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South Africa: to leave or not to leave?

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South Africa: to leave or not to leave?

The youth of South Africa are beset with a painful disappointment in their leaders and the status quo, and we’re starting to imagine a future elsewhere, writes Kelebogile Motswatswa.

I’ve never been a lady troubled by wanderlust, nor have I ever been enchanted by the idea of life beyond the borders of my beloved Mzansi. However, having been to Italy, England, Mozambique, and Tanzania, it was never lost on me that travelling can be an enriching experience that broadens one’s understanding of the world.

As much as I enjoyed experiencing different cultures and landscapes, I would always look forward to the moment when I’d be home again, arriving to the “attention, all passengers” announcements, said in that distinct South African accent, which Trevor Noah mimics so well in his stand-up shows. For me, leaving my home country for good had never been a consideration – until now.

There is this pessimism that has been brewing in me and countless of my contemporaries. The youth of South Africa are beset with a painful disappointment in their leaders and the status quo, and we’re starting to imagine a future elsewhere. There are holes in this rainbow and the sun keeps setting on our hopes for a better country for all.

I’ve always been in love with my country, comfortable here at home, with its diversity of people and cultures, and its unique quirks. In addition to loving my country’s soul, I’ve always felt a deep responsibility to stay and play an active role in rebuilding what Apartheid demolished and healing the wounds inflicted by a century’s worth of dispossession, oppression and disenfranchisement. But how can I make a difference when my sanity and well-being are at stake?

Brain drain threatens economic recovery

According to James Formby, the CEO of Rand Merchant Bank, South Africans in their 30s and 40s are leaving the country at a disturbing rate. Brain drain is threatening the path to socio-economic recovery in this country. As young people emigrate, there are fewer resources to contribute to fiscal and economic growth, which only prolongs the road to equity, equality, and transformation.

Faced with startling disillusionment, qualified and skilled young South Africans are leaving the country to chart a better life for themselves. This sentiment is echoed in the poignant words of my dear friend, gender activist and de-colonial education scholar Wanelisa Albert: “I want to leave this country ASAP. I feel like I can make a life somewhere else where I am not constantly experiencing almost-death. The loyalty to a country that hates me and only works for White people and rich Blacks while the poor keep voting for the ANC is not my portion.”

Lately, the issue that has been preoccupying my mind and vexing my spirit is the corruption and looting cases that have been levelled against South Africa’s politicians.

Every time I look at my payslip and see how much tax is deducted, frustration and despondency overwhelm me. It’s heartbreaking to be constantly reminded that the social contract between the citizens and the government is being breached with such callous and unencumbered ease.

This has seriously got me researching countries that would welcome me without much of a hassle. I need a break from the incessant distress that comes with being a young Black woman in South Africa

The final straw

For me, the straw that broke the camel’s back was learning that our health minister, Dr Zweli Mkhize, had stepped down after allegations of corruption.

In the words of Nick Dall in an article published in the Daily Maverick: “Corruption is, in many ways, a more debilitating disease for society than Covid.” Corruption has been slowly eroding the fabric of our society. How can we escape its clutches when the very institutions that are supposed to ensure that the government upholds its side of the social contract – the police force and justice system – are themselves being weakened? 

As African children, we’ve always been taught to respect our elders; to be mindful of the perils that come with ignoring the words of the wiser, older generations. We’ve been urged to heed their warnings as those who have been around longer and have experienced more than we can imagine. But, how can this be so when our leaders, our elders, carry themselves in ways that belie this ostensible wisdom?

To be honest, I hate that I care so much about this country, especially because my affections are not being reciprocated. Much to my chagrin, our leaders continue to put themselves and those closest to them first, which makes me long for a life in which I don’t have to always navigate the seas of discontentment, which has had an adverse impact on my mental health. The waters of disgruntlement run too deep for me to keep treading these waters.

‘My friend, you would not tell with such high zest, / to children ardent for some desperate glory, / the old Lie: Dulce et decorum est / pro patria mori.’ – Wilfred Owen

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (It is sweet and fitting to die for the homeland)? Indeed it is a lie, as Wilfred Owen reveals in his poem reflecting on the horrific experience of putting one’s life on the line for one’s country. Right now, I feel, it is not sweet or fitting to die for the homeland that pilfers more than it gives. There will be no death of any kind for this country that has let us down, and continues to do so. South Africa doesn’t deserve any more martyrs.

Catch-22 situation

But I know that if I leave, the hope for a better South Africa leaves with me. This is a real Catch-22 situation. My heart will always bleed for this nation, for its people and for its potential to be a great country for all of its citizens.

While I find myself caught between a rock and a hard place, I will always be intentional about finding ways to serve the marginalised people of our society, remembering that I can’t do it all. My work in mental health advocacy and championing the psycho-social well-being of Black people in this country is important. Active citizenship will forever be a value I espouse, whether I choose to stay or leave.

Despite the fact that the road to freedom is still so heartbreakingly long, I choose faith, not in our political and economic oligarchy but in those who wade the waters of disillusionment and continue to speak truth to power; who dedicate their lives and resources to understanding the extent of the damage so that they can formulate sustainable solutions to the issues that concern us the most. 

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