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‘I need South Africa as much as it needs me’

Despite vigorous appeals from South Africa’s president, its uncertain and rapidly declining economic and political outlook is driving many citizens to emigrate. Paulina French has been mulling over her reasons for staying, even with attractive opportunities overseas.

 “I don’t want young white South Africans to leave the country. If I could I would tie them to a tree”, said President Cyril Ramaphosa while at Beyerskloof Wine Estate in Stellenbosch on the election campaign trail. 

I recognise that he is not speaking to me as I am no longer considered to be a part of the  “youth” of South Africa. This rhetoric could simply be part of his electioneering plan to gain as many votes as possible for his ruling party.  

His statement made me revisit why, as a privileged white South African, I choose to stay in South Africa and not join the “mass” exodus of emigrating people. Interestingly, someone recently pointed out to me, emigration statistics, however imprecise, seem to be quoted widely just before every national election. 

I set about trying to justify this impression with hard statistics, but I have come to learn that South Africa does not keep statistics on the number of people emigrating. 

An opinion piece in Business Day on 18 April 2019 cobbles together various statistical sources to illustrate the truth of this prevailing impression. The authors, both economists, show that there are more people leaving South Africa today than in previous years. I can certainly attest that my family has been given more than a few opportunities to leave and live in a far more stable environment with greater political and economic certainty. 

I’ve just finished reading Gangster State by Pieter-Louis Myburgh. The excellently researched book has left me, largely, despondent. But at the same time, I was grateful that we have journalists who ensure that corruption and looting is reported on.  The billions allegedly looted from the national fiscus by the current ANC secretary-general is astounding. I was irate to hear it reported that during door-to-door electioneering in Phillipi, Cape Town, the same pilfering government official, took R400 from his own pocket handing it to a woman whose fridge he found empty.

On my early morning run, I see homeless people hurriedly vacating shopfronts before the shop owners arrive. I see the desolate state people are living in as I drive past  Zandspruit, one of the biggest informal settlements in Johannesburg. And, the desperation of beggars at traffic lights, begging for a few rands to buy bread or, more likely, a bottle of glue, to momentarily escape their lot in life.

Corruption, nepotism, incompetence and a lack of leadership in our state has led to rapid decline in our standard of living.  I look at the numbers in the economy and the seeming reality of land expropriation. I know that we are in trouble as a country and often consider the impact this will have on my family. 

It is difficult for me not to leave for a place where my hard-earned tax money will, hopefully, be better used to benefit society — and not politicians who loot and steal to benefit themselves, their families and friends. It is not easy to stay when your circle of friends is getting smaller. Why do I stay?

I stay because South Africa has people like Dr Imtiaz Sooliman. He is the founder of Gift of the Givers, a non-governmental organisation, funded by ordinary South Africans to respond to the most dire situations. Gift of the Givers has provided search and rescue teams, medical personnel, medical equipment, medical supplies, food and water to millions of people, across 43 countries, including South Africa. 

The southern African region has been hit by the strongest cyclone on record, with another reportedly on the way. The United Nations children’s agency estimates that 1.5 million children were affected. Gift of the Givers were there to help, and have continued to provide aid. The organisation reached victims 14 days after the Cyclone hit landfall. They also delivered aid to Zimbabwe and Malawi, who were also devastatingly affected. Now, the organisation is once again coordinating a humanitarian relief mission in Kwa-Zulu Natal, after torrential flooding during the Easter weekend.

It’s people like Mark Heywood, the executive director of Section27 that keep me in South Africa. Section27 is at the forefront of social justice, challenging government and fighting for basic education and healthcare services for the most vulnerable.  Heywood and his team are fighting to eradicate the many pit toilets, which have killed so many children in our rural schools. In November 2018 Section27 published a report, “The School Toilets Limpopo Forgot”, revealing at least 19 “[s]chools that are not on the list compiled by the Limpopo Department of Education for the High Court [which] are unlikely to be on the list given to President Cyril Rampahosa for his SAFE Initiative — an emergency reponse announced with much fanfare in August to fix unsafe school sanitation”

I stay also because of citizens like our Minister of Public Enterprises,  Pravin  Gordhan, who despite the country’s many challenges and the many personal attacks on him, continues to work hard to turn things around. At a British Chamber of Business in South Africa event held on 16 April, he delivered the keynote address and said “ It’s easy to focus on the big things and forget… It’s the citizens that are determining what happens with policy certainty and the way we go forward”.  

And, I stay because I want my children to know what it is like to grow up with the love of grandparents and the wisdom that they bring to different situations.  And, I cannot think of a life without friends, who have now become our family, after our own siblings left South Africa. 

Despite travelling to many well-functioning countries, I have yet to find one that makes me want to stay and where I can happily raise my children, in supposed greener pastures. 

Ultimately,  I do not stay because our president begs white people to stay nor because I have nowhere else to go. I stay because I need South Africa, as much as it needs me.   

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.