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Flight or fight? The quandary students face — retreat...

Defend Truth

Opinionista

Flight or fight? The quandary students face — retreat abroad or actively defend our hard-won democracy

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Mokubung Nkomo is a retired academic who loathes unhygienic conditions, be they political or otherwise. He writes in his personal hygienic capacity.

Why would a rational white South African youth go to another country and be part of a bigoted, undemocratic, nativistic brigade? Why would thoughtful black youth go to a country where they will become second class citizens?

Recently, a thoughtful and reputable colleague, Prof Jonathan Jansen, agonised in a Sunday Times column — “To stay or leave: for the first time, I doubt this too shall pass” — about the advice he has started to give distressed, bewildered and fearful students.

Developments in the country in recent times have stirred much concern and the future seems bleak for them. They seem stricken by a sense of hopelessness. So they sought advice on how to manage their quandary.

After careful thought, Prof Jansen reluctantly suggests that they consider going abroad for further study and possibly returning after some modicum of normality has returned to South Africa. Studying abroad would equip them with the wherewithal to contribute meaningfully to society.

The advice comes from a good heart, filled with empathy and thoughtfulness. It is advice that is not of the same stripe as billionaire Rob Hersov who, according to Marianne Thamm in Daily Maverick, has been “encouraging the moneyed elite to procure second passports for their offspring and to consider leaving the country”.

While Jansen’s advice may be reasonable, it is unfortunately very problematic.

But first, let me say the obvious: 1994 was unquestionably an epic year. It represented the end of centuries of oppressive racial rule in South Africa. Over many years, thousands of people were dispossessed of their land, imprisoned, banished, banned, exiled and killed. What was achieved in 1994 was therefore the first step in the removal of de jure racial oppression, while facets of it stubbornly remain in de facto form today.

Much still remains to be done, and the path forward is littered with treacherous contestations of all kinds.

Where to go?

Now back to the advice. So, where do the beleaguered students go for relief and reinvigoration? Easy. The usual host countries are the UK, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Let’s now consider the receptions these students are likely to get in these countries.

In the past few years, many countries in Europe have, in general, been inhospitable to immigrants from the global South. Sasha Polakow-Suransky’s book, Go Back To Where You Came From, is a powerful account of the anti-immigrant wave that is the motive force of the rising tide of ultra-right movements in Europe. Britain offers a ready example.

Since colonial times, Britain has had a fractious history with British citizens from former colonies. The renowned Jamaican-British sociologist and cultural theorist, Stuart Hall, once quipped, “I am here because you were there.”

This seemingly opaque assertion was a powerful critique of the hypocrisy and contradictions of the British brand of liberalism. After dutifully rendering vital services to the United Kingdom during World War 2, the descendants of the “Windrush generation” from the Caribbean have in recent years found themselves threatened with the abrogation of previous agreements. They now suffer from harassment and discrimination.

It is also worth noting that one of the underlying factors behind Brexit was a strong anti-immigrant sentiment in the UK. However, like the recent Ukrainian refugees, it is reasonable to assume that white South African students may be warmly welcomed — but not so their fellow black South Africans.

The US is a good place to study, but “the land of the free and the home of the brave” has not lived up to its proud slogan. The litany of unjust laws and the unending threat to life and limb over the years against people of colour, and the rising tide of nativism, do not bode well for new entrants from the global South.

In circumstances where deep-rooted racial prejudice is inflamed by the wielding of the so-called replacement theory, a white South African will receive uncontested reception as such immigrants countervail the decline in the US white population.

Black South African students can gain entry, but will not escape the indignity endured by that class of subjugated people with a generally similar phenotype. Remember Lindani Myeni, who was killed by police in Hawaii?

Furthermore, replacement and critical race theories are the bogeymen lurking behind the rise of an intolerant, illiberal ultra-right in the US. It is generally believed, not without cause, that if you are a black person in the US today, you have to continuously be vigilant as unprovoked attacks have become almost common; it would also be a case of jumping from the frying pan into the fire as the United States is experiencing its own turbulent political and social calamities.

Certainly, Canada is a sure bet for welcoming black students from South Africa given its track record and commitment to multiculturalism. But Canada is currently battling a shift to the right. Unlike in yesteryears, Canada no longer guarantees a safe refuge. Enough said.

A friend in a recent conversation said the students should perhaps go to Russia or China. He was kidding, of course.

