, of course, sit with us, for that would not be polite. After tea, a mothers’ union woman came to clear the cups. I made conversation in my poor Zulu. Where were her children, I asked, somewhat patronisingly. Were they still at school? Taking pity on my Zulu, she answered in perfect English. “My son is grown up,” she responded. “He lives in Seattle. He is an aeronautical engineer with Boeing.”

Emigration is what young people do, or those who are able. Those of us who are white or Indian South Africans are all the descendants of immigrants making new lives for themselves. Zulu children make it big as nurses in England or perhaps as aeronautical engineers. Abandoned grandparents are nothing new. Grandparents have been left behind through all the ages.

So I have always wished my emigrant children well, although I might have wished that they had moved to Florence or Provence, rather than the Australian Gold Coast. It is not an easy challenge to make a new life in a new country. What about the children who have not left? Have they been foolish? Will there be a future here for their children, perhaps under president Julius Malema, perhaps after a Zimbabwe-style land grab, perhaps after mines and heavy industry have been nationalised?

The future is not ours to tell. In truth, my South African grandchildren grow up with just as many opportunities and privileges as their Australian cousins. Their education is probably better. Their universities are as good as the best Australian ones. But, yes, their chance of being raped or hijacked or robbed is higher. And, yes, for employment they will need to look to their own initiative as there will be no state jobs for them. They will not become political or ecclesiastical leaders. They will not become judge presidents. And although private schools are excellent, whether that can be maintained in the future with no quality teacher-training institutions may be in doubt.

So either way, the future calls for courage. Emigration is not easy. Staying behind will have its challenges. It is not for me to judge. But just occasionally, being South African has its wonderful moments, not least the Nelson Mandela Sports and Culture Day, when Bafana Bafana and the Springboks played on the same day on the same pitch to the same excited, vuvuzela-blowing fans. Bafana Bafana and the Springboks both won. Everyone, black, white, whatever, rejoiced together. Sometimes it is really great to live here.

• Ronald Nicolson is a retired academic and an Anglican priest.

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