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Should I go or should I stay: the South African’s conundrum

Have you ever thought about leaving South Africa? Do you feel like spitting on someone who would even consider it? Or have you already left?

At one point or another, I’ve been all three. So perhaps that’s why I’ve found “Should I stay or should I go”, a collection of writing about leaving South Africa (or, in some cases, returning or staying put), has a special resonance.

The stories are always riveting, always compelling, sometimes infuriating. Andre Brink’s piece was written after the brutal murder of his nephew. He wrote why he chose, in the aftermath of such a tragedy, to stay in South Africa. Brink harbours no illusions about this country – and he captures, with brutal precision, the corrosive decline of our young democracy, weakened by corruption and its leaders’ contempt for the rule of law. But his decision to stay is because of his love for South Africa – a love that even this most seasoned of scribes struggles to define or explain, but which so many of its citizens, myself included, have experienced.

I relished Ways of Staying author Kevin Bloom’s appreciation that South Africa is the best possible place to map out his own identity. It is in this place of bewildering complexity and excitement, that the writer can determine his own place in the world.

Journalist Gillian Tucker’s grappling with homesickness is understandable, but the conclusions drawn from her visit back to South Africa after living for 14 years in Canada, were not. She contrasts the opulence of her accommodation with the shoddy service she received. To her, this somehow embodies what South Africa has become. I found that strange – poor service is an issue in many parts of the world. Her bad luck to experience it both in Johannesburg and Cape Town is more indicative of insufficient research on TripAdvisor than a meaningful truth about the country.

I wondered whether this was merely the excuse she found for finding the country she had longed for no longer “worthy” of that longing. South Africa has changed hugely in the years since she left. In some ways it is a different country – one that she may simply no longer have an affinity to.

Another excruciating piece was by Barry Levy, who dedicates much of his article on establishing his anti-apartheid credentials and undoubtedly genuine love for South Africa. One wonders why he hadn’t bolted back to Mzansi ages ago. He devotes merely a cryptic line to answer that – claiming “life had conspired against me”. That doesn’t wash.

I wonder whether, like Tucker, he can’t quite come to terms with today’s South Africa. Despite him loving it and wanting it to do well, perhaps there’s a subconscious impulse to remain anchored in Australia’s safe, if staid harbour, far from the storms and raging uncertainty that can beset his homeland.

Only one contributor (to my knowledge) was black — the indispensable Jacob Dlamini, whose eloquent musings in Business Day every week are a must read. The ensemble’s lack of ethnic diversity amongst its contributors is my main gripe about the book. In some ways this is understandable. Emigrants tend to be from the middle class (those who can afford to leave if they want to), and because of our tragic history, that middle class is overwhelmingly white.

Nevertheless, there are many of a darker hue who have left South Africa. Some went during apartheid – apparently Golders Green in London is a haven for exiled ANC apparatchiks lacking the stomach to return home. Others went later: lured away to Perth and other pastures when the democracy dividend didn’t quite deliver what had been hoped for – or because opportunities arose overseas that weren’t available back home. It would have been nice to hear these voices.

Angst and political tones tend to shade South African emigration, regardless of why people have left. Perhaps this is because some of those that have left are embittered racists that can’t bear blacks attaining political power after centuries of oppression. Then there are those who have gone because they’ve lost faith in the new South Africa – or in its capacity to provide a safe and secure environment for their families. Others (like me) have departed for more prosaic reasons — I moved because I was offered a job here in London.

Regardless of the reasons for people leaving, South Africans – of all races – face huge uncertainties. They live, after all, in a country where crime is rampant, corruption has become endemic, law enforcement is toothless and basic services often remain inadequate or continue to deteriorate. Meanwhile, ruling party demagogues get away with murder (or at least urging it — “I’ll kill for Zuma” springs to mind). If certain factions in the ANC have their way, then nationalism is on the cards, agricultural property rights are threatened, and media freedom is on the verge of being neutered.

Against this backdrop, staying or leaving is a valid conundrum for anyone with the means to consider it. But it is a conundrum made all the more complicated by the kind of place South Africa is. It is a nation of warmth and colour, vibrancy and breathtaking beauty. It also has superb quality of life (the space, the food, the weather!) for those privileged enough to afford it.

We easily forget that emigration — and migration generally — is a global phenomenon. As contributor Daniel Ford points out, most people don’t have the same hang-ups about it — and leaving one’s country is not interpreted as a sign of betrayal. Perhaps South Africans should attempt to be a little more liberated about this vexed issue. No one should feel forced to stay or go; it’s up to them, and their own circumstances.

My favourite philosophical approach to emigration was summed up in the piece by peripatetic English teacher Anne Townsend. “Life,” she wrote, “is just too short to spend it all in one place.”


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Reading between “Thin Blue” lines

Although I attended its launch at the wonderful Book Lounge over month ago, I only got round to reading Jonny Stenberg’s latest book Thin Blue this weekend.

Hopefully other South Africans won’t be quite so tardy.

