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To leave or not to leave SA, that’s the question for many

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Natale Labia writes on the economy and finance. Partner and chief economist of a global investment firm, he writes in his personal capacity. MBA from Università Bocconi. Supports Juventus.

I have never come across another country where the desire to leave and explore was so morally charged.

Should I stay or should I go? This is a question which seems to consume many South Africans. And fair enough. Not only because of the myriad conflicting emotions and contexts, both within South Africa and abroad, but because it is a question all humans ask ourselves, always have done, and always will do.

We are a migratory species that has been coming and going and staying and leaving since our inception. No continent is more a consequence of this than Africa.

Another take on this debate was offered by Peter Bruce last week in his column in Business Day. In it, he praised members of the elite and captains of industry – many of them billionaires, all of them white males – for staying in South Africa rather than emigrating.

He found it inspirational that they would choose to seek solace in the vast homesteads and wine estates of South Africa rather than Provence or Chianti. 

To me, this spectacularly misses the point.

Congratulating the elite for staying in a country where they enjoy an extraordinary quality of life is simply a bit ridiculous. The lives of the best-off in South Africa are, almost certainly, up there with the best lives of anyone, anywhere on the planet. 

Why should they leave, given their extraordinary largesse and ability to privatise all the shortcomings of the state, such as security, healthcare and electricity? 

Rather, what Bruce misses is that reality for the vast majority of South Africans is radically different to that enjoyed by this minuscule minority, all of whom could – with their vast wealth successfully squirrelled away offshore – leave at the drop of a hat if they needed to.

The gaping wealth inequality – at an all-time high and the most extreme in the world – means that while the richest do have the most fantastic lives in South Africa, not only is the day-to-day reality for everyone else completely different, but any chance of achieving a better livelihood is (outside of crime) negligible.

Saying that the middle class should be inspired by the examples of billionaires who stick around simply belittles the everyday challenges faced by most South Africans.

Bruce argues that the main reason to stay in SA is because of South Africa’s extraordinarily good “quality of life”, stating that “even if you’re an accountant or a doctor with prospects, you will never replicate the quality of life you have here”.

There are two glaring problems with this statement.

First, it is simply inaccurate. Stating that the only people who have a good life outside of South Africa are extremely wealthy is simply not true. Billions of people are very happy with their lives all over the world, while millions in South Africa are unhappy.

“Quality of life” is a preference, not an absolute.

Second, and more problematically, it feeds into all sorts of counter-arguments around privilege, largely from historical and structural realities, that quality of life in South Africa comes down to massive homes and cheap staff who would be unaffordable elsewhere.

It is no coincidence that all the billionaires named by Bruce are elderly white males.

One simply has to be conscious of the circumstances that led to this extraordinary “quality of life” enjoyed by the South African elite. South Africa’s political economy of the past four hundred years has not been that of Sweden.

But the more general point is that I have never come across another country where the desire to leave and explore was so morally charged.

Human beings differ. Some like to stay at home, others like to leave and create new homes. We have been doing this since the beginning of our species. I am not sure why or when, in the discourse of middle- and upper-class South Africa, a desire to explore new places and seek new opportunities became seen as a defection?

There is of course a broader global macroeconomic context underpinning all this.

In a perceptive piece last week, Jonny Steinberg argued it is deeply ironic that, just as South Africa became democratic, it lost almost all the geopolitical significance it had enjoyed during apartheid, through no fault of its own.

“By the time white minority rule ended, SA had lost much of its strategic centrality. As power poured in an avalanche from West to East, SA became less relevant than it had been since before the mineral revolution of the late 19th century. 

“It was nobody’s fault; neither SA’s old rulers nor its new ones. It just turned out that way.” 

This basic reality means that for many aspirational South Africans who want to achieve global significance in their careers or just have a solid job, it is easier to do so in places of geopolitical centrality.

