On Being an ‘Angry South African Expat’ and What Really Makes us Tick

Lets get one thing straight- there is no such thing as a ‘South African expat’.

People who have chosen to live outside the country should not be lumped into one category. Even though the term applies to anyone living abroad, its much more complex than that. There are South Africans living all the over the world for reasons that vary from being racist, to a career move, to prolonged travel. And for a long time now ‘South African expat’ has become somewhat of a curse word, a word used to describe deserters full of hate.

I felt the need to bring up the issue of the South African expat because a) I am one of them and b) I’m pretty damn tired of feeling guilty about it. (And also a recent trending article got me thinking.)

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The first category of South African expats are of an older generation. These individuals have many enemies. They have been living outside of South Africa for years, if not decades. They are targeted by anti-expat articles written by naysayers who write with just as much hate as their accused ex-countrymen supposedly harbor.

This generation of expats left South Africa around the time of the country’s first democratic elections. In the months leading up to them, petrified white South Africans fled the country for fear of being the victims of a counter attack. (That or they were just downright racist and couldn’t deal with a black president).

There is a certain (large) amount of negativity towards this group of people. You can find proof in all the long winded pieces about evil-expats written by gushingly proud South Africans. We get it- there are South Africans living abroad who talk shit about their native country, it’s crime stats and corruption.

But if you ask me, one of the few places one might be exposed to these bad vibes and negativity is in the comment section of an article written by aforementioned gushingly proud South Africans who love singling out expats and their ‘stupid’ decision to leave. Being picked on for being ‘unpatriotic’ and leaving is only going to cause debate, negativity, a lot of back and forth and name calling. I do not condone bad behavior from either side. No-one is idiotic for choosing to leave or stay.

But, as with most things in life, there is a new generation.

Not all expats decided to ‘run for their lives’ around 1994. What about those who left more recently. Those who stuck around long enough to see Mandela become president, watch the ’95 Rugby World Cup and maybe even long enough to enjoy the 2010 festivities….. but eventually still made the decision to leave. While l don’t hold the all answers about the increasing flow of South Africans out of the country, I do have a few questions for those who love to complain about it:

Did you know that people all over the world leave their native countries to pursue better opportunities? Did you know that it is not necessarily unpatriotic to leave your country to live in another one? That often, living outside the country makes us more patriotic than ever before? Especially because, and did you know this, being removed from South Africa and it’s problems helps us keep a more positive outlook on it that you might?

Arriving home the day of Mandela's death was extremely special for for. I was humbled and totally appreciative of my country.

Arriving home the on day of Mandela’s death was extremely special for me. I was humbled, appreciative and proud of everything my country stands for. I was like a tourist experiencing the magic for the first time.

If you meet an American living outside their country, or a Swede or a Kiwi, would you question their patriotism? Probably not. And their countrymen probably wouldn’t give two hoots about their decision to leave either. So why do South Africans get so upset at the idea of, God forbid, a South African living outside of South Africa?

Remember, a lot of people who leave South Africa intend to return in the future. The experience and knowledge they gain overseas and eventually bring home is priceless and should not be underestimated or downplayed. I like to think they’d contribute massively to a better South Africa one day instead of assuming they’re making things worse.

Unfortunately the dilemma continues for new generation ‘deserters’. Although we’ve gained the right to vote abroad, we’ve somehow lost our right to an opinion on the state of the nation.

American expats wouldn’t think twice about calling George Bush out on his stupidity. They’d second guess their country’s gun laws in the blink of an eye . So why are South African expats at the point where they feel guilty about making judgments about home? We seem to have lost our right to speak negatively about South Africa after making a decision to leave. Apparently leaving means we’re no longer entitled to think along the same lines as people who remain to contribute: Zuma is a dick, crime sucks and growing your savings account takes decades.

If someone makes the decision to leave, so be it. Instead of reacting with negativity and blaming them for their lack of positive contribution to the country, rather give them a hug because you know how hard it must be to leave and a high five for managing to do it on a South African passport.

In the past four years living abroad I’ve encountered a lot of questions related to South Africa, its political and social situation. I don’t sugar coat things. I say yes, my house is fortified and yes, my heart does race when I arrive home late at night for fear of being hijacked at my gate.  I say these things because I have been asked and because they are true. NOT because my favourite past time is to talk shit about South Africa.

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It is also my experience that once these people have heard what I have to say they are, naturally, quite shocked. My answers are often met with more questions. And this is most likely the reason why when you meet foreigners they might bring it up in conversation with you. Not because I’ve exaggerated or gone on, but because they were shocked by what I had to say. Because a lot of the time what South Africans call their reality, is insane.

In the same breath I try and encourage the people I meet to visit there one day because just like a problem child, my problem country is completely delightful and they’d be missing out if they never got to know it.

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9 thoughts on “On Being an ‘Angry South African Expat’ and What Really Makes us Tick

  1. Ricardo Peterson says:

    In your article you refer to the generation of expats that left around the time of the country’s first democratic elections as either “petrified white South Africans” or “downright racists”.

    “This generation of expats left South Africa around the time of the country’s first democratic elections. In the months leading up to them, petrified white South Africans fled the country for fear of being the victims of a counter attack. (That or they were just downright racist and couldn’t deal with a black president).”

    That itself is a very racist comment – to think that every white South African that left the country then were petrified or racist – what about the all the South Africans that left at that time because of promotion, jobs, to explore the world like a lot of South Africans still do today.

    Just because you have left now and not then don’t make you any different from them – you are still an expat.

