Anywhere but here

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I haven’t blogged for months and months, mostly because of some Interesting Life Developments that diverted my attention. I’ve had so much going on in my brain, so many thoughts about Living, and none of them have been coherent enough to shape into a single post.

But the only thing worse than a shitty blog is a neglected blog, so today I’m going to try to write about one of the issues I’ve been absent-mindedly dwelling on in the last few months. Not the quandaries of a second pregnancy (I’m halfway into mine, despite believing I’d not be able to get pregnant again, and not knowing if I even wanted to), about which I could wax lyrical; not about an imminent change in the texture of my workdays (after the baby, I’m resigning from work, and starting as a freelancer, so for the first time in my adult life, I won’t be on anybody’s full-time payroll); and not about my husband’s abrupt about-turn into taking leadership of a start-up and what that will mean for our family of three-nearly-four.

It’s about something a lot more general, but it’s also something I’ve got more questions than definitive thoughts about: staying in South Africa. (Edit: It irritates me when bloggers preface posts containing their personal opinion in this way, but I can see why they do. Reader, please know that if you are thinking of emigrating, or have emigrated, and I know you as a friend or family member, this is not a post criticising you or your motivations to leave. It’s more a statement on my experience of the politics of what it means to be a white middle-class South African in this day and age, using as a launchpad the instance of recently hearing that a friend – who is not a social media connection, so it’s probably not you – and her family are in the process of emigrating, and my feelings when she told me. It’s not about you, or anyone in particular. Thank you.)

I had to ask myself this question a few months ago: Why is it that when friends tell me they’re emigrating, the first thing I feel is betrayed? I wouldn’t feel that way if they were moving to a different city, so it’s not because they’re leaving Cape Town to live somewhere else and thus denying me their company.

And then: Do people in other countries feel this way when their friends emigrate?

Or do I feel betrayed at news of friends leaving South Africa because of where we’ve been in the last 20 years, the narrative of the Rainbow Nation – the idea that we’ve built this amazing, brand-new, free and open and wonderful society together since ’94, and you don’t get to just opt out of that? Even though we all know by now that the Rainbow Nation narrative was just that – a tall tale, a yarn – and that the majority of South Africans are poor, and desperate, and dismayed with all the things that haven’t happened in 20 years … Or is it because it makes me question my own choices, because it casts aspersions on my own satisfaction with our life here, because it makes me feel inferior for thinking that this is an incredible place to live?

It could be a little bit of all of those things. But after a while, I started to realise that the reason I feel betrayed is this: I feel like my friends, middle-class white people who leave South Africa because they’re dissatisfied with the way they live here, are just being ungrateful.

Because as a middle-class white South African, I know that we live a charmed life. We must be the most privileged group of people anywhere in the world. The end of apartheid did not mean that our lives changed – we never needed the stockpiles of bread my mother kept in the freezer, or the tins of beans she collected in case of war; we kept our sturdy homes and our schools and our private healthcare and our beach houses and our dignity and the respect of others, at least overtly, and hell, even our cars and books and electronics and TVs; we got to keep all the things we’d denied so many people. One of the only ways our lives changed was that now we could feel better about ourselves; our white guilt could start to be erased. We’re all equal now under law, right? If I succeed, it’s because of the work I’ve put in myself. I’ve worked hard every single day of my  life, and so I deserve everything I’ve got. The poor are the way they are because of bad decisions they’ve made. It’s basically their own fault. This kind of thing is easier to say now than it was for our parents. Of course, it’s all utter bullshit, but it’s so easy to adopt this attitude these days. If anything, since the end of apartheid, I feel like white middle-class South Africans have actually become more privileged.