I happen to live in a country with a long history of emigration. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Italians flocked to the US, Argentina, Australia and even South Africa. Today, the achievements of those who left are celebrated. While they sought better lives outside the country of their birth, they took with them the passion, identity and culture of Italy. This exalts the place they left, it does not denigrate it. 

Leaving is not a betrayal.

Peter Bruce missed a further point, around the question of who can leave. 

Most South Africans can’t. The whole debate about whether I should stay or go is irrelevant. Only a few South Africans get to engage. The rest have to make do.

Bruce’s example of Julian Ogilvie-Thompson and Anglovaal scion Basil Hersov is interesting and instructive. They spent their entire lives in Johannesburg because they love it. That’s a great lesson for all of us – life is too short to live somewhere you don’t love. DM

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  • Martin Neethling says:

    I would say that Natale Labia ‘spectacularly misses the point’ on why the stay or go question is as emotive as it is. Mocking the rich ‘white men’ who choose to stay because they can live fabulous lives here misses the obvious fact that their wealth matters enormously in the context of our dwindling tax base and depleted growth prospects. Describing humans as a migratory species and making out that people move for better prospects all the time and ‘always have’ ignores the pain of any diaspora, particularly when seen in the context of a free, democratic country that is not at war. Perhaps the author assuages his own regret or guilt given his own family’s brave adoption of South Africa as home while he now enjoys life in Milano Italy, but whatever, in Africa the track record of white populations hanging around after independence is not good. There are less than 5 million whites left on the continent of Africa, some of whom are diplomats, aid workers and expats etc. As for people who call themselves citizens, we are down to small islands of 15000 or 25000 here and there. SA boasts a meaningful 80% plus of these, folk who bought into the idea that SA could be better, could be more. The leaving of adult children and young professionals tears these families apart and reminds them that maybe they were wrong, that the hope was foolish. Who knows, but however you look at it, Natale Labia’s take on this is trite.

  • Peter Smith says:

    The rich and wealthy have already moved their money elsewhere. The World Bank predicted the current situation in 2010 based on slow economic growth and no jobs for the population growing at more than 1 million per year. The next phase they predicted is social unrest as the money dries up. Mining companies are leaving due to collapsing infrastructure and have found opportunities elsewhere, unlikely to return. Those who can have already made plans to leave.
    The ANC still supports communism. But even communists know the importance to have highly qualified people in management positions. Unfortunately the ANC bunked that class.
    South Africa has become a case study demonstrating that democracy is not absolute and does not necessarily guarantee progress without preconditions.

  • Johan Buys says:

    The emigrant tidal wave to the US from the likes of Ireland, Scotland and Italy did not result from those people’s wanderlust, but rather the economic conditions in those countries at the time. It is much like the 70’s saw tens of thousands of British move to SA – England was in a deep recession.

    Our people are escaping a weak economy where they see few prospects. It is not just young whites oppressed by affirmative action, though that does play a big role. On Saturday we went around a table and remarked how many of our kids and their friends left and how they were at that moment watching the rugby game in Netherlands, Canada, Australia, England and Ireland with hundreds of other young (25-35) South Africans.

    Older wealthy hired help don’t move, because they don’t need to and fear that they would not be competitive in the employment market overseas at anywhere near what they pull down here.

    • Andrew R says:

      I am a teacher, and cannot climb the ranks because of affirmative action. Many private schools want EE candidates in management, and government schools don’t even look at your application. A dear friend of mine who worked in academia, was told point blank that he shouldn’t even apply for jobs because he is the wrong skin tone. Now he is in Europe, with more job offers than he can handle.

