Deep Read: Gondwanaland - My trek from Sydney to Jo'burg

Sarah Britten doesn't regret returning to Johannesburg after emigrating to the Australia in 2008. (Gallo)

Sarah Britten doesn't regret returning to Johannesburg after emigrating to the Australia in 2008. (Gallo)

Last week I allowed myself to do something for the first time in three years – I looked at a photo of my life in Sydney. This week an exhibition of my Jo'burg cityscapes opens, and preparing for it has prompted a great deal of reflection on my long and strange journey from the other side of the world where I used to live. 

The photo is a view of Sydney from across the harbour. Taken from the Lower North Shore apartment where I stayed when I first emigrated to Australia in 2008, it is spectacular, with the kind of blue sea soaring ramparts-stunning that Jo'burg simply can't do.
And of course it brings up the inevitable question, the one I have so assiduously avoided since I stepped off QF63: Do I regret coming back?

This is something all of us returned emigrants must ask ourselves. The prevailing narrative of South Africans who come back tends to be one of a quest for a better lifestyle and more opportunity, but what of those of us who were collateral damage in the global economic meltdown? I was made redundant after seven months at a big flashy ad agency on Macquarie Street. I could have stayed – I had a permanent residence visa after all – so why did I come back? Partly because I was lured by a title and a big salary. Partly, too, by the knowledge that I had to go through my personal inferno, and it was better to do that here than over there. 

It all went pear-shaped from the time I headed back on the road from OR Tambo. My marriage was already trailing smoke and the decision to return was one of the factors that led to its ultimate (if necessary) demise. My mother-in-law had died very suddenly while my then husband and I were waiting for the Australians to issue our visas and this, followed by emigration, retrenchment, reverse emigration and then divorce took its inevitable toll. I spent so much time weeping in the toilets at work I should have created a category for it in my timesheets.  

This is something that is seldom spoken of, how hard it is both to go and to come back. My departure for Australia and subsequent return were all very public, because I blogged the entire experience on Thought Leader. I named my blog Gondwanaland, a reference to the ancient mega-continent that linked Africa, Antarctica and Australia. For a year after I started my new life on the other side of the planet, I chronicled the hoons and bogans, as well as the alluring strangeness of a new city. The story was supposed to continue in that vein, but November 26 2008 put paid to all that. 

There was a lot of schadenfreude in the comments facility; lots of anger and contempt too. I suspect a lot of expats read my return as a middle finger to their own decision to leave. The issue of emigration has always been a fraught one, laced with accusations of betrayal. If it has become less loaded now, it's probably because the global economic mess makes us look relatively good and everyone is talking investment in Africa. There was a time when, for many middle class South Africans, the prospect of Jacob Zuma at the helm was too awful to contemplate, but it happened and we muddled through, as we always have. 

From the moment I returned to Jo'burg I never allowed myself to think about my life in Sydney. This is a necessary step to take, whether you are beginning a new life or returning to an old one. You have to keep going, stay focused and not be distracted by the past. I've always said that Forrest Gump's mother was wrong. Life is not like a box of chocolates (for one thing, all you have to do is look at the descriptions on the side of the chocolate box and you'll know whether you're getting a strawberry delight or chocolate toffee finger). It's much more like riding a bicycle: stop moving forward and you'll fall over. Thanks to family and friends I did keep going, hard as it was. 

And it was very, very hard.

Jo'burg then came to my rescue in the most unlikely way. A brief came through from a PR agency in London; four "city shapers" were to be chosen to drive a luxury car and talk about the city they called home in various social media platforms. All those blogs and tweets and status updates had paid off, and I found myself driving a vehicle that exemplifies money and success in a city obsessed with both. Eighteen months and 20 000km later, I still can't quite believe it. 

But there was a twist. This was a global campaign, and each city around the world was allocated a colour. São Paulo, for instance, was green, as was New York, while Sydney was blue. Jo'burg was given bright pink. This was astonishingly lucky, because lipstick comes in pink – and lipstick is what I happen to paint with. I had first experimented with it years before as a way to avoid working on my PhD thesis, and used it on and off, sticking to safe subjects like apples and roses.  This campaign prompted me to try something completely different. I presented the marketing director with a painting, a bright pink cityscape. That first work led to others, some mellow and contemplative, others boiling with anger. One work I titled Panic because I painted it while having yet another severe anxiety attack – I thought I'd try art therapy as an alternative to Xanor. I have lost count of how many times I painted the Hillbrow tower, that structure that anchors the city's skyline and marks its dark heart.

I've spent most of my working life in the advertising industry, so it's poetic that in this city of the hard sell and the soft soap I should be forced – by a marketing exercise – to interrogate my relationship with the place where I was born and bred. I have a love-hate relationship with Jo'burg; it's both my muse and the setting for my torment. My story is written in these streets, and their intersections - the markers of my slow climb out of what often felt like a mineshaft to the middle of the earth. This seam of grief runs deep like gold, as I have written into one of my paintings, and this is true. But that does not mean that there is no joy, no beating red heart to balance out the grey. We need the dark to shadow the light and give it substance, and black is the colour I use in my work more than any other (black lipstick is not easy to come by; I buy mine from a stall at the Randburg fleamarket – thank heavens for little Goths).

One of the reasons I came back was that I wanted to matter. If I had stayed in Sydney, would I matter now, today? This is something that most emigrants have to contend with: that you are somebody in the place you come from and nobody in the place you go to. The truth is that in Jo'burg I matter more than I ever could in Sydney. The Australians, with their easygoing cheer layered thinly over a substrate of affable indifference – no worries, mate – couldn't care. Why should they? 

That city of the blue harbour and the soaring towers is a foreign land now; the place where my ex-husband lives with his second wife – an Australian – and their child. The memories leak now and then from that corner of my mind where I have quarantined them, but they're fading. I see the occasional Facebook status update from people I knew in Sydney, but they're strangers now.

One legacy of my time in Australia endures. It was when I was living in Sydney that I chose my unusual Twitter handle. People are always asking me what @Anatinus means, and so I'll tell the story. In late March 2009 when I first signed up, my real name was taken, so I clutched at the first thing that came to mind: the duckbilled platypus I'd seen at the Taronga Zoo. Ornithorhyncus anatinus was a perplexing mashup of a creature – a thing that doesn't really belong but survives nonetheless. 

One of the small works in my exhibition is a little different from all the others. To the right of the horizon are the Hillbrow tower and Ponte City; to the left, the Sydney Opera House. Between them is the Harbour Bridge, arching over the distance between that existence and this one. In this image my life stretches from one skyline to another, a Gondwanaland of the soul. So here, now, I am able to reflect on the strange connectedness of things, and to pose that old unspoken question of regret, the one I never dared ask. No, I am not sorry that I came back. Who knows what my life might be like across the world if I'd stayed, but I have been in the right place at the right time – and right now, as it turns out, that place is Jo'burg. 

The Pulse of the City exhibition is on at Velo, 85 Juta Street, Braamfontein, until July 28.

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