How do you remigrate?

2010-12-28 00:00

YOU gave up hope in our Rainbow Nation. You faced the facts, and you could see clearly that living in a country so riddled with crime with such an uncertain future was simply not good enough for you or your children. You left.

Your going rattled the cages of your friends and families — some of them starting considering leaving themselves.

And now, for one or other reason, you are back. How do you reconcile?

Part of what attracted me to my husband was the fact that he was Afrikaans. I married him because I am fundamentally and deeply patriotic. Here was a deep-thinking South African who had been liberal enough to live in a township for a year while he was at university. He was the perfect match for me, an English-speaking UCT student who had studied Xhosa and grown a career in social development working in all the townships around Cape Town.

Early on in our relationship he phoned me from his farm in the North West Province. While braaing for his mother and his ouma, he told me that he was the fifth generation on that land. I gulped, knowing that if we carried on together I would be tied in deeper to this country then than I had ever thought possible. And was I afraid? No.

Not half as afraid as I became when he was the one who wanted to emigrate.

The emigration debate started in our relationship the day we met each other and only now, 10 years later, has it been laid to rest. During those 10 years I stuck my head in the sand and my husband read the paper. He summarised, explained and proposed leaving. I stonewalled him. We fought, we reconciled. I started seeing his point of view, but refused to budge anyway. Eventually, I ran out of counterarguments and together we made the decision to leave.

We left for all the usual reasons: crime, economic uncertainty and because we found ourselves living fear-filled lives here. The more we looked at it, the more that fear became unmanageable. Going was the only way of not being afraid.

And then nine months later, we were back. My friend Sonya jokes and says we simply took our furniture on holiday with us. What brought us back? The recession? The bad English weather? Both of the above, as well as the realisation that for us, being there and living without hope for our country, was simply bad for our souls.

In the South African breakfast frying pan of bacon and eggs, we have now moved from being the involved chicken, where we had options, and we are now the committed pig, having used up our ancestral visa.

“So what has happened to all those disillusioned feelings?” My friend Natasha asked me. “Have they just disappeared?”

I looked inside and realised, yes, they have.

Here we are back to the sun, back with our families, back on Herman’s ancestral lands. And back to one of the highest murder rates in the world. But we are undivided for the first time in eight years. And that has made all the difference. The debate in us as individuals, and inside our marriage is now closed. There is huge growth, and huge relief in having gone through that process. My husband says: “The two best decisions we have made in our lives so far, are the decision to go, and the decision to come back.”

So nothing has changed on the outside in terms of the country and levels of uncertainty and crime, but everything has changed on the inside. With renewed confidence in ourselves, we have started settling, possibly for the first time, as a couple. We now choose to look mainly at the positives. We live as though there is a tomorrow. We believe there is a future, because after eight years of feeling like there was not one — and we did not escape that feeling in England — we are tired of living out that story.

Because the crazy schizophrenic nature of our country is such that it is both the doughnut and the hole, the glass half full and the glass half empty.

It does help to be living in the North West Province, which with its small population also has a low crime rate. But we are not completely in la-la land. The glass was half empty last month in our town for the owner of the Lucky Store. He was knifed to death at 9.15 am in his shop. The streets were lined with shocked pedestrians and store owners, and a Chinese woman, widowed seconds before, lay doubled up in grief on the pavement.

As in all these gruesome murders in our country, the next day ordinary life washed around the Lucky Store as water pours into a Tupperware container which my children press down to the bottom of the bathtub.

The other immigrant trader in our town is the owner of the Half Price store. Like the Lucky Store, he sells cheap and beautiful clothes, bags and watches. I watched him wheel his weekly takings into the bank in a shopping trolley. The coins were tightly wrapped in plastic bags.

His cash-in-transit arrangement was so heavy that he barely had the muscles to manoeuvre it through the double glass doors and into the bank. Fearlessly, he pushed his trolley to the top of the queue. He nodded at the teller behind the glass who clearly knew him well, and he went back down the line of 30 people, waiting for his turn to make his deposit.

I was at the front of the queue, and I stared in disbelief at his circus act, realising that he must have wheeled that trolley along the main road.

And as I stared, I became aware that sitting alongside me in a front- row seat, watching with all the other patient people needing a teller that day in our platteland town, applauded that elusive yet resilient figure called Hope.


• Catherine Smetherham is rediscovering herself and South Africa from a platteland perspective. She lives in Strydpoort, North West Province. Contact her at Catherine @holtzhausen. com

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