Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Home : the greatest feeling on earth.

From here.

As another frightening “exposé” of the seedy dark underbelly of South Africa was aired on British TV to feed the peaked interest in the ‘rainbow nation’ preceding the World Cup, I imagined the reaction from ex-pats all over England sitting in their cosy, central heated homes. I could almost hear them saying to each other ‘oh my god – I’m so glad we got out’ or ‘gee, the country’s a mess’ and so forth.

It’s assimilated – one of the ‘horror’ stories that circulate and pulsate through the ex-pat population. In the 11 years I lived in England, I’d been the recipient of the numerous forwarded e-mails which herald further ‘evidence’ South Africa is sliding into irreparable chaos, towards a certain apocalypse.

But I (unlike those ex-pats who revel in the bad news) never looked for reasons to justify my emigration to myself. Some desperately need to feel reassured that they’ve made the right decision living out their lives in the UK. But I’d never been one of them partly because I never chose to leave – the decision was made for me as a teenager. Anyhow, it didn’t make me feel better to imagine it all ‘going down the drain’ – it made something inside me ache and I felt guilty for sitting on the sidelines.

Furthermore, I’d recently made up my mind, my ticket was booked, and I was about to dive head-first (well, may heart first) back into this ‘dreadful’ country.

I moved to the UK with my family in January 1999 – a couple of weeks after my 15th birthday. It was hard – the culture shock, the weather, combined with other factors like living in a matchbox of a house after years of relishing a barefoot life on smallholdings – all contributed to frankly, a few years of intense unhappiness.

Things were looking up in 2008 when I moved to the idyllic Channel Island, Guernsey, got a great job with the BBC, and started feeling a lot happier within myself. Still… something was niggling me – sometimes it was only a small thing in the back of my mind, but it was always there.

It all came to a head last December during a family holiday in the Cape. I just knew. I HAD to be here – now. It’s one of the strongest convictions I’ve felt, and I was absolutely certain that all the longing, all the twists and turns, had suddenly reached a point. It was the right time. I didn’t want to leave again. It wasn’t acceptable anymore to simply holiday in my home.

I flew back to the UK at the end of the holiday, quit my wonderful job, packed my things in Guernsey, left this little safe haven that people go to extraordinary measures to get into, and on 18 March 2010 I boarded a one way flight to South Africa.

When I initially mentioned I was thinking of ‘going back’ a couple of years ago, a Gauteng-based friend of mine exclaimed in disbelief – but everyone is clambering over themselves to ‘get out’! Apparently thousands are scheming their escape – as if life just goes on as before when you’ve used your ticket out, but with all the benefits of living in a first world country.

I admit when you look at it objectively it may have seemed absurd. Why would a single, 26-year-old female want to move to a country with one of the highest rape and murder rates in the world?

Not only are there the security issues to contend with, but I would also have face up to the legacy of my “oppressor-forefathers”. I was discouraged to see columnists in the South African press still having heated discussions about ‘white guilt’. I decided if that’s they way it had to be, I would report for my ‘penance’, and somewhere, someone would be able to rejoice that I haven’t escaped with a comfortable guilt-free life elsewhere.

A visit to the dermatologist made me aware of another apparent drawback to moving back. Skin cancer.

Yes – I was duly informed I should expect to get skin cancer. He said it so matter-of-factly, I was a bit taken aback – “you wait and see”, he assured me. Apparently even though sunlight is very effective for sorting some kinds of skin ailments, the “catch 22” is an increased risk of being consumed by malignant melanoma. Maybe its time to revive the traditional “Afrikaner kappie” before the whole volk exterminates itself by way of tanning.

I didn’t put this to the doctor, but rather made pleasant conversation about the fact that he happened to holiday in SA (despite the risks of exposing yourself to the African sun) and as I was leaving the room feeling a bit distressed with some leaflets in my hand, he said – “By the way, whereabouts is it you’re moving to?” “ Cape Town ” I replied – to which he said, somewhat thoughtfully: “I can understand why YOU people go back – you who were born there. As for me, I couldn’t handle not being able to go where I wanted when I wanted to.”

After mulling this over for a couple of seconds, I took it he was referring to the security issues. In response I simply said “It’s not enough just to be safe” and something to the effect of “the risks are outweighed for me.”

