Sat, 11 Jul 2020

MyNews24: Why we won't return to SA any time soon

21 Oct 2019, 17:44 GMT+10

Dear Melanie,

I am a South African to my core. I was born and raised in Joburg and love the country deeply. I have been privileged to experience the best that South Africa has to offer. I attended South Africa's top schools and universities. I have a wonderful circle of friends and a happy family, all proudly South African. Family holidays alternate between the most beautiful parts of the Western Cape and the Kruger National Park, my favourite place on this planet.

I tear up when I hear the South African national anthem and the week Nelson Mandela passed away it felt as if I had lost a close family member. South Africa, with its multi-cultural and ever changing social dynamics, never ceases to inspire me. Yes, the country has problems, but I participate in civic society and support charitable organisations whenever I can, through donating both time and money, and somehow this makes the problems seem solveable.

In 2017, my wife, also a dyed in the wool South African, was offered a job in Amsterdam which also offered me a work permit. We did not particularly want to go to the Netherlands - we loved South Africa, we lived the South African dream, we were happy and had a lifestyle that we believed could not be easily matched elsewhere - good jobs, nice cars and a lovely home in close proximity to our friends and family. Whilst we and our loved ones had been affected by crime, fortunately we escaped these relatively minor incidents mostly unscathed.

The Amsterdam job offer was in line with my wife's South African salary - it offered a decent salary at a nice company, but certainly not one of those "once in a lifetime" job opportunities that will make you wealthy beyond your wildest dreams and made packing your bags a foregone conclusion.

Eventually, we reluctantly decided to go abroad and received our Dutch working permits in our South African passports. I was particularly hesitant to go - my wife only managed to convince me when we agreed that we would immediately move back to South Africa if either of us were even slightly unhappy in Amsterdam. We certainly weren't emigrating - this was purely a three year adventure, an opportunity for the two of us to do something fun before we were tied down by the eventual responsibilities of starting a family.

We are now two years into our three year adventure and a veil has been lifted from my eyes. I had been brought up believing that there was nothing like the South African lifestyle, that life in Europe would be dreary, that, like you say, "all countries have their problems" and that I could look forward to cold, wet existence in a tiny flat.

How untrue this fiction has turned out to be. On almost all metrics, our standard of living is better. Our salaries, whilst comparable to those we earned in South Africa, somehow make us feel richer, maybe because groceries and clothing are cheaper. Or maybe it is because, even though we pay high taxes and rent over here, most of our money is ours to spend - no need for exorbitant medical aid schemes, our own costly cars, expensive private security, backup electricity generators and savings plans to put our yet-to-be-conceived kids in private schools one day.

We have traded in our three bedroom house with its large garden in the leafy Joburg northern suburbs for a much smaller flat in the city of Amsterdam. Our private space is substantially smaller, yet we feel no sense of claustrophobia as, without any crime, we can access any and all public spaces. This is a particular gift to my wife, who can now go walk around the parks and the cityscape, by herself, with all her valuables and without a trace of fear or worry at any time of the day or night -a joy, a freedom and an independence South Africa never afforded her.

Basic government services are non-negotiable. Infrastructure is modern and maintained, police are trusted and competent, the parks and sidewalks are meticulously clean, education and medical services are of a high standard (and essentially free). In a world where everything is becoming digital, load shedding is unthinkable - we can choose our energy providers from almost twenty different providers. Even the postal service works.

All countries have problems, yet here problems come and go as governments are held to account to fix the problems - look at terrorism, a challenge which seemed impossible to resolve, yet it now mostly under control. Corruption exists, but once exposed it is dealt with decisively.

I was the eternal South African optimist and was so in love with the country and the life that I enjoyed there that I failed to see how stressful life there had actually become. In hindsight, I have become acutely aware of how much subconscious stress the daily South African news cycle caused me - ceaseless tales of horrific crimes, grotesque government mismanagement, shocking corruption and hopeless economic indicators. The joys of living without crime is a joy that I never knew in South Africa - I only noticed what an emotional burden a life with crime was when I experienced life without it.

South Africa is a beautiful country, but I have learnt that I was naïve to think that South Africa is without rival - what about the winelands of France, the beaches of Italy and the mountains of Switzerland? Or those of Australia, America or several other places globally?

I do miss South Africa dearly. I ache for our people, with their generous personalities and wonderful senses of humour. I pine for the African bush filled with the nighttime sounds of the wild. I long for the sound of African languages. On a weekly basis, I yearn for my wonderful friends and family who still live there. We have made great new friends (mostly South Africans who moved for various reasons), but certain relationships are simply irreplaceable.

Every holiday we take to South Africa, the goodbyes are always difficult, and we are reminded anew of what a wonderful country it is and how much potential it has. We have still not declared ourselves as emigrants, yet our three year adventure could end up more permanent than we first imagined.

So what will it take to move back to South Africa?

My wife and I have agreed that we will move back to South Africa as soon as Amsterdam starts making us unhappy in the form homesickness, job frustration or the heartache of being far from our loved ones. But now there is one important caveat - South Africa needs at least 3% GDP growth per annum for two years in a row.

Why this rather odd caveat? In my heart, I know that South Africa will always remain a troubled country - if you want to stay in South Africa you must simply start accepting that. Our politics has always been and always will be a mess. Crime might get better, but it also might not and it most certainly will never disappear. Our broken education system will leave lasting scars on our society for generations to come.

Most problems South Africa faces today are of such magnitude that - even if we had successive miracle worker governments from today onwards - these problems will most likely still be with us in 20 years' time. The only way that things could potentially get any better is if the economy starts growing meaningfully - the medicine of economic prosperity, and the proper distribution of those gains through visionary governance, is the strongest available cure for our country's ills, and even this holds no guarantees.

Without that growth at the very least, and the accompanying reforms that are needed to achieve it, more people will start realizing that maybe the South African dream is just that - a dream, a fiction they still believe in to convince themselves why they are staying. South Africa is a great country, but sadly there are some places which currently are just better.



Amsterdam, the Netherlands

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