Should I stay or should I go?

2010-06-23 00:00

HEALTH warning: if you are one of those people who get upset at the mention of apartheid’s legacy, this is going to annoy you.

It’s thankfully been stilled by our happy Rainbow Nation now, but the persistent narrative on the topic of “should I stay or should I go” will be back.

It’s tiresome and I thought that I could happily ignore it as an occupation of fairer-skinned compatriots that I would never understand.

That is until my favourite writer, Jacob Dlamini, wrote an essay on the same topic in the Mail&Guardian recently. “Et tu Dlamini?”, I wanted to cry. His question was provoked by a nasty incident of mall rage where he got into a fight with a dude in a big four-wheel-drive car. He ended up at a nearby police station pondering what it might be like to live in a society where we didn’t exist on the edge of the violence that has become so everyday?

When I visited my family in Sweden where pacifism seems a trace element in the water, it was good. The rules work, the public hospitals look better than the best of Netcare and an honour underlies most systems, including transport and taxes.

But while I enjoyed it and wondered how one would replicate social democratic values in our highly unequal society still smarting from apartheid, I certainly didn’t want to stay.

I was born here, my family and roots are here, and while I may go and work elsewhere, South Africa is home. When I travel, I always want to kiss O. R. Tambo Airport’s tarmac when the plane touches down in Johannesburg.

Not only because being away often reveals what a good life I enjoy, but because it is home, my connection and identity. I want to see our country succeed and am curious about where the miracle Rainbow Nation might end up when it can no longer claim apartheid as the reason for all its shortcomings.

So I’ve never understood how this game of should I stay or should I go almost becomes a form of Russian roulette. Here’s how it goes.

“If I get hijacked (one more time), if I hear one more story of a friend being robbed, if the resemblance to a dissembling Zimbabwe gets any more stark, if Jacob Zuma takes one more wife ... I’m out of here.”

Young people often ask me whether they should go or stay and my instinctive response is “of course you must stay, you can do so much for your country”. But this instinct is outdated for freedom’s generation.

So, instead, I have to say the world is a global village and if opportunities elsewhere are better, pack a bag and make every opportunity of them. Adopt your new home, but don’t dis your old one as so many ex-South Africans in Australia, Britain, New Zealand and Canada are wont to do.

I wonder if this is because life is tough in those countries or whether they speak with all the bitterness of the disempowered colonialists for whom a life of luxury has abruptly ended and where the national pie must be cut more fairly. Equality can be a total pain when you have lived on the right side of an unequal pie.

And, yes, our country is World Cup wonderful right now, but it is often a painful place where it will take generations to put right the education, property, language and wealth inequalities that were at the heart of apartheid. Apartheid may have ended in 1994, but we still live with its ramifications.

I advise young people to remember where home is and to try to come back like migrants around the world inevitably do: send back your money and bring back your skills. The Indian growth explosion is partly funded by the diaspora, which has always maintained a connection. The pattern is evident in China too.

So the should-I-stay-or- should-I-go brigade should stop its hand-wringing and get on a plane or otherwise take a look at our reflection in the words of the world’s tourists who have spent almost two weeks here. It isn’t half bad here.

• Ferial Haffajee is editor of City Press.

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