      • Antonio Arrocha says:

        I can absolutely identify with this.
        In SA, I was in a senior position, large company. The BBBEE scorecard was an issue that needed to be addressed at some point. The foreign investor sold the company off to a local venture capitalist, who considered himself an expert, but was not, and the business started to falter. BBBEE was never addressed, rather, the last penny was extracted and the business all but failed.
        I applied for many jobs after that, but at the headhunter stage, I was almost always told, that my race was a problem. As they say, “you are aware this is an EE position? Well apply anyway.”
        Left with no real choice, I headed out into the world.
        It’s been three years. The journey is not yet an end, but, in that time, I have managed to work offshore and re-establish myself.
        Job offers are easier to get.
        It has not been easy, not comfortable, right this moment I don’t own a house of my own, but I will eventually settle. I am not rich, I only own a car right now, paid up, but as a professional I too need to live and survive.
        Those other countries entertained me moving by virtue of my qualifications and experience. I would love it, if SA would do same.
        I did not want to leave SA, but the reality in SA today, is that some of us have few other choices.

        • Donald Knight says:

          Yes! I am a ‘retired’ teacher who spent more than 15 years teaching in Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Taiwan because it was not possible to teach in South Africa. I returned to South Africa in 2018 and regret having done so…the excessive ESKOM rates as well as the property rates of the municipality in which I live are debilitating.

  • Jeremy Stephenson says:

    The simplest way to answer this charged question is to ask yourself where you’d like to be in the dying moments of your life. And if the answer is Africa, then Africa is where you belong.

  • Miles Japhet says:

    The driver for remaining in SA is precisely because we live in a country with a great disparity of living standards. Every time well educated people leave SA, the prospects for the poor get worse as the emigrants are the very people with the ability to create jobs.
    When the ANC celebrates all such South Africans, regardless of colour, and makes community and business friendly reforms, we will see a turning of the emigration tide.
    Then the stay or go debate will subside. I dream on!!

  • Andrew R says:

    For me, it is not longer a question of if, but when. I am a teacher, and as much as I love my job, and SA, I simply cannot survive financially anymore. My savings for emigration take a hit every time the Rand depreciates, and in the last while, that’s been almost constant. So yes, it will take me a longer to go, but I will be going.

  • Robert Pegg says:

    I came to SA in 1975 from the UK because I was sick and tired of all the strikes. As mentioned by one of your readers, a lot of people came from the UK in the early 70’s. Then came the violence that racked SA and many who came for a better life, went back for a safer life.
    In 2003 my wife and I went back to the UK after my business failed. I didn’t want to go back but my wife insisted. After 8 years in the UK we both decided we missed SA and returned in 2011. I started a business, which I still have today at the age of 76. My eldest son went to Australia and my youngest son to the UK. They are both back in SA after many years overseas. The grass is not always greener, but people will try other countries and usually it’s because they see no future here. I predict that many people will return to SA when they see a future here.

    • Andrew R says:

      I would definitely consider staying if I saw a future, but I fear that future will take a long time to realise, there has been too much rot and decline over the last decade or so.

    • Brian Cotter says:

      Yes also 75 here because of strikes. I almost had a glass factory on strike because one on my workers had a spanner in his hand and he was only allowed to hold a screw driver. Stupid days in UK. But we have had stupid strike days here.
      One comment missing is when/if the sh*t hits the fan (almost when Zuma did his jail exit), only a few with an international passport can disappear quickly.

  • matthew78 says:

    Great follow up. There were many issues with Bruce’s article and this one is more balanced and on point

  • Paul Fanner says:

    I live in a retirement village, and it seems I’m in a minority. My sons are still here, whereas most of the residents have at least some of their offspring in far away places.

  • Gretha Erasmus says:

