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