The below opinion piece was written by freelance writer and editor Mandy Collins.
Some of my best friends are expats. No, really. I’ve been through two waves of people leaving South Africa for various reasons, to the extent that I remember lying awake at night wondering who my future children would have as playmates. (I’m pleased to report that their social life has survived.)
So now I have friends all over the world – Canada, the US, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Japan – it’s a long list, and it’s wonderful to hear about their new lives in far-flung places.
But there’s a breed of former South Africans who drive me absolutely round the bend – the type who seem hell-bent on trashing South Africa at every turn, and most notably on platforms like Facebook where they can post their “RIP South Africa” and “My country is going to the dogs” comments, ironically from the new countries they’ve chosen to live in.
I remember my journalism professor, the late Gavin Stewart, explaining how a crime wave works. You know: one granny is murdered by a talking wolf, and suddenly there’s a slew of axe-wielding animals preying on the elderly, and little old ladies are wearing their chamber pots as helmets while they sleep. The crime pops up in every newspaper and it’s suddenly everywhere you look, while other crimes seem to disappear into obscurity.
It happens as a result of something called ‘confirmation bias’ – the same thing that occurs when you buy a brand new car, and suddenly, everyone on the road seems to be driving the same car as you do. It is simply human nature have a tendency to search for, interpret, or recall information in a way that confirms your own beliefs or hypotheses. (Thank you Wikipedia for that neat definition.)
So we tend to be drawn towards bits of information that confirm what we believe. (Just ask those who worship in the cult of Noakes…). It takes hard work and a fair amount of willpower to push yourself out of that comfort zone – to read views that challenge yours, to really think about them, and to entertain the thought that you might be wrong, or that there might be another way of looking at things.
So back to those expats,the ones who send out the same negative message about South Africa whenever they can – over, and over and over again. And who refuse to believe anything other than the bad news they hear from friends and relatives at home. (And as a small aside, just as bad news sells newspapers, people also have a tendency to spread bad news stories over good.) I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of those expats left because they believed the country was going to the dogs.
I’m also willing to bet a lot of them left because ‘they’ (black people) would now be running the country. I’m willing to bet that many of them start sentences with “I’m not racist, but…” Because the subtext that comes through over and over again is simply this: “I told you so. I told you those black people couldn’t run the country.” But they won’t actually say that, you see. Because they’re not racist, but…
But here’s the thing. There are many of us who do live here. And we freakin’ love it despite its foibles. Sure, we have our problems – no-one is denying that – but I don’t believe they’re insurmountable. Nor do I think they are the whole story.
I do not drive or walk the streets of <insert sarcastic font here> terrible, crime-ridden Johannesburg in fear and trembling. Do I have security? Do I have to lock my doors when I go to bed? Yes – I’m not stupid or naive. But I don’t live in fear of my life either.
Do I fear for my children’s future? Not at all. They do well at school and they have a great work ethic, and there is place for people like that in this South Africa.
Do we have problems? Of course we do – please show me a country in the world that isn’t battling significant problems, and I will show you a country that is keeping the truth from its citizens.
Because what all the doom and gloom and negativity does is to home in on the bad news and forget that there’s just as much good news. There are all kinds of fantastic, nation-building initiatives going on, where South Africa’s citizens are mobilising to change things for the better – I’m about to join just one of them.
There are signs of improving infrastructure everywhere I go. There are potholes too, of course, but that doesn’t detract from the progress. Is there widespread unemployment? Yes, But there’s a marvellous spirit of entrepreneurship and many education and job-creating initiatives. Are there energy problems? Yes. But if sanctions during the apartheid era proved anything, it’s that South Africans are capable of great innovation. Is there corruption? Yes. But it’s not a South African or African phenomenon. I’ll just say “FIFA” and leave it at that. So please, for the love of all that is holy, leave your thinly disguised racism off my Facebook feed – because it’s offensive and vile and you should be ashamed of yourself.
And as for the word ‘normal’ – please don’t tell me that our lifestyle isn’t ‘normal’. Normal is a very relative term. I think people who put signs up telling me to keep off the grass are abnormal. People who require me to have a licence to use a ladder in my own home aren’t normal. You can keep your normal, and I’ll keep mine.
Because this is my home, these are my people, and I love living here. I love the crazy, eccentric, boer-maak-‘n-plan, rule-breaking, creative, noisy, busy, chaotic way we live. I love the sky and the savannah and the mountains and the sea and the wild, wild wind that sweeps down our coastline. I love the many-hued people and their many-sounds languages, and the many many ways we meet and greet each other in the street. I love the way my country can exasperate me one minute and leave me with tears of joy and pride five minutes later. Because when it counts, South Africans know how to pull together – I’ve seen it over and over again.
This is my home. I love living here, and I believe we’ll get there in the end. We might have to walk on the grass to do so (gasp), but we’ll get there.
So, if you really must pronounce on the state of South Africa, expats (and really, I question if you even have the right), how about focusing on the positive for a change?