Defending democracy

No country today is without problems. So why would a rational white South African youth go to another country and be part of a bigoted, undemocratic, nativistic brigade? Why would thoughtful black youth go to a country where they will become second class citizens?   

In a generous moment, my attitude in this matter can be likened to the “pro-choice” option in the reproductive debate. In short, individuals should be free to do as they wish.

Ultimately, it is worth remembering that the Struggle against colonialism and apartheid was a legitimate struggle and the elimination of gross human rights infringements was an incredibly worthy achievement. 

Having achieved democracy, a nascent one to be sure, the task now is to defend it, steer and nurture it so it can attain an enduring resilience; it is a Herculean task. Those who wish to undermine the democratic project must not be allowed to take away and destroy a hard-won prize.

Youth have a stake in this. Perhaps the greatest one. They cannot leave it to others to do it for them. Their forebears sacrificed dearly to get to where we are today.

Remember, every generation has a role to play. If they do not lend a hand and put their shoulders to the wheel, there may be no country left for them to utilise their earned knowledge and skills after their sojourn abroad. The knowledge and skills acquisition will all have been for naught.

So, in my humble opinion, stay and fight the good fight. This country belongs to all who believe in the principles and values enshrined in the Constitution. DM

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  • Now where in the developed world does one find the most overt, official and widespread affirmative action policies? Oh that’s right – in the UK, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
    Well now, what a coincidence that is…

    If these places are not good enough for you, perhaps you should consider the reality that your friend may not have been joking.

  • There are many legitimate reasons why a South African student might want to go study, and live, abroad. Why would a medical student, for example, want to endure the broken system of state hospitals here, where basic materials like pain-killing drugs, bandages and clean bed sheets are scarce? And where, if you speak out against the broken system, you are victimised? I can think of a few.

  • Sometimes, you only see the value of what you had long after you have let it go. But in order to see something in perspective you need to get some distance away.

  • Yeah, but the ANC doesn’t agree. Go, and good riddance is no longer a race thing, it is a survival mantra of the sensible!

  • I have to agree whole heartedly with this article. We have to fight the good fight. There are many amazing things going on in South Africa and we have to give media exposure to these people and movements to inspire graduates to take different paths, that will give them joy and which will make a difference to society. Media, including DM give politics too much air time, as if politicians are the only people who can change a country. This leaves us all feeling hopeless.
    Social activism is alive and well. and makes change everyday. If the youth of today were constantly exposed, via media, to the many areas of contribution and opportunity, we could build the country we dream of. Furthering education overseas brings a very one dimensional business skill of profit above all else, especially the USA. Their economy exists on consumption and today the world has to build another way. It is possible to be prosperous without destroying communities and the planet.

    • Ah, but what if the social activism you speak of is beset with Marxist delusions of professional victimhood and the “Oppression Olympics”? What kind of society is built thereby? Stalin’s Collectivisations? Mao’s Great Leap Forward? How about the more recent example in the US of the BLM riots? What lasting good came of any of these?

      Be careful which crowd you blindly follow – it might be heading in a direction you may not like and led by people with less than honourable intentions.

  • Why would a rational white South African youth remain in this country and be subjected to a bigoted, undemocratic, nativistic brigade?

    Why would thoughtful black youth remain in this country where they will become second class citizens to the plundering black ruling class?

  • There is nothing chasing students away from SA other than the fact that they see no future for themselves in a country where the government is constantly doubling down on their national democratic revolution aspirations, associations with authoritarian regimes, crime, extensive corruption, cadre deployment, ridiculous government interference in many aspects that will affect their future lives (like jumping through loops to start up a business) and an unpredictable government that changes its mind on a whim because it has no real direction and has obviously sad incompetents as leaders (we look at the police, energy and education departments as an example – three of the most vital aspects of a well-run country). They’re looking beyond 5 to 10 years’ time. They’re looking for the rest of their lives with families and children. They want to live in an environment where there’s sensible, functional and predictable government that has the well-being of their citizens as a priority. They may have some element of rejection. But their children won’t.
    Make it attractive to stay. And they’ll stay. It’s simple.

  • For so long as BEE and other such race based discriminatory legislation is in place we will see economic decline and dysfunctional government.
    Why would any young talented and well qualified South African see a future here for so long as this is the situation ?

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