On Angry South African Expats

Susan Hayden went abroad, found the grass decidedly browner on the other side, and came home.

What I’ve come to realise, over the past few weeks, is that there can be no angrier, more unreasonable person on the planet than the South Africa expat who is told that the country has not gone up in flames (yet) and that we actually spend a lot of time camping, hiking, hanging out on the beach and drinking very nice, inexpensive wine on our expansive lawns in the sunshine while somebody else does the ironing. I think it is fair to say that a goaded bull with a punctured testicle being shown 42 red flags simultaneously could not be more enraged than the (ex) South African who sold up, spent all their money on relocating their family to Wellington before the Swart Gevaar put a torch to the entire country only to find that it’s not quite the utopia they imagined and that their life is actually kakker than before.

When I wrote On Moving Back to South Africa I really did it for myself. It was a way of coming to terms with my own feelings, and trying to make sense of this country I choose to call home. Never in my wildest imaginings did I think it would get over 40 000 views in the first few weeks, get posted and re-posted all over the world, appear on the official South African Homecoming Revolution website and that I would get inundated with comments, thoughts and opinions. And while most, by far, have been extremely positive and a few have politely but vehemently disagreed, there is a small contingency who were made so cross by my allegations that South Africa is still a rather nice place to live out ones days I could practically see the spittle flying from their mouths as they did Rumpelstiltskin dances of rage and shouted abuse at me from their couches in Queensland.

And it’s a curious thing, because if you’re really, really happy in your new home abroad and you’re really, really pleased to have left this cesspit of hell, why would you care enough to get so emotional? All that their comments told me (which were, unfortunately, verging on abusive so I had to trash them) is that they feel deeply conflicted about their decision to leave, and that my story of settling well and loving what this country has to offer seriously messes with their heads. And I can understand that – it must be a fuck up of note to have convinced yourself that we were on the verge of apocalypse and that leaving was the only sensible option only to come back in December and find that your friends are doing very nicely in their holiday houses in Onrus, rump steak costs next to nothing and Woolworths dips keep getting better.

I have friends who left for Canada a while back and come back every summer, and their confusion is tangible. Because it’s the same old place it ever was. Even with that mad bastard JZ in power. We still go for picnics on Clifton 4th; hang out on the café strip; drink bubbly and watch the sunset; swim in our pools; have lekker braais. The story they had to tell themselves (and keep telling themselves and everyone who’ll listen) about why they left the country they loved gets a bit frayed at the edges when their buddies invite them over for fresh kreef and the kids have a jol being outdoors all day and half the night and Spur sauce still tastes good on everything. I’m not saying this country doesn’t have serryass problems, but for now it’s the same old place and sheesh, you have a cool life.

And neither am I saying that some people don’t leave South Africa happily and settle well and never look back, but they aren’t the ones writing me cross letters. And I feel for them, I really do. For me, leaving South Africa permanently would break my heart. Maybe their hearts got a bit broken and the only way they know how to deal is by running the country down and calling those of us who still live here – or, god forbid, came back – names. A writer whose name I forget once said in a novel, ‘Africa is not easily forsaken by her children.’ I never forgot those words. For whatever reason, this country gets under your skin. It holds you in its grip, and I see a kind of emotional attachment I haven’t witnessed in any other place. A journalist friend of mine went to Australia to interview South African expats, and many had had to undergo some kind of therapy in order to come to terms with leaving. You hear of South Africans going down on their bended knees and kissing the tarmac when they get off the plane. I did it myself when we moved back permanently. Maybe it’s because our country has suffered so much, and we have witnessed its turmoil and anguish and then danced in its (rather short-lived) victories. Or maybe it’s something else; an intangible, indefinable quality that inspires this deep love and reverence.

So, I say this to the expats who need to sound off and be haters in order to justify their choices: let us love our country if that is what makes sense to us. We don’t yell at you and accuse you of abandoning ship because you’re living in Maida Vale. We are happy that you have homes in London because now we have somewhere to stay when we go overseas with our tragic Rands. You made a choice to go, like we made a choice to stay. No amount of shouting is going to convince us that we’re deluded. We read the papers; we get it. You don’t have to point out crime stats to us. For better or for worse, we have made peace with our decision, as you are going to have to make peace with yours.

And the thing is this: you talk about not being ‘free’ in South Africa. I lived in Sweden for eight years and as I ventured out, day after day, under a low-hanging grey sky to take my children to school in a gloomy, high-rise building where everybody I encountered seemed chronically depressed, that is when I felt unfree. Where there were so many rules I was afraid to do anything; where the weather was so crap we spent our lives watching TV, and where everybody lives for the end of the year so that they can get the hell out and feel like they’re alive. Now, I feel alive every single day. And it’s freaking awesome.

A moment of shameless sentimentality, but I love this so much. And, like old Thabs says, today it feels good to be an African.

– First published on The Disco Pants Blog (www.discopantsblog.com), 28 October 2013.