You see, I decided if you don’t have a sense of belonging and purpose in your adopted country after eleven years, its quite likely you never will. And what is the point of being physically safe if you don’t feel alive? Just because I’m classified as “white” doesn’t mean I automatically have a sense of belonging in Europe. You will know what I mean if you’ve had the pleasure of seeing a shorts-and-plakkie-wearing boer boy walking around in central London or the somewhat sad resolve of a group of South Africans attempting to braai in the snow.

A few people told me I was “brave”. That I’m not. The only courage I had was born from my convictions. I decided it’s a bit like this – you put up with the quirks and irksome habits of family members, whilst you may tell some other soul to sod off. So too, I feel South Africa has some little, and some monumental problems, but they are MY problems.

Max du Preez wrote something in his book Pale Native that fit beautifully for me: “Forces much greater than loud-mouthed politicians and my own fears and insecurities have placed me exactly here at this time. I am who I should be and where I should be.”

After all, all countries have their issues. It just depends what you can live with and what you can’t. Some choose what they see as “the best of both worlds”, and encourage you to go back to SA – “but for a holiday”. But I was tired of holidaying in my home. I didn’t want to get on a plane again after a few weeks and leave, casually shrugging off the serious social problems, while making the most of the beach and holiday apartment and stuffing myself with braaivleis.

I seriously hoped I was right, as I was sitting on a flight to OR Tambo 11 years, one month and 20-odd days since we had left, going back on my own, without family, to a city I had never lived in before; to a country I’d never had to care for myself in before, without a job, without anywhere to live, and with few acquaintances.

It’s been six months since I came back and a curious thing has been happening to me. I find myself, often while staring up at the mountain from a balcony in the city or while driving, wanting to burst with joy; but at the same time feeling like an impostor or penniless hobo who, through some fluke, is living a millionaire’s lifestyle.

This will be my first full summer in South Africa since 1997/8.

It was the best decision I had ever made. All the wondering, debating, arguing, over whether it was still possible, even worthwhile, to live in South Africa, has finally been laid to rest.

Instead of boring every new English acquaintance with the same stories, trying to explain my background and my culture, wondering whether I’m part of a dying culture… I can just be a South African in South Africa.

In just six months I’ve experienced a thousand things I would never, ever exchange. All the risks ARE and have been worth it so far. I’ve danced the night away on a dusty Soweto street, I’ve sat in a packed stadium watching a World Cup game, I’ve stood in the bushveld watching the sun set over the Oppikoppi festival, I go walking in the mountains almost every weekend, I’ve watched San culture revived in a magical lantern procession in Clanwilliam, I’ve been amazed at the characters on the Sea point promenade as I go for morning jogs next to the Atlantic.

And yes, there were one or two days where I wondered whether I had bitten off more than I could chew, but they are in the minority. Things just kind of fell into place – worries about how difficult it would be finding a job were irrelevant, stressing about race quotas was unnecessary, and I somehow managed to find a flat in the middle of Green Point where I was able to sit on my balcony listening to the sound of vuvuzelas buzzing in the Cape Town Stadium during the World Cup, or have my morning cup of rooibos while watching the cargo ships in Table Bay.

I’m home, and it’s the greatest feeling on earth.


Anonymous said...

Loved your article. Made me feel happy that I've never left good ol' SA! :)
(then I noticed the "Airfrance - buy now" advert next to your post ... and had a good laugh! hehehe!)

Anonymous said...

Loved your article. Made me feel happy that I've never left good ol' SA! :)
(then I noticed the "Airfrance - buy now" advert next to your post ... and had a good laugh! hehehe!)

One Percenter said...

I have been in Sydney,Australia for 4 months on a potential long term/permanent visit.I have been here for 4 months,have sacrificed a life,animals and culture for a bunch of lilly livered,soft cocks !!I think that i need to plan and get me and my Family back where we belong - South Africa !!

The Rooster said...

Hey one percenter. Don't beat yourself up about it. The gross majority of South Africa who though the grass was greener quickly have reality bits down pretty hard. Do what's best for you. There's no shame in coming back home. Chalk it down to experience. At least now when/if you're back in S.A you will have dicovered how good we have it.