Leaving SA? Do me a favour!

2 June 2006

Flying back from Australia, I dreaded my return to South Africa, not that I didn’t want to come home.

After a mere two weeks away I was ready to return. But it was the inevitable question I would have to face that weighed me down: “Would you like to live there?”

I have been overseas only twice – to Sydney in Australia and to Britain. On both occasions the question from friends and acquaintances when I returned was, “So, were you scouting around? When are you leaving?”, or “Mmmm, packing your bags yet?”

It has become as automatic as asking, “How was the weather?” or “Did you have a good time?” It wears a bit thin after a while.

Over the years I have seen it happen to loads of South Africans. Take a trip overseas and the question will always arise.

‘The chicken run’
After the 1976 unrest and then in the wake of the 1994 elections South Africans, white South Africans for the most part, joined what was called “the chicken run”.

Those who had decided to go usually explained that they were “doing it for their children” or “because of the crime”.

At dinner parties in suburbia the topic would usually turn to “who was going” and “who was staying”, “should we?” or “shouldn’t we?”

Those who were going, or thinking of going, would often get into bitter arguments with the patriotic types who would insist that nothing would prise them from South Africa.

Somewhere, some time, most white South Africans found themselves in this kind of situation. And it would invariably end in a standoff. The “chicken run” subject fell into the category of politics and religion: if you don’t want an argument, don’t discuss it.

Greener on the other side
Many white South Africans seemed to have developed a refugee mentality. Given the opportunity, they would flee the country. But the grass always appears greener on the other side.

One South African expat we met in Sydney was busy packing his bags for Cape Town. He was taking his family back to the fairest Cape, rolling blackouts and all.

Another South African family has been there for only four years. Their longing for home was obvious. They made no bones about the fact they were homesick, though the husband extolled the virtues of their adopted country.

We arrived at their home for lunch at 1pm. By 5pm we felt we had overstayed our welcome and made a move to leave. They insisted we stay a little longer. It seemed they couldn’t bear to cut the only tie with home they had had for a long time.

“Shame, they really are homesick,” my companion remarked when we were leaving much later.

Yes, and so are many other expats. But I don’t intend to be one of them, so please don’t ask me the one question that makes my blood pressure rise.

Go the the Sowetan website This column was first published in the Sowetan. Republished here with kind permission from the author.