A few weeks ago I received a private message on social media from a white South African woman who wanted to connect with me. As she put it, the number of people in her life who wanted to invest their lives in South Africa was fast dwindling, her friends were emigrating and she wanted to be part of a community that was committed to South Africa.
The emigration part of her message struck a nerve and led me to spontaneously record a video on Instagram addressing the matter of white people’s divestment from South Africa. Unexpectedly, the video has become my most viewed and shared piece of online content. It conjured up an incident a few years ago when then president Jacob Zuma had in the shadows of the night fired our minister of finance. The whole country was in a panic. An older white colleague turned to me to say: “You are young enough to emigrate.” My brain tripped. Her words were so unfamiliar and dissonant that I squinted at her as if she was speaking Greek. I realised she was serious.
Unlike my white colleague, in my circles this kind of political crisis, like the firing of the minister of finance, is never met with conversations about emigrating. Of course, it is met with anger, disappointment and even shame, but also action. And people did spring into action. There was the pushback in the courtroom and in the streets, with Zuma Must Fall protests.
In that moment, though, I defiantly responded to my white colleague: “I am going down with this ship.” A life overseas is more promising and viable for some than others. And beyond that, some of us truly want to live in South Africa. We have made the choice to and do not dream of elsewhere. To me this “jump ship” sentiment was too individualistic a solution for someone like me who was raised communally.
At the same time I received the private message about emigrating white South Africans divesting from the country I was also mourning the heartless images of Haitians being whipped by white men on horseback on the Texas border of the US. And just months before we witnessed Afghanis risking their lives by desperately clinging to departing planes fleeing for safety while leaving the most vulnerable behind. I was angered by the images of black and brown people saddled with lousy, tragic circumstances they didn’t create while the powers that created the insanity get to jump ship and board flights while criminalising and punishing their victims for seeking safety.
People emigrate for a number of reasons. To clarify, I do not think people should stay in South Africa at any cost. Those who want to explore the world should; I certainly have. But what triggered me in that private message was the use of the word “investment”. What I find offensive about the emigration narrative is the stories people tell themselves and others; that they are the new heroes or victims of the new South Africa. The white saviour narratives that portray them as valiant but defeated soldiers of an uncivilised and irredeemable Africa is what I have an issue with.
I am reminded of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s address at the opening of the Humboldt Forum when she said Europe tells itself a story about colonialism that allows Europe to absolve itself of the responsibility of a significant connection to present-day Africa and allows Europe the glow of charity. Because of its exploits and destruction in Africa, Europe can never claim to be investing in Africa. It is called reparations.
Similarly, certain sects of the white South African community can never claim to be investing in South Africa, nor should they be allowed the glow of charity. While jumping a sinking ship, they should not dishonestly portray themselves as benevolent investors at the wheel of change who have now been left with no choice but to declare South Africa a lost cause. That declaration is not for them to make.
Some of these people have never even invested themselves in South Africa – they were extracting. And some are not disgruntled by a South Africa failing to live up to its Constitution, but rather long for the good old days. It is okay to leave in search of a better life elsewhere but some of those choosing to emigrate should really spare us their pronouncements about the future of South Africa and any commentary on how they are divesting when they never invested and when “investing” is not even the right framing. They should have been repairing a country that they or their forebears broke.
Being South African is hard and most days we all want to jump ship. Albie Sachs said that the one good thing that apartheid produced was anti-apartheid. I hope that the one good thing that rampant corruption will produce is an anti-corruption movement that will ultimately prevail.
Elie Wiesel, a survivor of the Holocaust and an activist, said that his faith was consumed by the evil and inhumanity he witnessed at the concentration camp where he was held. But he continued praying. Faith is essential to rebellion. I hope those who choose at this moment not to jump ship continue to pray and push back despite our faith being consumed by the flames of corruption and violence of poverty. DM168
Lwando Xaso is an attorney and writer. Follow her on Twitter at @Including_Inc
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.