Unity in exodus

2008-07-28 00:00

Statistics can never be relied upon to reveal the whole truth, but a study published last week shows some interesting, and worrying, trends. While many township dwellers like where they live, growing numbers of people say that they are unhappy. Wealth and status are factors, but a third of the country’s upper class people, nearly half of the middle class and 65% of the lower income group report frequent feelings of depression. And, while the study shows that South Africans are still seeking commonality with most seeing themselves as South African first and members of a particular race or language group only after that, increasing numbers are thinking of leaving.

That figure more than doubled between 2000 and 2007 and is now approaching 40% and it can no longer be assumed that these prospective emigrants are overwhelmingly privileged white people. The numbers of black, Indian and so-called coloured people wishing they could move away have rapidly become significant.

It would be sad to think that after generations of enforced segregation, a nation which is at last developing a sense of shared identity should find commonality in disenchantment. The reality is, however, that fear of crime and disillusionment with the state’s failure to act effectively against it is the common factor in the shared wish to get away.

It is a safe bet, too, that another common factor among emigrants of all races is marketable skill. And here starts a vicious cycle. As people with the skills and the competence to build the economy and staff an effective civil service (including the police and other arms of the criminal justice system) leave, so the conditions that breed crime worsen and the state’s capacity to counter it weakens. So the situation deteriorates and more people want to go.

The government has to take note that not just “whingeing whites” but people of all classes and races are losing confidence, with very damaging consequences. This government has acquired a reputation for softness on crime. There may be no easy solution, but as a first and urgent step it needs to be seen to be responding far more vigorously to the problem.

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