    You don’t need to defend your decision to emigrate by denigrating Peter Bruce’s article, where he was touched by the passing of someone he knew and respected.
    It is ok to go. It is ok to stay.
    I loved the article by Peter Bruce, it touched a cord for me. I look out over Johannesburg at night and I love this city, flawed and uncertain as it may be.
    But all of my in- laws live overseas, most of my cousins etc. So there is this constant familial pressure to emigrate because this country has gone to the dogs (according to some) . I definitely know people who left because they couldn’t find any work here. Our unemployment rate is mind boggling.
    But I have work here in this city that I love. We all probably work too hard and have too little time for rest and family, seems to be the Joburg curse these days, but like Peter Bruce I also value every person who stays, who could go. They keep skills here and tax income to fund social support and help to create jobs for the staff they employ. A couple of weeks ago I ran into an anaesthetist friend at the coast, that I haven’t seen for over 15 years, and my first words that I blurted out when I saw him was that I was so happy that he was still in South Africa and that he hadn’t left yet.
    I think it is so emotive for those who have to decide, do they stay or do they go. Some have no choice but to leave. For some the option to go does not exist. But for those who can do either, it is very very very hard.

  • Piet Scott says:

    I have to agree with you Natale that the lives of the best-off in South Africa are, almost certainly, up there with the best lives of anyone, anywhere on the planet. My wife and I weren’t wealthy by any means when we left South Africa as newlyweds 24 years ago. All our worldly possessions fitted into a 15 m cubed railway container. Dithering was a luxury we couldn’t afford. It HAD to work and so we made it work. Its amazing what water and fertilizer will do to that dull grass! Earlier this year we were given one final reminded about why we left all those years ago. Certified copies of all the supporting documents I’d sent to SARS for a tax clearance certificate to transfer what was left of my paltry South African pension were used to fraudulently open a bank account in my name. Someone pretending to be me then called the insurance company to request the the funds in my retirement annuity be transferred into the fraudulent account. Fortunately the insurance company didn’t fall for it. To attempt something like this would have required inside knowledge of both SARS and the commercial bank concerned. A syndicate of people in full-time jobs, neither hungry, nor desperate. SARS took their share, and I can live with that. You have to pay tax wherever you go. But the sheer malice and the greed that was behind this is another story. One of many such stories, I’m sure. None of us signed up for this in 1994.

  • Patterson Alan John says:

    If my wife and I had not left SA in 1994, at the ages of 45, we would be destitute today.
    Three and one half years in Umtata showed us what was in store for SA in the future. When you see the dismal future awaiting you, why would you stay?
    We left with very little money, made a new life in New Zealand and are now in Australia.
    After 11 years renting, we bought a home in Australia, paid it off in 10 years and have enjoyed many overseas trips to visit friends and family in SA and elsewhere.
    Why would we stay in SA to fund criminals in any form of government?
    SA is a lost cause and is about to become Zimbabwe No.2.
    Charity starts at home, where we are responsible for our own safety and welfare.
    So, it was tough, but determination to start over again requires a belief in oneself.
    If we had not looked after ourselves, no-one would be around today to help us, but we support several of our extended family in SA today, because they are destitute. We moved, they felt a loyalty to SA.
    We know who made the right decision.

  • No Apologies says:

    Great article, and I agree that Bruce misses the point by equating ‘Quality of life’ with a money and a big house (in JHB). That’s so.. South African. More than 30 years after leaving SA it’s quite refreshing to be able to visit without all the intense “Go/Stay” debates and derogatory remarks about Australia, probably because our cohort is older and no longer wondering whether to leave or stay. The criticism of our decision by some family and friends has abated and we now find that most folk we see are a mix of determinedly optimistic and quietly resigned to whatever the future may bring, depending on how able they are to afford the privatisation of their services. Many are exporting their children overseas (and no, Peter, South Africans are not so hugely in demand that they can just walk in anywhere). Some really still believe that it’s OK that their son has been held up at gunpoint twice for a mobile phone because “he’s fine, nothing happened to him”. Emigrating is not easy and it’s taken its toll on us but I’m glad we left when we were young and have been able to establish ourselves in another country which I now truly consider to be my home, warts and all. If our children still choose to leave for opportunities elsewhere then we won’t regard it as a traitorous defection.

  • Niek Joubert says:

    What’s wrong with this guy? Like the value of shares on the JSE, people look ahead for their quality of life. You cannot wait until it is too late to decide to find greener pastures. Labia, does not seem to realise that it is exactly the “captains of industry” who create jobs and take risks that are the ingredients of a growing economy, that uplifts the less privileged.

