Maverick Life


The profound challenges of emigration: Insights from South African families

The profound challenges of emigration: Insights from South African families
Waving goodbye. (Illustration generated with AI)

Family relationships are fundamental to an individual’s well-being, shaping their experiences across their lifespan. The enduring bond between parents and children bridges generations, serving as a vital source of emotional and practical support throughout life’s journey.

As Jane Howard aptly remarks: “Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family: Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.” 

Societal shifts such as urbanisation, industrialisation, globalisation of labour markets, coupled with advancements in transportation and communication technology, have prompted significant mobility among individuals. This global phenomenon has led to transnational families struggling with the consequences of emigration, challenging the core of parent-adult child relationships. 

In South Africa traditional family dynamics have also been disrupted by emigration which raises the question whether the fundamental parent-child relationship can withstand these profound challenges. 

How do South African parents adapt to this profound change in their lives after bidding farewell at the airport? These questions highlight the delicate balance between physical separation and emotional connection, urging us to explore the resilience of familial ties amid the complexities of emigration.

South African parents’ perspectives of geographical distance 

Research in family sociology and social networks has consistently acknowledged the challenges that geographical distance presents in relationships. 

However, there remains a gap in understanding how this spatial separation specifically influences the dynamic between adult children and their parents in the context of emigration. 

In a paper published in February 2022, Shafer and Sun explore contrasting viewpoints regarding the impact of geographical distance on the structure and functioning of personal networks, particularly concerning the involvement of adult children within these networks among older adults. 

Three perspectives span this spectrum.

At one end is the perception of no change (end of distance), at the opposite end the view of distance causing an irreversible and insurmountable change. The third perspective acknowledges a nuanced interpretation, including both positive and negative analyses. Using these perspectives as points of reference I conducted my own survey to gain insight into how South African parents adapt to the life-altering event in their lives after bidding farewell at the airport. 

The end of distance

This perspective suggests that geography is becoming less significant in how we connect with others in our social networks. Some futurists and technology experts believe that new communication platforms and spatial barriers will eventually cease to exist and dissolve.

The responses showed that for some parents, geographical distance had minimal impact on their relationships. 

Both poor and strong relationships endured despite the physical separation. Even older adults are now using platforms like Skype and Facebook to stay connected to their distant loved ones.

The insurmountable distance

This viewpoint suggests that despite technological advancements, physical distance remains a significant barrier to forming close human connections. The distance between people strongly influences connections with face-to-face contact playing an important role in social interactions, particularly in providing companionship and assistance in everyday life. 

The respondents who identified with this perspective, described distance as a barrier to fostering close connections with their emigrant children, despite using technological solutions.

The contingency of distance 

The third perspective sees distance as neither irrelevant nor insurmountable in shaping people’s close personal ties. 

Instead of adopting generalisations, it emphasises the importance of recognising the individuality of each parent-child relationship, acknowledging the diverse factors that contribute to intimacy and closeness.

A significant majority of parents resonated strongly with this third perspective. 

They explained that while their bond remained strong and enduring, it had undoubtedly undergone shifts following their children’s emigration. These changes introduce both positive and negative dimensions to their relationship, reflecting the complex impact of distance on family connections.

Narratives on distance 

The discussion on the impact of geographical distance has revealed the uniqueness of each individual’s emigration journey, while also indicating the overarching elements common to most narratives. 

These elements provide a framework for understanding the challenges experienced by parents following their children’s emigration.

The nature of the relationship prior to emigration is inherently unique to each family. Some families may witness the departure of only one child, while others may experience the emigration of multiple or all children. Recognising the individuality of each emigration journey is essential for understanding the multifaceted effects on family dynamics.  

Attempting to generalise the emigration experience overlooks the intricate emotions and challenges unique to each family. 

Each emigration brings its own repercussions, reshaping relationships in distinctive ways. The state of the relationship before emigration is usually a good gauge of how the relationship will evolve after emigration.

