Defend Truth


Dilemmas of the South African Diaspora

Johann Redelinghuys is previously founder and chairman of Heidrick & Struggles South Africa, now The Director of the Chairman's Institute and of Portfolio&Co

Most of us stay, many of us leave. Some even get so homesick that they come back. Those who stay either get more depressed about failing services or realise they have to join the body politic to improve things. Those who leave face their own demons. Let's look at ways of coping. 

Once again Freedom Day has come and gone. Once again we remember the national sigh of relief after the elections in 1994, and we hail the grace of Madiba who helped to avert a catastrophe and who shepherded the new democracy towards proper statehood.

Commentators have, again, referred to the fact that the country is not as free as we think and that the shackles of poverty and joblessness still imprison large sectors of our population. But we’re alive and the country, with all its imperfections is still, somehow, working.

But what are the thoughts these days of the millions of expat South Africans living in the UK, Europe and the USA or Canada? What about those in the “Japie” communities of New Zealand and Australia who continue to congratulate themselves for having made the right decision to leave and who, when they get together, launch blistering attacks on South Africa and its injustices?

They have to justify their decisions and they have to pick up on all the bad news to reinforce their belief that the country is falling apart. But underneath it all they still long for what was left behind. For so many of them, they had to scale down and no matter how one defends life in Melbourne or Vancouver, it’s not the same.

I’ve watched visiting ex-South Africans who come back to be with ageing parents, or to give the children a taste of family life with their cousins. I have seen them become tearful when they talk about it. Even for those families that have done well in their adoptive countries, any thought of coming back is stifled by the knowledge that their children are now in a new school system and are happy. They will grow up to marry local people and will cement the family’s foothold over there. The emotional investment of leaving was just too big to do it all over again, to come back.

It used to be the English South Africans who set out to get a new life in the English-speaking Commonwealth countries. These days, many Afrikaners question the future for themselves and their children.

“Get an international qualification” they tell their children because they don’t see meaningful take-up for themselves or their children in a country dominated by the ANC and with little prospect of that changing soon.There is an increasing sense of alienation.

When we travel and end up in discussions where we want to defend South Africa, we still do so with passion and with our famously sunny attitude. But there is always an unspoken apprehensiveness, an undercurrent stoked by our knowledge of deteriorating services, decreasing standards at our schools and universities, very bad healthcare, a mockery of a judicial system and the never-ending corruption of officials from the police to the Cabinet. But we try, in our unique South African way to stay positive.

It used to be the Jews who had one child in Toronto and the other in Sydney, with grandparents still holding on in Killarney or Glenhazel. Now, increasing numbers of South Africans have some of their family in another country. Baby Boomers are coaxed on to Facebook to keep up with the whereabouts and daily business of their children who are overseas. Grandmothers are now regular Skypers. The fortunate ones have a visit once a year. The others have to manage their heartache. They have to be satisfied to re-tell the stories of children’s achievements and long for a time when they could all have Sunday lunch together again.

We know there are numbers of expat South Africans now returning home. Whether it is the strained global economic circumstances triggering this, or the final concession to homesickness, we don’t know. What we do know is that the world is flat and that international movement will still always be an option for the ones who now have the passports or the green cards.

What’s to be done about this? Is there some way of managing the increasing risk of life in South Africa, but at the same time keeping feet on the home ground? Perhaps to “semi-grate” and move from Gauteng to Cape Town?

Good advice always is: “If you can’t beat them, join them”.

In Gauteng we don’t participate in the political life of the country. It seems so pointless. But unless we do, the alienation and the looking for other options will continue.

Sensible white South Africans who now work in good companies that are transforming are adapting to, or even embracing, the new circumstances. In well-run businesses the process is successful and the results are good.

But in government, especially in local government, it’s very messy. All that is done, when the subject is talked about, is a roll of the eyes and a snide mocking of the ineptitude.

So the people in the expanding South African diaspora are faced with the age-old dilemma of the immigrant. They will always be outsiders. Those staying behind look to the future and see little to give them long-term comfort.

But we can’t spend our lives, here or there, having second thoughts and longing for something that can no longer be. We have to create meaningful lives for ourselves and get over this endless doubt. For the locals the advice must be to get in there and participate politically. Get a foothold to make a difference in the national and the local agendas.

For the expats, who have made their decision, make peace with it and use technology to saddle the social media to have virtual family gatherings. This is not ideal, but as a wise old man in the desert once said: “The caravan has moved on.” DM


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