Over the last few weeks the #ImStaying Facebook page has received a lot of attention. Unsurprisingly so, since everywhere I go people are discussing the “fact” that a growing number of people are seemingly emigrating. Stories of whole streets selling up or significant numbers of children leaving schools are bandied about.
I’m a little skeptical about this and have asked some of the embassies whether the number of people applying for work permits have indeed increased dramatically. Although none of them would give me real numbers they were willing to say anecdotally that numbers have increased, but not dramatically. What they were willing to confirm was that the profile of those applying has changed. It seems that it is no longer white South Africans looking for greener pastures, but also many black professionals.
I’m often asked what my opinion is about emigrating.
I lived in Ireland for 12 years. I enjoyed it – at times loved it. Yet, it was not home, for many reasons – not necessarily the obvious ones. Yes, of course I missed family and friends… but we made new friends and we came back to South Africa frequently enough to stay in touch with family.
Yes, the weather was bad, but I like rain, so I quickly got used to it. (Perhaps not the darkness, but it was mostly bearable.)
There was something far deeper. Something intangible, almost nebulous. It was also not there for the first few years, but it eventually crept up on me and on many other foreigners who spoke of a similar experience.
It was an intense longing for something that I couldn’t describe accurately, but that I was acutely aware of.
It was a longing for a sense of belonging – an ease of knowing who I was and who others were – something that is always missing in a country other than your own. I missed the effortlessness of understanding and making jokes. After years of living there, there were still many spoken and unspoken cultural references that I did not understand.
I even found myself tearing up as I thought about the smells of home: the sea, the soil when it rained and certain flowers in the spring.
I know telling people that they are going to miss the smells of South Africa won’t convince them not to emigrate! However, what might make people think twice is if they understand that, despite what other South Africans might say, the quality of life for most people who are in a position to emigrate deteriorates significantly. The simple truth is that unless you are stinking rich in dollar terms you will have to cut back dramatically.
The size of your house and land will be significantly smaller. In fact, if you go to New Zealand, you won’t be able to buy property as a foreigner, so you will have to rent for the rest of your life. Healthcare will almost certainly be more expensive and if there is a public health system it is likely to be inferior to our private system. Eating out will be vastly more expensive – even junk food. I can go on. The bottom line is if you compare the cost of living to income, you will be worse off.
I’m also not sure where it is currently much better politically. I don’t want to live in Donald Trump’s America or, for that matter, with the uncertainty of Brexit, in Britain. Most of Europe is on the brink of a recession and not very welcoming to immigrants. That leaves Canada, Australia and New Zealand, who are all very strict (as are most countries) in letting foreigners stay permanently.
Of course, people often refer to the high crime rate in South Africa. That is true. I certainly am far more alert here than when I was living in Europe. In Ireland I often left house doors unlocked and once found my “missing” car keys in the ignition of my car parked on the street after three days of looking for them.
However, since 1994, I have not worried about being caught in a bomb explosion in South Africa, or that my children would be gunned down in school or in a cinema. I also never worry about some guy driving into a crowd of people on a pavement. Yes, we have crime, but we have been spared the mass killings and terrorist attacks that have been plaguing so many of the countries people dream of emigrating to.
I certainly think that living abroad for a period of time can be an important growth experience. It was for me. However, I always knew that I would come back, the moment I could not work for South Africa or Africa anymore, because ultimately, as maddening as this country can be, it still remains home.
– Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.