    There might have been a lot of expats that left South Africa at the time of the first elections for the reasons you’ve mentioned, but you should be ashamed and apologise for falsely accusing the thousands that have left at the same time but not for those reason!

    Just because I’m a white South African doesn’t make me a racist.
    Just because I’m a white South African and left South Africa at the time of its first democratic elections doesn’t mean I was petrified, downright racist or couldn’t deal with a black president.

    • Victoria says:

      Hi Ricardo,
      I won’t apologize if that’s ok with you. My words were chosen carefully enough to not offend anyone until you. My statement is generalized for a reason. There will be exceptions though, like yourself for example. But i stand by what I said- there was a mass exodus of white South Africans out of South Africa around the time of the first democratic elections. The exact same is true for Hong Kong, where I live now, when the British gave her back to China. Thousands of locals locals fled the country out of fear of the unkown.

  2. Hannah says:

    Hi Victoria! I absolutely love this article – I come from a family of SA expats. In fact, they’re a different type all together! My parents and various other family members left during the apartheid as not only did that political climate not suit their beliefs, but my Dad and his brothers were being conscripted and would eventually be told to do unspeakable things that didn’t suit their moral compass. They departed for Australia, where they still live all these years on. Unfortunately they tend to get lobbed in with the first type of expat you mentioned, those that left in 1994, many of whom have now moved to Australia and presume all SA expats left for the same reasons as them (talk about some awkward conversations). My entire family still adores SA, and we all try to get back to Cape Town and East London as often as possible. It’s a spectacular country, and one that I’m so proud to be connected to in my heritage.

    Also, I’ve just had a cheeky little explore of your site and absolutely loved it! I’m an expat myself (Australia to the UK, and Canada once before this move!), and love the way you’ve put together your recommendations and memories! Well done!

    • Victoria says:

      Hi Hannah! Thanks for your awesome comment! I’ve actually received a bit of flack for lumping the first batch of expats into one basket and calling them racist. I was generalizing (as you do!). I should probably have used the word ‘most’ just to cover my bases! And your family is a perfect example- leaving early on because of Apartheid. We all still love our country which is all that matters- haters are gonna hate 🙂 So glad you enjoy the blog!!!

      • Hannah says:

        Definitely ignore the haters – as we know, SA is a complicated country and unfortunately there are a large number of racist expats that spread that rep and have created a stereotype, and if that causes us to generalise then so be it. It’s quite hard to discuss a stereotype without generalising! In fact, I know a lot of Aussie’s presume that all South African’s are that way, and I’ve been asked so many questions about my family, before explaining the immigration that went on long before 1994. It’s quite confronting as a young kid to have others kids say to you, “So does your family live here now because they’re racists?” I try to do my part in telling anyone that asks about the best parts of the country, but like you said, I won’t gloss over the realities of SA life either. It’s unfortunate, but ultimately the truth! So again ignore the haters, I think everything you said was spot on!

  3. Victoria: this is easily the most succinct article I have seen on this, and I am in agreement with you 110%. “If you meet an American living outside their country, or a Swede or a Kiwi, would you question their patriotism?” – you got it. Unfortunately – I am not as patient with these “anti-migration” types as you are. I am sick to death of it, I look at how Australians view AC/DC and Kylie Minogue and I have to ask myself – “what the hell is wrong with the DiscoPants blogs of the world?”, down side is – based on these opinions I will never waste another second of my life dealing with the idea of “moving back”… My accent was fused and I had people giving me a lot of grief for it, and I decided then and there that I would never return and keep my first world skills where they belong. Thanks for the epic piece of writing, its so good to know I am not alone in this.

    • Victoria says:

      Hi Matthew! Its always so great to hear people’s positive response to this. We are people of the world and proud, no?! I hope you’ve had a great Christmas and all the best for 2015!

  4. Lizelle says:

    I promised myself I won’t respond to these type of commends, yet here I am.
    Expat here, racist there, black, white, hate, doesn’t want to, too afraid! Wow, I am so amazed at how all these people just KNOW exactly what is going on inour heads, what we’re thinking, why we chose to move to another country. I honestly am wasting my time here talking to people who seem to have got stuck in the middle ages – there torches are flaming, they’re displaying mob-behaviour and they’re chanting:’burn the heretics!’ Seriously, people, that’s if you do qualify for the criteria to be called ‘people’, not zombies, or brainwashed clones, or some such things; have you ever heard of the saying ‘what’s the use of a mind if you cannot change it?’
    Well,let’s go back to 1600. Who of you ‘white’, or ‘yellow’ or ‘beige’or ‘pink’ folk had family living in the Southern part of Africa? No surprises there. So would you agree that your great-great-greatgrand parents unpatriotically turned their backs like cowards on their motherlands and fled because they could not tolerate the other races who lived there because they hated them?
    I reckon any Person with two braincells to rub together and get some synapses firing would agree that racisms is just for trouble-makers, yes,my father is a Kenyan, and rulenumber 1 is I AM A CITIZEN OF THE WORLD. When I leave for Mars or Jupiter youcancall me unpatriotic but up till now I have been true to the human race.

  5. Mike says:

    You’ve omitted an entire generation that left SA in the 60s, 70s and 80 solely because of Afrikaner nationalism. That generation may also we’ll be an angry generation because of the totally predictable outcome that followed apartheid which continues to have far greater consequences for South Africa than the hollocaust ever had for the Jews: apartheid had confined 40 or million miserable souls to a life of poverty though denial of basic human rights and education. Ah yes, the Africaner and the Church: surely the stupidest race to have arrived on the planet.

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