I started this as a response to the farewell article by ThoughtsandStuff, but it just morphed into an essay in its own right, so here goes. Tamara, good luck and make the most of it, travel is an incredible opportunity, especially when you can spend time in a place and really get to know it.
I did what you're doing pre-’94, when we all thought there was going to be a revolution here with blood in the streets. In the end there wasn't, and South Africa proved to be an amazing success for peaceful transition. I watched the first elections on European TV, wishing I could be a part of them. I came back for holidays on a regular basis, enjoying the great exchange rate, but oblivious to the changes and improvements that were happening here.
After a decade in Europe, I returned simply because the air I was breathing wasn't African air, the people weren't African, and I missed the occasional "jou ma se p**s!". I've been back here for almost as long again, and very happy to have done so, with no thought of going back to the north (even though I can). The climate overseas seeps into you and slowly but surely adds a psychological weight that can’t be shaken off.
We are bred here to be fearful and to see the negative, whereas the truth is different. I won't reply to anyone that responds listing all the problems we have here simply because they'll be quite right. What disappoints me is the lack of awareness South Africans have about the good stuff that's happening here.
Apparently our infrastructure is crumbling - despite all the roadworks around Johannesburg, the Gautrain, the IRT down in Cape Town, the telecommunications endeavours, the SKA. Since the great policy reversal, our AIDS strategy has been hailed as one of the best in the world. We have leaders here who are recognized as such overseas and participate on international bodies, we have tertiary education institutions that compete favourably with those overseas. There’s nothing wrong with a WITS or UCT degree. We have one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. Our banking system, while it levies iniquitously high service charges, is very well regulated – we’ve been able to sit on the sidelines and watch as US and UK banks have either collapsed or had to be rescued. While we hear so much of the worst at Baragwanath, SA hospitals and medical schools are still highly regarded – I know of at least two European doctors who have been blown away by the level of care in our ER systems while doing internships here. If you live down in Cape Town, a specialist friend of mine is adamant that if you have a life-or-death medical emergency, the best place to go is the state-run Groote Schuur ER, despite the abundance of expensive private hospitals in the area.
Having looked for schools for my children, I can say that the well-known state schools are for the most part still excellent, and there are one or two gems that I regret not having had access to. I live in a middle class suburb in a middle class house and have a middle class job, so that frames the observations I’m making here. Sure, some schools in Alexandria and Khayelitsha are a disaster, but economically stable South Africans have choices here. I know for a fact that there are extremely well qualified and experienced, dedicated people in the government education departments who are making a difference in improving the situation. I’ve met them and I’ve talked with them.
Rightly or wrongly, there is a multi-tier society here, which is not unusual in developing countries. Folks like you and me with reasonable incomes and educations are part of the upper tier, no question (and it’s not race-based – the black middle class now spends more than the white). It seems to me that most of the negatives we see are more prevalent in the second tier – poverty, poor education, health and housing. I am more than happy to pay tax in this country knowing that it goes towards remedying this (cynics – don’t bother…. some of what I pay clearly goes towards teacher salaries, books, premises etc.).
On the crime front: a year or two ago, the national crime stats revealed that around 80% of violent crime was committed by people who knew their victims. Of those, about three quarters were black-on-black incidents. Because of the economic tiering in the country, I would venture that there is a correlation between such crimes and poverty i.e. if you’re in the middle class, you are far less likely to attract this type of crime, regardless of your race. What I’m getting at is that the “fifty murders a day” statistic is an exaggeration for anyone who has the means to go and live overseas.
There was the famous observation by Rudi Guliani, when he was New York mayor, that paying attention to small crimes reduces the incidence of bigger crimes. I find this interesting because of the level of small crime that I observe daily. Traffic infringements, moving violations and speeding are rampant in my journey to work each day. And guess what? Where I drive, it’s mainly white folks that are doing it, far more so than the taxis.
I can only imagine what SARS are up against when it comes to tax season. All these pension fund scams? Middle class white guys are well in there. Whatever corruption is going on in this country, the ANC and its cadres are definitely not the only ones up to no good. But one thing I can say from having lived overseas is that it’s no great shakes here. Arms deal corruption? Nothing compared to what Tony Blair (allegedly!) got up to with the Saudis. And what about the other side of our little backroom deal? It was European companies making the (alleged) payments!
From my own experience I can say that it’s all too easy to think that things are so far gone here that we must up and leave. It really isn’t the case. South Africa has been rumoured to be on the edge of collapse for over thirty years now, and it simply hasn’t happened. Almost every problem here has an equivalent in some other developing or developed country. Crumbling roads and bridges – a major problem in the US. Power problems – rolling blackouts in recent years in California and New Zealand. Crime – Brazil. Government corruption – the level of US corruption in the Iraq war venture alone dwarfs what we see here. Health care – chaos in the US where you cannot get any health services unless you have the equivalent of medical aid. Difficult economy – duh! The wealthy state of California is on the brink of bankruptcy, and then there’s the whole EU, never mind just Greece.
For anyone considering the leap overseas, bear in mind that all you’re doing is swapping one mixed bag for another. I did and it suited me for many years, but after a while I realized I was happier with the original. And that was after having seen well over a dozen countries.
So with all that said, it must look like I’m trying to challenge ThoughtsandStuff’s decision. Far from it – living in a foreign country is one of the most broadening experiences you can have. It would be nice if she brought her experience back someday to contribute here, but that will be entirely her decision.
What I would like to see, though, is that she reviews her rationale for taking the step that she’s embarking on. The one thing I learned in my emigration and return is that your reasons for leaving South Africa probably aren’t the real ones at all. They’re just the ones that are available for you to grab hold of to convince yourself that following your instinct is a good idea. I went because I wanted out of a personal situation I was in, and I wanted to see the world, but I dressed it up in the politics, the possible economic disaster and the safer haven notion. And that’s why, when I explain to people why I came back, I no longer have a solid reason for having done so, other than that despite the challenges we face, I’m happiest right here.