To Stay or To Go (and to Return?)

Do I stay or do I go now? No, I’m not referring to the Clash song – and I’m not referring to the decision our family is facing as we consider the move back home in July. (That would be a MUCH longer conversation!) I’m referring to the decision that is apparently top of mind for many South Africans –those who look like us and are in the 30-50 year old range: to remain committed to this country and the future that together South Africans must shape, within the context of the current political and cultural settings; or to leave – to emigrate elsewhere.  This seems to be a common – and heart wrenching – decision.  On the one hand, there is little faith in the government’s ability (and for some, perceived willingness) to play critical governance, oversight and accountability roles that we take for granted in the states. In fact, the prior Presidential administration clearly demonstrated that its priority was solely to enrich the pockets of the men and women in office – leaving the country broke and many of the formerly strong state agencies (such as the department of revenue) in tatters.  There exists incredible inequity and institutional racism that 25 years after the end of apartheid seem to have decreased in word only.  There is a sense of palpable and pervasive fear – fear of violence, of being robbed/kidnapped, of corrupt politicians who purport to serve the poor but who have historically exacerbated the inequities and have little interest in “upliftment of all” – through education, health care, employment, etc.  Why invest in an informed, educated population that ultimately might vote with their feet?

On the other side, Cape Town (which is all we personally can speak to), offers an unparalleled, perhaps best in the world quality of life for those who can afford it.  The diversity of the population is breaktaking  – people of all shapes, sizes, colors and languages are together ALL THE TIME.  The outdoors are stunning – and folks are outside ALL the time. People are friendly and casual, and the food and wine flows for a song.  People have a strong sense of pride in their country, and they want it to succeed.  They are not overtaken with their own sense of import, and seem to have a very healthy work/life/family balance.  The weather is delightful, with summer/spring lasting 8 months of the year.   No sub-zero temperatures (in Celsius or Fahrenheit!) here!

The frequency with which we hear this debate taking place among friends and strangers we meet has really been striking to us. And it also reinforces the gratitude we feel – on a daily basis – to be US citizens. On any given day or year, we might not agree with current political leaders or trends. Yet despite any current misgivings we both have the utmost respect and belief in American political governance, our constitution, our separation of powers, our freedom of the press, the promise of a strong future for our children.

Here are some of the key themes from the relatively small sample size of folks with whom we’ve discussed staying/leaving/returning:


  • This is my country. I’d never leave.
  • Yes, the government is a mess, but we love our country and are determined to help shape its future for our children.
  • Yes there are issues but every time we travel we can’t wait to come home. We could never find this quality of life anywhere else. Just look around!
  • Things have been very very bad for everyone over the past decade. It isn’t sustainable; things need to change.  We are cautiously optimistic about (current President) Cyril Ramaphosas.
  • We absolutely love it here; there is a thriving black middle class where I live (in Joburg) and I would being part of it.  Would never leave.

And from our housekeeper, Rea, an immigrant from Malawi who sends much of her $24 (from us) weekly paycheck home to support her 14 year old daughter there (she has two other daughters here), and from every Uber driver we meet, and from every gas station attendant – many of whom seem to be from Zimbabwe:

  • We absolutely want to be in South Africa. In my country, the government is bad. There are no jobs. We can’t afford petrol. We can’t afford food. We can’t live there. Here, we can work, and we can live, and we can make money. It’s expensive, but we are so grateful to be here.

From our friends who are considering leaving:

  • The country is too fragile. Rightly, the government is implementing policies to try to redress wrongs, but at what expense to our family, to our children? We aren’t confident our children will be able to get the opportunities (in education, career) they need to thrive.
  • The security issue is overwhelming. It’s such a relief to travel and just breathe deeply and relax. We are on edge all the time here (because of the violence).
  • I fear for our country. So many people have been victims of evil, intentional inequity and racism for so long. They are angry – as I would be – and things are going to get to a boiling point. And our current president’s role is very tenuous. If (former President) Zuma comes back, things will only get worse.

And from those who have left:

  • We just had to get out of Joburg. That’s where the jobs are – but it’s just too unsafe, with dangers lurking around every corner. After trying hard to get into the States we moved to Australia two years ago. While we are still trying for the States, Australia is just so much easier…..we can relax and breathe, and our kids can walk on the streets again.
  • I moved to England ten years ago, but I still come home for medical care/health appointments. Health care here is top notch (for those who can afford it).
  • My brother and I both left – he ten years ago for England, I for a year in Australia. We both moved back to SA – for family and for overall quality of life.

Particularly striking is how easily people open up to us, and how emotional they often get. For instance, last weekend a vendor at a market teared up as she told us that she would soon be emigrating to England with her husband and children. It was obvious from her unhappiness that this was not a decision made lightly.

So fascinating!!!! These aren’t conversations that we – in our little bubble in Milton Massachusetts – have on a daily basis!!!

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