At 179 pages, it’s a short read but what it lacks in length it makes up for in punchy, perceptive relevance. It’s a fantastic book — a must-read, and I mean that. Because although the focus of the book is in the violent-stricken townships of Gauteng, it holds important insights for all of South Africa. It goes a long way to explain the tsunami of crime that has engulfed suburbia. It succinctly, potently illustrates what is wrong with our police — the roots of its current maladies and how apartheid’s long shadow continues to exert a paralysing influence on state crime-fighting agencies. Lasty, and most vitally, it suggests pertinent solutions as to how we can tackle crime.

Read it.

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Metrorail misery

Recently, Cape Town Metrorail commuters have been subjected to more than just the customary overcrowded carriages, which during rush hour make sardine cans seem spacious.

A few weeks ago there were delays of an hour or more thanks to cable thieves having vandalised a signal box at Woodstock station. Thankfully the bastards were caught.

Then two weeks ago storm damage along the line down to Simonstown resulted in more delays. With resignation that stems from a complete inability to do anything about the circumstances, I plugged into my iPod and delved into the unfinished paperback in my rucksack.

However, on facing the return journey, I must confess my serenity evaporated. Commuters waiting to go home were subjected to a string of garbled announcements at Cape Town station declaring that a train on the Simonstown line was delayed. While the announcer deigned to apologise for the inconvenience (they always do), she failed to reveal when the next train would be departing, nor which platform it would be leaving from. So, confusion inevitably reigned, with commuters frantically running from one train to another, praying they would end up on the right one before it slipped away.

I made it onto the right train in the end, but was overwhelmed by yet another show of the implicit contempt that Metrorail has for its customers. Ineffectual communication is exacerbated by an apparent dearth of contingency planning. Metrorail never seems to have a plan B so that when the proverbial hits the fan there’s someone able to clean it up – and fast! Of course cable theft and storm damage isn’t the service’s fault. But that does not excuse making a complete mess in responding to those crises.

Sadly Metrorail commuters can’t vote with their feet, because for most of them (including me) that would literally mean walking to work (or, in my case, college). Unless of course we took the bus – but considering that most of those seem to be manhandled by kamikaze learner drivers with a penchant for driving off bridges, that is hardly an option.

A commuter’s wish list:

1. More trains, more often: a timetable with gaps no longer than 15 minutes between trains to avoid long waits and overcrowding.

2. Security and CCTV monitoring along railway tracks and at stations to ensure vandalism and crime (like crippling cable theft) is kept to an absolute minimum.

3. Adequate maintenance: the railways’ ageing infrastructure means the network is fragile and delays due to signal faults etc. happen far too regularly – especially, weirdly, at the beginning of winter with the onset of the Cape’s heavy rain.

There is little incentive for Metrorail to make even the most basic improvements, but perhaps the looming Soccer World Cup – with the prospect of snobby German fans and drunken English hooligans having to make their way safely back to their hotels – might induce them to up their game.

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Zille’s Idols bid: party politics takes its battle to the stage

Eish. So, our own veritable Jay-Z isn’t the only singing, dancing SA politician around these days. Helen Zille gave a stirring rendition of the DA’s new anti-crime theme song “Never give up” at a candlelit vigil outside a drug dealer’s house in Belhar according to this post on the DA’s Eye On Crime blog.

Click here to watch the video of her performance….


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All aboard Shabangu’s Bang Bang Club

After the startling success of her president’s Native Club (the koeksisters at their Tuynhuys imbizos were reputed to have been a particular hit), a deputy minister has made a desperate escape from obscurity with the launch of the Bang Bang Club.

At the launch last night, Susan Shabangu’s corpulent beam — previously only seen framed on the walls of dysfunctional police stations countrywide — lit the room as she outlined a host of initiatives for members, including target practice in Pollsmoor Prison’s courtyard during the inmates’ exercise hour.

Workshops will be held on how to cut the brakes of speedsters who fail to pay outstanding fines, while How to Pepper-Spray Kleptomaniac Grannies is now available for download on the club’s website — right in time for pensioners’ day at your nearest Shoprite.

The website also offers cut-price matches and paraffin with the suggestion members give their local unlicensed shebeen a good dousing on Friday after work.

“There’s been some questions on what I define as a criminal,” Shabangu told the packed audience. “But let me just say now that no ruling-party member is a criminal. Criminality does not exist within this movement’s collective culture.”

At that point, the Bang Bang patron, Jacob Zuma, waddled on to the stage in a leopard skin to shake Shabangu’s hand.

“Is that a machine gun or are you just pleased to see me?” whispered Shabangu rather too close to an e.tv microphone.

The club’s first policy proposal, due for publication next month, advocates the re-education of “moffies, mkwere mkwere and other miscreants” at an “Afro-gulag” in the Karoo.

Shabangu, a former secretary of Vigilantes for Victory, is also behind the launch of the Department of Safety and Security’s new logo, two thunderbolt-shaped Ss that to history students learning about Nazi Germany will look vaguely familiar.

The contents of this “news report” may just have been imagined. And then again, it’s quite possible that they weren’t …

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