The South African dilemma

William Saunderson-Meyer on the question of whether we should stay or go


It’s the South African dilemma. Will our country thrive or wither? Should we stay or go? 

It’s a quandary that appears to be on lips of everyone who has the luxury of options. This is a discussion not only among the usual suspects — conservative members of minority groups who support opposition parties or disaffected bittereinders nostalgic for apartheid — but for those who embraced the prospects of a new South Africa and whose involvement we need most. It’s an option whispered about even among lifelong supporters of the struggle against apartheid.

Many of those now assailed by doubt are people who worked tirelessly and sacrificed readily in the hope of building in this country a non-racial democracy that would give a lie to prevailing international perceptions of a hopeless and perpetually strife-ridden continent. Instead, they have had their dreams trampled under a governing alliance whose greed, incompetence and criminality match and exceed the assumptions of every racist stereotype. 

The numbers leaving have soared in recent years. It’s difficult to put a firm figure to this, since only a small minority go through a formal emigration process. But, anecdotally, it has reached levels akin to the pre-democracy exodus of 1994, as well as the rush for the exits during PW Botha’s 1980s successive states of emergency. 

A few weeks back, I received a poignant email from someone I know and who, to me, seemed to typify a new kind of white South African: entrepreneurial, politically enlightened and socially committed. Through innovation and determination, he built from scratch a company whose expertise is much sought after throughout the continent. His observations are made without rancour and are so heartfelt that he is worth quoting in full: ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

“William, are you sticking around in SA? We feel like we are soon going to be the only umlungus left here in KZN. So many friends, family and acquaintances leaving, we hear of a family nearly every day at the moment. It starts to gnaw. 

“It’s tragic. Solid families are leaving in droves, the ones who I respect for having the backbone and making a conscious decision to stick it out for the long haul 20 years ago. Who can blame them now? Their 2010 confidence booster shots have long worn off with corruption and incompetence variants running rampant. Their resolve has been white-anted by an army felling the fruit tree that sustains everyone’s existence. And they are leaving with tears rolling down their cheeks.

“The primary reasons haven’t changed — for their children, the safety of their families, cannot get jobs primarily because of the colour of their skin — but the level of desperation and exasperation has. I’ve noticed older folk are leaving now, the same people who in the past said ‘It’s too late for me to go’ or ‘I can’t afford to leave’. And kids straight out of school, if they can, not sticking around to do tertiary education here first. And then those that morally simply cannot tolerate what they witness here daily.

“This is a personal, tough one for me. Aren’t we complicit if we do nothing? Yes ‘running away’ is worse, but tut-tutting around the braai and voting anything other than ANC doesn’t cut the mustard. Even doing the neighbourhood patrol thing is really just self-preservation. Probably there are already too few; we lost the war a long time ago, it’s now just the daily battles left to fight?”

There’s, of course, no easy answer to his musings, nor to the poser I set, above. South Africa may yet thrive and many would still rationally want to leave, some maybe only temporarily, to explore new pastures, grow new skills. Or else one might conclude that the country will continue in its spiral downwards, but that one can nevertheless carve out a safe, snug, happy niche for the duration.

For example, it continually astounds me how many people manage to live comfortable and contented lives in our economically wrecked and dysfunctional neighbour, Zimbabwe. The secret appears to be having hard currency access, to be invested in a small, close community of family and friends, to be psychologically resilient to the point of stoicism, and to be unfazed at having at own cost and effort to take care of virtually every function that is normally carried out by the state.

Unless trends in South Africa reverse rapidly, the situation in Zimbabwe — for whose ZANU-PF regime many in the ANC have much admiration — is a feasible, even likely, endpoint. 

The evidence on our national performance post-1994 is voluminous and irrefutable. After a sharp improvement in virtually every citizen’s social and economic circumstances — coinciding roughly with the Mandela/Mbeki years — it’s been mostly downhill since. The Zuma years were particularly grim and possibly irretrievably damaging. 

The question is whether President Cyril Ramaphosa can, or wants, to bind our country’s grievous wounds and restore it to rude health. Again, the evidence of his almost three years at the helm is not reassuring. The pedestrian rate at which he has addressed an emergency does not bode well. 

Even if the patient doesn’t succumb in the next couple of critical years, Ramaphosa’s proposed convalescent regime — expropriation, a command economy, dismantling private healthcare, continued cadre deployment, increased race quotas in business, further legislated marginalisation of minorities, and an apparently sincere commitment to the antiquated tenets of the National Democratic Revolution — means that, at best, South Africa will be a lifelong invalid.

Nor is the authorities’ attitude towards those leaving or hedging their bets a good omen. It’s one of voetsek, good riddance to bad rubbish, and go sooner rather than later.

In a move reminiscent of the old National Party’s sanction of arbitrarily stripping people of their citizenship, the ANC government has in the past few years done exactly the same, but by stealth. Many thousands with dual nationality have been deprived of their South African citizenship by the sudden and surreptitious implementation of an obscure regulation stipulating that they needed to have first asked permission. 

Just coincidentally, even those who are now aware of the requirement are unable to act to carry it out. The “retention of citizenship” service has been closed ever since the pandemic lockdowns that were implemented in March last year.

The government is also steadily tightening the screws on those leaving, in terms of transferring assets, earnings and pensions. They have strong motivations to do this. The already tiny tax base that sustains a bloated and corrupt government and an ever-burgeoning demand for ever-larger levels of social support, is groaning towards a tipping point. South Africa’s population of high-net-worth individuals (assets over US$1m) has dropped by 12% in the past five years, while that of the ultra-wealthy (assets exceeding US$30m) shrank by 18%.

But the loss of national wealth is not simply quantified in lower tax receipt and currency outflow statistics. The greatest assets of the venturesome younger are to be found in their craniums, not in financial statements. Their loss in a highly competitive and global economy is incalculable.

So, stay or go? Truth is, this has always been a country that has one gripped either by the balls or by the heart. 

The rational argument for leaving is compelling. But where we live, as much as whom and what we love, is dictated not only by reason. South Africa, for all our present despair and bleak prospects, remains a magnificent country with many extraordinary people. It fills the soul like no country I’ve experienced.

My heart bleeds for those who feel it’s time to leave. As, too, I know, does theirs.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye