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.)
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 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.
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.