Parents, especially mothers, who were actively involved in childcare and shared significant moments with their children and grandchildren, face challenges to adapt to life in their absence. They may experience a sense of diminished usefulness and nostalgia for past routines and closeness. There’s a longing for the spontaneity and intimacy that proximity once provided. Maintaining the same level of connection with their emigrated family members requires commitment from all family members.

Moreover, the ripple effects extend beyond the emigrated child to encompass siblings who remain in their home country. Each relationship alters the family system in a different manner, contributing to the complexity of the adjustment process.

Resolving issues before emigration

Parents and grandparents who previously resided in the same town or city and had frequent contact with their adult children and grandchildren before emigration, experienced a profound sense of physical absence. 

Emotional distance within a relationship can prove even more detrimental than geographical separation and may surface with the onset of emigration. Addressing any underlying relationship issues before the emigration is advisable, since postponing resolution until after emigration may prove overwhelming. 

In such cases, distance or lack of proximity may become a convenient scapegoat.

For parents and children who were already living far apart within South Africa before the emigration, they may be somewhat better prepared for the impact of the eventual separation brought about by emigration.

Read in Daily Maverick: The impact of emigration on familial bonds

Acquisition of new communication skills

The majority of South African parents are steadfast in their determination to preserve strong relationships with their children abroad, refusing to let emigration weaken their bonds. 

This prompts families to seek innovative ways to maintain emotional bonds, with their loved ones relying on various communication technologies like WhatsApp, FaceTime and other social media platforms to actively engage with their distant children and bridge the geographical gap.

Adapting to these communication media platforms requires ongoing adjustment and learning, especially considering the complexities of different time zones. Despite these hurdles of communicating over vast distances, parents stay committed to secure closeness with their children. 

However, the absence of physical presence results in more practical and less emotionally expressive communication. 

However, the absence of physical presence results in more practical and less emotionally expressive communication. While technology aids in maintaining connection, it cannot fully replace the physical presence they long for, particularly when it comes to experiencing the sensory joys of being close to their grandchildren such as the warmth of hugs and the comfort of physical touch. 

Quest for meaning

The search for meaning amid the changes brought about by emigration is a common theme. 

Parents often take comfort in the belief that their children’s emigration has resulted in positive outcomes, such as providing a safer environment for raising children. This belief helps to alleviate the pain of their absence, as parents express that their child(ren) are better off in their new country, thus softening the impact of their departure.

An emigrant parent voiced a sentiment shared by many other parents: 

“I still have much to learn. Life is perpetually evolving, and I strive to embrace its changes. I know they are better off, and yet, what I wouldn’t give for a few precious days with both of my boys and their families together again.” 

Despite dealing with a sense of longing for the familial roles they had envisioned, such as being present grandparents, parents prioritise their children’s happiness above all else. Emigration, they acknowledge, provides opportunities for growth and prosperity that may not have been available in their home country.       

As human beings, we are naturally inclined to interpret events through our own unique perspectives, seeking to make sense of the world around us. 

Constructing meaning facilitates a sense of resolution, leading to reduced rumination and gradually allowing the pain of separation to subside from conscious thought.  

This process involves reconstructing a new “normal”, providing the parent left behind with reassurance in the belief that their children are thriving after emigration. It provides a sense of purpose and meaning amid the complexities of separation and longing, offering a source of comfort amid the challenges of distance.

Scaling any distance

When considering the implications of distance, it becomes clear that it neither diminishes the significance of relationships nor renders them insurmountable. Instead of adopting broad generalisations, it is valuable to recognise the uniqueness inherent in each parent-child relationship, shaped by multiple factors that influence intimacy and closeness.

One participant compared the emigration of an adult child to the changing nature of an amoeba – a dynamic, ever-changing entity that undergoes constant adjustments in size and shape. 

This metaphor vividly captures the essence of emigration as a fluid process, where each departure and return reshape familial connections, prompting continuous adjustments for all involved.

The adaptability and resilience of family members, particularly parents, to these inevitable changes emerge as key determinants of the quality of family relationships. 