So I look at my friends who have big houses and comfortable suburban lives and medical aid and every convenience they’d have in more developed countries (and, in many cases, more than they’d have overseas) and listen to them say that they’re leaving “because of the crime” (never mind that they’re safer in their suburbs than 99% of their fellow South Africans, and that the reason they feel so vulnerable is because so many people have so much less than they do, and maybe the best way to address this would be to start trying to solve it, like making monthly donations to organisations that give people a head-start in getting an education, finding work, learning skills) and “for their children”, and I just think – how can you be so ungrateful? What kind of life will you live in the UK, in the States, in Australia or New Zealand, that would be better than living here, right now? Tell me – what tangible or intangible privileges will your children have there that they’re not getting here?

And I’m coming up blank.

I love it here. I hope to never leave. I feel lucky and privileged and guilty every day, and in my own ways I’m going to keep trying to correct the terrible things that have happened and keep happening to put me and other people like me in this position of privilege.

But I can’t say any of this to people like me who are desperate to leave. The irony is that the reason they can choose to leave is their privilege – their other passports, their education, their resources, all the things that being white and middle-class in South Africa has allowed them. But the poor, the ones whose lives are really rotten? They’ve got nowhere to go.

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12 thoughts on “Anywhere but here

  1. Lindsay Clark (cousin!)

    OMW! Why would you even publish this let alone write this? So mean and judgemental for others life decisions and choices let alone self justification for your own decisions. And from my perspective spoken like someone who hasn’t lived in another country and experienced something else or seen the difference even 5 years can make! Let alone considering the differences my donations of dollars can now make to the organisations helping the people you reference in SA. Shocked and disappointed at your narrow mindedness!

    Reply
    1. miche17 Post author

      oh no, cuz, i wasn’t thinking about you at all! you moved a while ago – things were different then. it is judgmental, yes, but it was honestly not directed at you or any one family or person in particular. i’d never write or publish something that was a veiled accusation or insult to people I care about. Life’s too short for that kind of nastiness! I’m so sorry to have hurt your feelings…

      Reply
      1. Lindsay (the cousin)

        You didn’t hurt my feelings! I’m happy about my choices in life. They are mine after all, not yours. I just never thought you could be so judgemental of others choices in life, I’m rather shocked! People make choices for their life and their families that they believe will work for them, and they will have to live with them. Just wanting you to think about that,.

      2. miche17 Post author

        Absolutely. None of us know how anything will work out down the line, we’re all just bumbling along, doing the best we can. This post is about why I believe that we’re doing pretty well here and all I can hope is that it will make people ask themselves, as I did, why they feel and believe they way they do. Thank you for engaging and for reading – it’s so important to be called out on our preconceptions of the world. x

  2. Andrea

    Hey Michelle, great, and very brave blog considering emigration can unleash a bit of a shitstorm with white, middle class Saffers. I totally understood that it was a more of a gut reaction than a logical ‘this is why emigration is bad’ blog, so I won’t bug you with stories about some folk who can’t pursue their chosen careers in South Africa due to a lack of jobs, or because their profession is super-specialised, as I’m sure you’ve considered this and this is not what you mean 🙂

    But I do want to say that quite a few of my friends who have emigrated to the UK,especially and have lived here for about 10 years, are actually going back! Often because of ‘the kids’, because they know that having family and old friends around you and a garden and feeling at home and not like a stranger are more important than money. And middle-class South Africans really do live a privileged life. I mean, we have domestic helpers in SA – not having to clean your own toilet is a major privilege 🙂 And yes, having free healthcare here (the UK) is cool, and not having to look over your shoulder when walking down the street at night (or being able to walk down the street at night at all) is also cool, but I still want to go back after finishing my PhD here. (Which I’m pretty selfishly and capitalistically doing to give me an ‘overseas’ edge, I guess. Or to ‘learn valuable skills that I can bring back to SA’ if you ask my scholarship application 😉

    And also just to say that I totally resonated with your last comment. Yes, we live in a global,post-national society and we, as educated, English-speaking individuals with money for a plane ticket, can choose to go wherever we like. But if there are problems in South Africa, it’s the poor who are stuck, and the poor we should worry about. Sorry comment is so long, just yay for a great post 🙂

    Reply
    1. miche17 Post author

      And yay for a great, thoughtful reply!