  • Sharlene Cochrane says:

    I support any person who wants to leave. I can’t find work, and our unemployment rate is astronomically high. At 60, with a degree acquired five years ago in the one thing I have done all my life which is accounting, I can’t find work. I need to live. I need medical.
    I am putting in place plans to leave, my savings are dwindling so I have to hustle for money. (I can do crafts).
    I don’t want to be raped and murdered in my own home. I will sacrifice the beauty of SA for safety and work.
    I am under no illusions. It will be very hard. The weather and long nights in winter will affect me, the rain can be incessant. I hope to get an ancestral visa for the UK. My children will be here in SA, they are adults. My other one is living in Ireland. I don’t qualify to live there, we have checked. At least visiting will be easier.
    I plan to leave. This will be the hardest thing I have ever done. I’m 60. I will be starting over.

    • dave kloot says:

      I was really saddened to see your above comment Sharlene. I wish you every success. The ANC will have driven you away from the county of your birth

  • Roy Hurrienarain says:

    The truth is that the super-rich whites had privileges for very long & control of everything at the expense of the previously disadvantaged. Yes, they only live in SA because life is good here for them, but they can leave overnight like the Guptas did. The new, small black elite the ANC has created, is also not interested about the masses. We are the most unequal society in the world & very little, if anything has changed for the masses who the struggle was about. We are afraid of any changes the ANC want to create because of state capture but we do need major changes if we are interested to uplift the masses.

  • Peter Dexter says:

    We stayed with ex South Africans now living in Australia and they felt the greatest benefit of their move was “Certainty.” They said they only realised once they were settled in Oz that most of us live with the continual stress of uncertainty about the future of South Africa. This stress is greatly reduced for the wealthy with significant offshore investments and the ability to “just relocate” if things collapse, but they are in a minority.

  • Marius Laker says:

    Most of the discussions revolve around security and economic factors, which are very valid. The next major factor will be the unavailability of medical services once the NHI is implemented, where nobody, not even the ultra-rich will be allowed to receive services via a Discovery etc, where the service is provided via the NHI. Then you will see a major exodus from South Africa (also the ultra-rich family members, with probably only one family member remaining to run the business interests)…

  • dave kloot says:

    I am 83 years old and in the fortunate position to still be running. The appalling behaviour of the ANC makes me ashamed to call myself South African. Many people seem to hold out hope that the upcoming elections will miraculously change everything. I am extremely pessimistic. It seems clear that although the ANC will no longer have the majority, the thought of those hyenas being prepared to give up what they have so far stolen and what they believe they will still be able to steal in the future, is pie in the sky stuff. The looming presence of the EFF, which doesn’t even pretend that white people deserve their places in South Africa, is enough incentive for any right thinking South African, black or white, to leave. And to leave now.
    I am an Afro pessimist as I have been betrayed in a previous business by black people whom I nurtured and respected, and who I thought respected me. They took me to the equality court on spurious grounds out of naked greed, five years after the so-called racist incident occurred. In the event I had to pay each of them R3 500 odd in an out of court settlement, a total of R70 000.
    Many writers have for years been opining that “we can still save ourselves from the precipice”. We cannot. We’ve already gone over. My only consolation is that I will have “crossed the threshold” when South Africa hits rock bottom, and I am thankful that one of my sons is living a very happy life in Canada, and that the other has an eminently transportable degree

  • Scott Gordon says:

    Why is this relevant ?

  • Jack Russell says:

    Very good article. Peter Bruce has always been spectacularly naive.

    I’m really bored with the lack of understanding around the wealth gap, the way it is used as something with which to bash whites. A stunningly ignorant, lazy and immoral gang is given a country to run and destroys everything it touches; a talented minority driven by a desire to create is successful? What else can anyone expect other than gaps in just about anything you care to mention?

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