Thabo Mbeki
South African Expatriate Bashing
Guest column by - L Mylie (Mrs.) / New Zealand
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‘Expat bashing’

Recent months have seen numerous articles appearing in the South African press claiming that South African expats “badmouth” their country, yet the very people who provide the fodder for these articles are hypocritically guilty of just this by applying less than complimentary labels to describe us.

Ranging from the frequently used derogatory term of “chickens”, through to the latest “dinosaurs”, the broad line of accusation is that we expats are somehow single-handedly responsible for “trashing” South Africa’s image abroad, while the recently formed Rand Commission of Inquiry has, this past week, been told that if you’re a “professional” South African expat, you’re able to influence overseas investor sentiment.

Like yolk bearing cattle, white South Africans are the only citizens I know of in the “free world” who are placed in the unenviable, no-win, position of being pronounced guilty if they stay and guilty if they leave. While the world-wide upsurge in immigration has seen indigenous citizens of the countries we’re now living in being at complete liberty to move around the world without cheap snipes being directed at them by their governments and fellow citizens, the South African government, and a growing number of their followers, view their expats as “traitors”. Indeed, even the African icon epitomising ‘freedom’, Nelson Mandela, told international reporters back in 1998 that “we are convinced that the real South Africans are being sorted out in this process”. How’s that for engendering warm, fuzzy, feelings of patriotism and how are we to respond to such statements - favourably?

South African expats are also uniquely different from those of most other democracies in that the decision to emigrate is made in a country supposedly “at peace” - for the first time in many years - yet, few of us can say our decisions to emigrate weren’t heavily influenced by war-like conditions which have seen parts of South Africa so often described, not by expats, but by local and foreign journalists alike, as “the crime/rape/murder capital of the world”. Still, our government sees fit to measure our patriotism solely on our lack of willingness to stay and be repeatedly subjected to the rampant lawlessness and criminality which so many of us, and our beloved, family, friends and colleagues have fallen victim to.

Furthermore, despite almost 10 years having passed since ‘freedom’ was won, South Africans continue to be held economic hostage by their government. While even statues and street names connected with the “apartheid era” have been removed and renamed, archaic foreign exchange legislation remains firmly in place which binds anyone wanting to leave - even for a holiday - to rigorous controls which stipulate when and in what quantities we may spend our money.

Likened to being ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t, emigrate “formally” and you’ll have your remaining assets, which fall outside your allowance, frozen. These monies can then only be used, after Reserve Bank approval, if and when you return to South Africa, and even then, only within the country’s borders.

Emigrate “informally”, and you’re restricted to allowances designed for holidaying overseas in the 1980’s, which limits then render you virtually bankrupt within days of your arrival in a foreign country, while you’re also forced into lying by marking ‘x’ in the holiday block of your immigration departure card, knowing full well that you’re not intending to return.

Nonetheless, we are told that South African expats are reportedly so successful in their new countries that they hold such high positions which allow them to influence the Rand - but are somehow simultaneously so unhappy that they are doing so in the negative by ‘badmouthing’ South Africa to “justify” their foreign residences.

Such is the desperation of the commission to pin blame on anyone but the government for the demise of the Rand that they conveniently excluded the obvious in that no “professional” expat, both wanting and needing to be taken seriously in a foreign country, could afford to give anything but a balanced and objective assessment of his or her country.

How much savvy does it take too to work out that by virtue of being “professional” - and hence a high-earner - the probability is that this class of expat still holds significant assets in South Africa and as such any “badmouthing” would be tantamount to shooting yourself in the foot. The vast majority of us also still have family and friends living in South Africa, many of them ageing, who are increasingly straining under the weight of the spiralling costs of living due, in part, to the negative influence the falling Rand is bringing to bear on their incomes. Sadistic lot we must therefore be to set ourselves up relatively comfortably elsewhere and then intentionally set out to sabotage the pockets of our nearest and dearest!

Little credit has also apparently been given to the intelligence of foreign investors since what person with the kind of money South Africa is trying to attract would consult, listen to, or take as advice, the emotional ramblings of an evidently unhappy, or even mildly embittered, expat - no matter how “professional” their credentials were? By the same token, what serious investor would base their investment decisions entirely on what expats - only - have to say, while a host of foreign government funded web-based travel advisories on South Africa make the utterings of the most acid mouthed of expats look like compliments?

And, while we’re told what a “credit” South Africa’s expat “dinosaur” chicks are, what serious investor would pay heed to the excited babblings of bright-eyed youngsters fired up by youthful enthusiasm - intent on achieving a degree and returning to South Africa today, but hooking up with a group of happy-camping, carefree, youths planning to tour the world tomorrow?

Noticeably, while the verbal tirade being hurled at expats by the South African government, and now the Rand Commission of Inquiry, grows louder and more accusing, not a single word has been uttered about the long-term damage done to South Africa’s image, for one, by the “quiet diplomacy” approach adopted by President Mbeki in response to the chaos and mayhem being played out right now in Zimbabwe - widely reported as this has been for months in every medium and country throughout the world.

Possibly the saddest aspect of South African ‘expat bashing’ lies not in what is said, by whom, or why, but in the knowledge that while politically mature governments around the world gracefully accept the loss of their “brightest and best” to other countries as ‘par for the course’ and actively work at recruiting replacements, South Africa still hasn’t sorted out its internal immigration policies; with many “professional” foreigners who have married South Africans finding themselves sitting around idly at home for months, and even years, waiting for the necessary approval to arrive in the post which will allow them to start working.

How too can I, but not a single member of a Commission of Inquiry, see the tragedy in a developing country like South Africa spending so much time, effort and money on ‘expat bashing’ - for what really boils down to us having the sheer audacity to leave - instead of cultivating our collective experiences and qualifications in ways that will favour the country and its’ economy?

"dinosaurs"Perhaps though the greatest irony of being labelled a “dinosaur” lies in the unfortunate combination of age, a white skin, experience and qualification all adding up to a category of citizen who is now on the extinction list in the “new South Africa”. Could it possibly be that alienating attitudes such as we have increasingly been subjected to of late have served to add to the exodus, or, am I attracting yet another label by daring to suggest this?

- L Mylie (Mrs.) / New Zealand
lmyliesa@hotmail.com


Post-script:

Incredibly, the very day after I wrote this letter, I read in South African newspapers that two American businesspeople, who wanted to invest around R860 million in SA, had been arrested and jailed.

South African taxpayers now stand to lose R2,6 billion - as they're sueing on the ground of "wrongful arrest" - but expats are, conveniently, blamed for foreigners not wanting to invest in South Africa.

Flipping over to New Zealand's newspapers, I then read that this country, often referred to as "small" and/or "backward", has spent $750,000 on a scheme to woo back their expats, with Economic Development Minister Jim Anderton having confirmed last May that $2.5 million had been set aside for this initiative.

Big investors sue SA for wrongful arrest
Two American investors who, until they were arrested, wanted to pump R860-million into the South African economy, have launched what is the biggest lawsuit ever against the South African government.

Californians Clint Henri Graves (senior) and his son, also Clint Henri Graves, are claiming R2,6 billion for wrongful arrest.

National Director of Public Prosecutions Bulelani Ngcuka, justice minister Penuell Maduna and safety and security minister Steve Tshwete are cited as defendants.

 

 

Posted Tuesday, July 25, 2006
 
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