Despite the geographical distance, the parent-child bond remains steadfast across oceans, time zones, languages and cultures. The love and kinship between parents and their offspring remain constant, and these resilient and enduring bonds will thrive, regardless of geographical distance. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Michael Coleman says:

    The maintenance of existing parent / children relationships is relatively straightforward with modern media ; but the loss of opportunity to build grandchildren relatonships is devastating. “Say hello to Grandad” just doesn’t cut it.

    • jason du toit says:

      not to mention the isolation experienced by the adult children in a new country. no family. no strong time-proven relationships, a cultural disconnect. being a foreigner isn’t easy.

    • Garth Kruger says:

      I could not agree more, Michael. It’s devasating for everyone who cherishes family bonds.

  • Craig Wapnick says:

    My family and I moved to the UK in 2021 because had a choice to do so. It is a pity so much emphasis is put on emigration versus seeking adventure in other parts of the world. The saying is not South Africa is your oyster but rather the world is your oyster. Sadly most South Africans are not able to move freely around the world due to financial and passport restrictions..However if you can you should. Travel is the best way to get perspective on life in South Africa. We are still actively involved in South Africa but living in a place where we feel there is more opportunity for our kids. Our feeling is stay positive or go positive if you have a choice. Life is short. Be a champion of the world not just national champion.

  • Tim B says:

    What about the reverse? Where the parents and siblings emigrate, leaving a single child (or subset of the children) in the home country? The feeling of abandonment is real…

  • Alastair Stalker says:

    Aging parents left behind in South Africa lose their familial support structure. I have Stage 4 cancer and I dread to think what will happen to my wife when I am not here as she totally refuses to adapt to living in the digital age. My only daughter lives in the UK and would do her best but it’s not the same as having a physical presence close by.

  • Johan Buys says:

    One of my two has emigrated : makes us mad, makes us sad, but we get it.

    Over past three weeks I chatted with two technical artisans that are emigrating within next few weeks. Both very very capable specialists. Both around 30-35. Both uprooting young kids from solid family bonds. Both not white, neither see a future for their kids under this government.

    Leaving is very hard no matter what chit-chats say. Accept that the move is not an instant gratification decision, but one informed by forethought of the next generation.

  • Leon Groenveld says:

    Overheard from two middle aged – elderly ladies at our vet: ” Ja, kids emigrated. Breaks our hearts but we’re much happier they’re there. ”

    Such a sad, typically South African, vignette.

    Have to add this was around 20 years ago…..

  • Charl Van Til says:

    What do you owe your parents, vs what do you owe your children to give them the best life possible?

  • james davis Davis says:

    Surely, in this day and age of relatively cheap air travel, a physical relationship can be maintained through visits between emigrants and their families. Yes, in the past , a family member emigrating to Australia or the USA, might never be seen again. But now, emigrant families frequently return on holiday visits, or alternatively are visited by family members from their home country.

    • jason du toit says:

      “relatively cheap”. oh my word. even if people can afford it (hint: most people can’t), a few plane trips come nowhere close to the weekly visits close proximity affords. even if slightly further away in ZA, 4 times a year is WAY better than what? an annual, biennial visit?

  • Rae Earl says:

    Our daughter has lived in Spain for the past 5 years. Thanks to Wi-Fi chat on video with her for long periods and often daily. We encourage her to remain in the EU as we see no chance for any improvement South Africa in the short to medium term and possibly even in the very long term. Modern communication facilities ensure our very close family ties with our daughter remain rock solid.

  • Malcolm McManus says:

    I remember a time when it was more fashionable for people from Europe to emigrate to South Africa and normally South African youth would take an extended working holiday rather than emigrating. I don’t think it was less than 30 years ago though. Much has changed in 30 years.

  • Ingrid Kemp says:

    It is very tough, nevertheless when you experience the success & opportunties only available to them in another country, it makes it all worthwhile.
    My only heartache is the years that go by without seeing either of my sons – it is expensive when you are raising a family. Sadly one spouse loves our family and the other could’nt care less. Unless everyone embraces cultural divides that is challenging.

  • Joe Soap says:

    From someone with scatterlings of Africa in Australia and UK, I boil with rage at the ANC government whose incompetence has contributed to this destruction of family through its policies of neglect on all fronts.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted