Should people who emigrate feel guilty?

2008-03-06 00:00

In articles and letters in this and other papers, there has recently been a good deal of discussion of the whole question of emigration. It is hardly surprising.

A fair number of people have emigrated, particularly from our minority groups, and, as we are now going through a period of political and economic turmoil and uncertainty, more people are considering moving to another country.

Many questions are being asked. Should South Africans who emigrate, or who are thinking of emigrating, feel guilty? Ought white South Africans to stay (as has been suggested) and face honestly and creatively some of the current after-effects of the apartheid regime which they or their parents probably acquiesced in?

Is it therefore cowardly for those who feel unhappy or marginalised to depart? Or on the other hand would it be cowardly and unadventurous for them to stay?

Then there is the subsidiary question about those who have emigrated already. Should they remain patriotic or at least discreet in what they say about the country of their birth?

Or have they a perfect right to vent their anger, disappointment and perhaps guilt by denouncing their previous homeland to their new compatriots?

One or two things are clear. The first is obvious. People are free to do as they wish: there are no prohibitions in these matters, and surely all people should try to live as honestly as they can according to their consciences (such as they are).

The second point is perhaps equally obvious, and that is that migration is one of the great laws of human life. As far as we can tell, people began to migrate as soon as they had acquired the means to do so.

It seems that the whole human race began on the African continent, and then much of it migrated, in whatever order, into Europe, Asia, the Americas, Australasia and the islands of the world.

We are all in various ways the products of previous migrations, sometimes perhaps of hundreds of migrations.

To take a very small example: only last week there appeared in this paper a short notice of a book just published by the Witwatersrand University Press: The Scots in South Africa, by John M. McKenzie with Nigel R. Dalziel.

“The first full-length study of the role of Scots immigrants to South Africa from the 18th to 20th centuries, and the contributions they made in various fields.”

Some of those who have recently emigrated are people whose forebears came from Scotland: they are on the move again. People emigrate for many reasons: they are discontented with the place that they are in, they seek new challenges or adventures, they have friends who beckon them — or sometimes all of these things simultaneously.

We have to accept the fact of migration philosophically and realistically.

Still, each situation is different, and there are a few points that need to be made about the current situation in South Africa.

Countries generally survive emigration, but it is worrying that South Africa has an acute shortage of skills and that most of those who are leaving are taking important skills with them.

It seems clear that the government (in all its spheres) and the private sector need to make some adjustments in their employment policies. Affirmative action, an absolutely necessary policy, has often been applied in a lax and unwise way: previously disadvantaged people have often been appointed to posts in which they have no special interest or aptitude, while well-qualified applicants have been simply brushed aside.

Quite apart from the ineffectiveness and low morale generated by such decisions, it is absurd to make a good applicant despair by refusing to consider his or her application, and then to ask that candidate, just settled in Australia or New Zealand, to consider returning to South Africa.

The fact that competent people are leaving South Africa also adds urgency to the continuing struggle against corruption and other forms of crime.

Once overseas, how should the emigrant behave? People who have left the country are bound to articulate their reasons for doing so to their new compatriots.

A sensitive person will handle this situation sensitively, attempting a full account of the complexities of South African history and the current socio-political set-up. An embittered and less sensitive person will manage things differently.

People living in South Africa, aware of the degree to which we all rely on foreign investment, are understandably disturbed by accounts of emigrants whose chief pastime seems to be spreading totally negative accounts of South Africa. It is difficult not to suspect that elements of racism enter into such venom. But of course those who listen to them, unless they are inclined to racism themselves, are likely to draw their own conclusions.

People thinking of emigrating must make their own decisions, then, and others should respect them. It is perhaps worth saying, however, in conclusion, that for that vast majority of South Africans who do not plan to emigrate this country offers disturbing problems but also rich and fascinating possibilities.

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