      Yes, the career/job issue is a biggie. Another is access to specialised services, such as for disability. We are not all equally privileged as white middle-class South Africans and it’s important not to forget that. The thing I was wondering about here is people who leave based on a vague sense or belief that everything will be better, or easier, in another, more developed country, and who are still hanging onto the idea that white South Africans are at a disadvantage, that it’s easier to “be white” somewhere else.

      Good luck for the rest of your PhD! 🙂 Thanks so much for commenting and engaging.

      Reply
  3. Deva

    This is certainly a tangential comment, but I wanted to know what your thoughts and feelings are about the expats that take a year or three in Middle-Eastern and Asian countries (which you also did for a year, or two?). Not quite emigration, not quite committed to ubuntu. I think it’s an interesting new trend that is quite different from the pack-up-and-voetsek-to-Australia/UK-forever trend in the late 90s.

    I feel like there will always be movement from me, dependent on various socio-economic factors, that mean there is no narrative of return or go-away-come-back. I hope to loop around forever, returning periodically to this country I can give a mountain of adjectives.

    Reply
    1. miche17 Post author

      Hey Deva,

      Thanks for the comment – I always love a good tangent! 🙂

      You’re 100% right – I did spend a year in Asia, and then another 18 months in London, straight after graduating. It’s a path worn by many South African graduates’ feet – it’s tough to get a job or internship as a graduate (as you know), and even if you do get an internship, you’re unlikely to be paid enough to live on. So the money and the prospect of travel that comes with teaching/living in Asia is really appealing!

      And yeah, it’s not really emigrating, is it? It’s travel, which is different – and important, and a privilege.

      My gripe in this post was with people who deny the privilege they’ve had as a white person in South Africa, and choose to move their families overseas forever (“pack up and voetsek”, as you said – I like that) because a part of them believes that it will be easier to be a white person in another country than it is to be a white person in SA (not everyone’s reasoning, of course, but that’s what I’ve started hearing “between the lines” of how people justify their imminent emigration). But the only reason they’re able to emigrate is the very privilege that they’re denying.

      I can’t take issue with people not wanting to stay, or not being able to stay, but I do think the reasons that they find the idea of living in another developed country so appealing need to be carefully examined. Or not. 😉 People gotta do what they gotta do, I guess – and what I gotta do is raise my kid/s to be sensitive and sensible and to understand how very, very lucky they are to be living where and how they do – and what their privilege cost.

      Reply
  4. Ester Levinrad (@esterlevinrad)

    Hi MIchelle – wanted to say – off Twitter 😉 – that I’ve just started reading your blog, and it’s fantastic. You’re a wonderful writer. I particularly liked this post – as someone who doesn’t have kids yet, but wants to have them at some point, and so worry about what a life here would look like for them, and who’s also seeing friends plan to leave (and I have lots of family overseas), I’ve been thinking about this a lot – because there is this very strong gut-instinct, in someone who’s a ‘lefty liberal’ and patriotic (whatever that means) and loves Madiba (yes, getting a bit tongue in cheek), that leaving would be ‘giving up’.

    Anyway – mainly just wanted to say that I’m glad to have discovered your writing of more than 140 characters 🙂

    Reply
    1. miche17 Post author

      Wow, Ester, thank you so much! I’m so pleased you like what you’ve read here.

      You’ve hit the nail on the head – what I’m talking about in this post is very much a “gut instinct”. When I try to rationalise it, I realise that of course people need to do whatever is right for their families and that it’s not fair of me to take umbrage at their choices. But there is this strong gut reaction that says exactly what you said – I feel a little betrayed and that they’re giving up on us, and how far we’ve come (even though there is A VERY LONG WAY to go still).

      I really think South African middle-class kids have an amazing life – the best of everything from the private sector (well, in our case, private healthcare – our kid will be educated by the state) with all the freedom and outdoorsiness that comes from living in one of the most naturally beautiful places on Earth.

      Thank you for your comment. It means a lot to me! 🙂

      Reply

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