OP-ED Opinions 

News24.com | Melanie Verwoerd: Why #ImStaying in South Africa

2019-10-16 05:00

Despite what it may look like, the quality of life for most people who are able to emigrate deteriorates significantly. Unless you are stinking rich in dollar terms you will have to cut back dramatically, writes Melanie Verwoerd.

Over
the last few weeks the #ImStaying Facebook page has received a lot of
attention. Unsurprisingly so, since everywhere I go people are discussing the “fact”
that a growing number of people are seemingly emigrating. Stories of whole
streets selling up or significant numbers of children leaving schools are bandied
about.

I’m a
little skeptical about this and have asked some of the embassies whether the
number of people applying for work permits have indeed increased dramatically.
Although none of them would give me real numbers they were willing to say
anecdotally that numbers have increased, but not dramatically. What they were
willing to confirm was that the profile of those applying has changed. It seems
that it is no longer white South Africans looking for greener pastures, but
also many black professionals.

I’m
often asked what my opinion is about emigrating.

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I lived
in Ireland for 12 years. I enjoyed it – at times loved it. Yet, it was not home,
for many reasons – not necessarily the obvious ones. Yes, of course I missed
family and friends… but we made new friends and we came back to South Africa
frequently enough to stay in touch with family.

Yes,
the weather was bad, but I like rain, so I quickly got used to it. (Perhaps not
the darkness, but it was mostly bearable.)

There
was something far deeper. Something intangible, almost nebulous. It was also
not there for the first few years, but it eventually crept up on me and on many
other foreigners who spoke of a similar experience.

It was
an intense longing for something that I couldn’t describe accurately, but that
I was acutely aware of.

It was a
longing for a sense of belonging – an ease of knowing who I was and who others
were – something that is always missing in a country other than your own. I
missed the effortlessness of understanding and making jokes. After years of living
there, there were still many spoken and unspoken cultural references that I did
not understand.

I even found
myself tearing up as I thought about the smells of home: the sea, the soil when
it rained and certain flowers in the spring. 

I know
telling people that they are going to miss the smells of South Africa won’t
convince them not to emigrate! However, what might make people think twice is
if they understand that, despite what other South Africans might say, the
quality of life for most people who are in a position to emigrate deteriorates
significantly. The simple truth is that unless you are stinking rich in dollar
terms you will have to cut back dramatically.

The
size of your house and land will be significantly smaller. In fact, if you go
to New Zealand, you won’t be able to buy property as a foreigner, so you will
have to rent for the rest of your life. Healthcare will almost certainly be
more expensive and if there is a public health system it is likely to be inferior
to our private system. Eating out will be vastly more expensive – even junk
food. I can go on. The bottom line is if you compare the cost of living to
income, you will be worse off.

I’m also
not sure where it is currently much better politically. I don’t want to live in
Donald Trump’s America or, for that matter, with the uncertainty of Brexit, in
Britain. Most of Europe is on the brink of a recession and not very welcoming
to immigrants. That leaves Canada, Australia and New Zealand, who are all very
strict (as are most countries) in letting foreigners stay permanently.

Of
course, people often refer to the high crime rate in South Africa. That is
true. I certainly am far more alert here than when I was living in Europe. In
Ireland I often left house doors unlocked and once found my “missing”
car keys in the ignition of my car parked on the street after three days of
looking for them.

However,
since 1994, I have not worried about being caught in a bomb explosion in South
Africa, or that my children would be gunned down in school or in a cinema. I
also never worry about some guy driving into a crowd of people on a pavement.
Yes, we have crime, but we have been spared the mass killings and terrorist
attacks that have been plaguing so many of the countries people dream of emigrating
to.

I
certainly think that living abroad for a period of time can be an important
growth experience. It was for me. However, I always knew that I would come
back, the moment I could not work for South Africa or Africa anymore, because
ultimately, as maddening as this country can be, it still remains home.

– Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.

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