What I loved about living in South Africa, pt1

After my last blog post, it might seem as if the decision to leave South Africa was an easy one. It seems I have only criticism and scorn for the country of my childhood and family. This really isn’t true. I do believe you should be able to honestly critique your own country, your own background and origins though.

It’s like being able to love your family or friends completely, yet still see them for who they honestly are – imperfect, fallible human beings. Sometimes even downright annoying... as we all are. And yes, sometimes we even need to head out into the world, leaving them behind for time, because we need a bit of ‘space’ to grow (this usually happens after leaving school).

In other words, I am not trying to say that one country is better than another, just different. Since countries are made up of people, it’s not surprising that they will not be perfect either - and anyway finding your way in the world is a constant negotiation between your own needs, and those of others around you.  Often, it’s less about ‘right and wrong’ than it is about finding workable compromises, or about how much you are willing to sacrifice of yourself to please others (most would agree that sacrificing your very identity or sense of ‘self’ may be going a bit too far in any relationship).

My ability to successfully negotiate my way through one country’s culture or systems, yet struggling to do so in another is obviously also a result of the many different worldviews we all have, and of our vastly differing expectations, personalities and preferences.

However, countries are also quite clearly in different stages of growth – and I am not referring to ‘development’ here, in the sense it has come to mean today, although this may be a part of it. I mean in the much broader, deeper sense: a country that enables most of its residents to pursue the best possible life they can live, needs to find that place of balance between the different, often clashing, needs of various groups or types of people. This is about more than building roads, bridges, hospitals and schools (although most countries don’t even do this anymore, thanks to neoliberalism).

To the extent that a country (read: government, culture, civil society, education system...) serves only one or some groups, it is not meeting its primary purpose, its reason for existing in the first place. Everyone should feel a part of the community, the culture, the society, the country. Everyone should have a feeling of ownership, a voice, a stake, a part to play... Everyone should feel they belong, they are valued, they are served by the policies and processes ... and that they can also contribute according to their gifts, resources and personality.

For a more detailed discussion of why I feel this is not the case in South Africa today (and why I personally felt unable to be ‘a part of’), read my previous blog posts – especially my ‘community’ series, and the series after the Marikana massacre, explaining my shock at the indifference of most South Africans to this crazy event (or events, since there was a lot leading up to this, and ongoing violent protests there and around the country still).

If you have read any of my other blog posts, you will know that I really wanted to be a part of the much-needed changes in South Africa. I wanted to be part of the solution - not just perpetuate the problems (by living in a privileged bubble and turning a blind eye). Unfortunately, this desire was not fulfilled in quite the way I had hoped, or of course I would still be there – this was the main reason I left a very comfortable, easy lifestyle in Sydney in the first place.

However, I have since come to feel that perhaps some of these battles are not mine to fight, or that my contribution may be more welcome, even more appropriate, elsewhere. This is not said without some bitterness, I must add, at the message received loud and clear from Africans today – “you are white, therefore you do not belong here. You cannot tell us how to fix things. This is all your fault anyway. We are happy to have your money (give it now!!) - but not you...” If you think I am exaggerating, you haven’t been paying attention to the media, government or speeches by popular African intellectuals.

On a more positive note, I am also now a new mum, with another life to consider – that of my daughter – and doing my best for her future outweighs any ‘responsibility to contribute’ that I once felt for South Africa (especially having been one of the unfairly privileged by the previous socio-political system of the country). Sorry.

(Having said all of that, I still have some ideas I would like to try from overseas – e.g. ways of leveraging the goodwill and resources of a ‘first world’ country and directing them to places like the overlooked ‘coloured’ communities of the Cape winelands. I have not ‘given up’ on South Africa, or on helping if I can – I just don’t want to live there anymore. For now.)

I am still processing a lot of my feelings regarding my time back in South Africa, and little seeds of hope for what I can set my sights on next are only just starting to appear... There is still some ‘unfinished business’ I would like to write about, especially regarding gender equity, what it means to be ‘white’ in Africa, and the African attitude towards animals. However, then I need to ‘move on’ (and start writing about issues other than my ‘angst’ over South Africa). 

Before I do any of that though, I really felt I needed to balance my recent blog post about the decision to move from South Africa with this further explanation, and with the list of things I loved about living there, which follows shortly.

Why share all of this (i.e. ‘who cares’)? Well, I happen to still believe in the potential for growth and learning – in South Africa, and other countries with massive waves of people leaving their shores for a preferred future elsewhere... I may have decided that I cannot stay and continue to fight all of these battles myself (for now), or perhaps to try to contribute in other ways, from a different home base... But that doesn’t mean others can’t or won’t continue to fight the good fight over there (and my challenge to anyone still living in South Africa would be this: there are many wonderful people doing great things...find them, join them...)

My hope is that having these sorts of conversations will contribute towards the learning and growth of those who ‘stay behind’, as well as encouraging or affirming ‘those who have left’...and possibly eventually informing those who have the power to make some of the changes countries like South Africa (post-conflict or traumatised cultures) need to make to build peace, build community, build a preferred future together. All of us have personal stories to share, which can enrich our collective understanding of concepts like ‘belonging’, ‘Nationality’, ‘culture’, ‘ownership’, ‘contribution’, ‘security’ and ‘place’...


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