To stay, or not to stay: That is the question

I recently returned home to Cape Town from Oxford, where I live. On landing, my fellow passengers and I trailed along to passport control, where we were met with a five-minute delay in a queue for those of us travelling on South African passports.

While waiting, I inadvertently caught the eye of the woman behind me who was clearly annoyed by the hold-up.
She rolled her eyes at me in that awful assumed complicity and muttered something along the lines of “only in this country—”

I was about to ask her if she had ever endured Heathrow, but it was my turn to go forward and present my passport. The woman examining it hesitated, stamp in the air. She looked at my picture, then at me, then back at my picture. “I know,” I said, “it doesn’t look anything like me any more”.

My passport photo shows me with long red hair and I now have short blonde hair. She smiled, brought the stamp down, and, as she handed the passport back, said, “Well, it’s not your home any more”.

I was too stunned to say anything in return. But it was an exchange which spoke to a central question in my life, and in the lives of the other South Africans with whom I share a strange, dislocated (although committed and engaged) community in Oxford: is South Africa still our home? It is the central question too, of Kevin Bloom’s new book, Ways of Staying (Picador Africa), an extended meditation on the crises of identity and belonging facing South Africans who, for one reason or another, feel alienated and alien in their country.

Ways of Staying is an intensely personal story—it chronicles Bloom coming to terms with his relationship to South Africa, and, in so doing, figuring out whether he can stay here. His inquiry is triggered by a personal tragedy, the murder of his cousin, Richard Bloom, who was killed with Brett Goldin in 2006.

Bloom’s book resonated with me because the murder of Brett, a friend of mine, was a turning point for me too, in my relationship with South Africa. This infamous double murder was not the first act of violent crime to touch my circle of friends.

But it was the most brutal, the most final, the most horrific. And it triggered a similar response in me, and in many people I know, as the one described in Bloom’s book: a slow, systematic questioning of whether there are ways of staying here, ways of belonging.

It would be wrong to characterise Bloom’s book simply as a list of white South African crime horror stories, although, it is that too—a litany of events which does not fail to shock, despite the familiarity and now disturbingly daily nature of these crimes.

The stories of the murder of David Rattray, the rape of Jamie Patterson, the shooting of the children of a Johannesburg family, are detailed with empathy, not gratuitously for the sake of a gripping story, but to understand the more important questions—how these events affected people’s lives, their experience of being South Africans, and what these violent ruptures mean to them.

Bloom’s investigation is not limited to the leafy suburbs, although this is certainly where his emphasis lies. He is profoundly disturbed by the xenophobic violence that consumed South Africa in 2008, and acutely aware of the infinitely higher levels of risk and danger in poorer areas of South Africa.

At one stage, reflecting on how race is still an extraordinarily powerful divider in South Africa, he identifies what he thinks is now the greatest leveller of this historic divide: “We do have something in common, I’m thinking.

In the years since the destruction of apartheid, in this new time where crime has no colour—where the police force does not have as its sole objective the protection of a privileged race, where all are equal before lawlessness and disarray—our fears have begun to coalesce”.

In the face of all this fear Bloom asks the question of whether people are staying. His informants have an array of responses. Some are packing up and shipping out, looking for a new life where they feel safe.

The Johannesburg family whose children were shot at in their homes are staying because they cannot leave their community—but that community has employed a sinister yet effective private army to guard the neighbourhood. The victims of the xenophobic violence are staying, choosing to take the risks of South Africa over what they know waits for them at home.

There is a deeper question here. People who emigrate do so for a number of reasons: crime, affirmative action, disenchantment with the political scene. But no matter what the explanation, there is at heart a sense of not being welcome that is not simply about race and certainly not only about crime.

I have worked on issues of poverty and inequality in post-apartheid South Africa for the past eight years. I have watched how the expectations raised by the liberation movement have been cruelly disappointing for most South Africans.

As a student at the University of Cape Town, I was told by a Youth League-dominated SRC that they would not support our campaign for workers’ rights because they “could not appear to be anti-privatisation”.

But it is not my politics alone that is unwelcome. A slow but definite shift in public discourse, orchestrated by powerful cultural gatekeepers, has called into question the first lines of the Freedom Charter—that South Africa belongs to all who live in it—black and white.

Jacob Zuma’s comments about Afrikaners being the only “real” white South Africans, Njabulo Ndebele’s reference to white South Africans living here with a foreign passport in the back pocket of their trousers, Julius Malema’s vicious and racist attacks on the only prominent white woman in politics are just a few examples from the public domain that contribute to a growing sense of disease, a question mark developing over that box we tick when we enter Heathrow: nationality.

Most of the South Africans I know in Oxford were raised by left-wing parents, who engaged in the struggle for apartheid in a variety of ways. My parents lost friends, faith and hope during the 1980s. I was nine when the ANC was unbanned and I watched my mother cut up anything yellow, green and black to hang bunting in the tree outside our house in Yeoville.

Most of us, these privileged kids getting a world-class education in Oxford, were raised with a sense of civic duty and a strong desire to contribute to our society, to come home and do something meaningful.

Most of us are there on scholarships and almost all of those scholarships require us to sign a form saying we will return to South Africa to work when our studies are completed. Some of us do. But many do not. One Rhodes scholar took a job with a prominent consultancy in London and defiantly declared that this company was “making his poverty history”.

Deciding not to return is a controversial choice within this community and people are not shy to talk about sell-outs and traitors.

Justice Edwin Cameron, on a recent visit to Oxford, castigated Rhodes scholars for their lack of commitment to returning to South Africa. But I can’t help wondering if behind the reasons given for not going home—the crime, the inability to find a job, Eskom—lurks a more profound sense of not being entitled to call South Africa home any more.

Underpinning the endless debates between young South Africans who live overseas is the unresolved question of whether white South Africans are, fundamentally, no matter how far back we trace our lineage, settlers and foreigners here.

It is the tension, as one of my colleagues recently put it, between “being committed and not knowing where we can situate that without being exploitative”.

Bloom ends his book with a response to Breyten Breytenbach’s infamous open letter to Mandela, published in Harper’s in December 2008.

Breytenbach wrote: “I must tell you this terrible thing, my old and revered leader: if a young South African were to ask me whether he or she should stay or leave, my bitter advice would be to go. For the foreseeable future now, if you want to live your life to the full and with some satisfaction and usefulness, and if you can stand the loss, if you can amputate yourself—then go.”

For Bloom, his investigation leads him to a radically different conclusion: that there are profound and meaningful ways of staying in South Africa and that the cost of “amputation”—emigration—would be giving up on living life to the full.

Personally, I agree with Bloom. I have lived in the United Kingdom for four years and although I love it there, I know now that were my children to grow up anywhere but South Africa, they would always be strangers to me.

I cannot bear the amputation and I do not believe I should have to. I hope that my colleagues at Oxford and I will all return, bring all our skills and training back to offer to this country, and that we will succeed in finding a way to do so which is not exploitative. And I hope that we will be welcome.

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