The typical response by many ignorant people to South Africans who decide to leave the country goes along the lines of “good riddance, let them go. They never loved the country in the first place, so we shall survive without them”. There are seldom attempts to understand why people leave, what drives them to make the difficult decision to pack-up and go. 

A historic point never to raise with black South Africans is that they might have migrated to the southern part of Africa from Western and Central Africa or thereabouts centuries ago. Versions of history – not written by Africans – point out that black South Africans began arriving in the country from A.D. 300 onwards, during the Southern Migration. But it is a version many consider to be misleading because it was written by “white colonialists with an agenda”. It is a difficult discussion to have in the absence of counter-written historic records by black South Africans, because much of African history is known to have been ‘passed down generations by word of mouth’. So the jury will remain forever out there. 

A basic internet search tells us that the first nations of South Africa are collectively referred to as the Khoisan, the Khoi Khoi and the San separately. It further goes to say that these groups were displaced or sometimes absorbed by migrating Africans (Bantus) during the Bantu expansion from Western and Central Africa. But this, also, is not a comfortable discussion to have for many black South Africans. Many claim that it is a historic claim of misleading colonial proportions. So, the matter remains politely unresolved… well, sort of. 

So, the knee-jerk response to South Africans who resolve to leave, or various permutations of it, never considers or interrogates the reasons for which people wake up, one day, and ask themselves the difficult question – it is never an easy one – of whether their lives would be better-off in South Africa or elsewhere. It is very seldom a question that leads to an immediate decision to leave. Many ask it, then let it go, then revisit it as it lingers in their thoughts, before going around indirectly testing the views of friends and other loved ones, as if they’re “asking for my friend”. It takes time and several experiences – or mounting frustration – for one to finally decide to pack up and leave one’s country of birth.

All over the world, and throughout human history, humans have left their places of birth to explore the world out of curiosity, often never to return. They have also left out of fear, to escape wars or discrimination targeted at the groups they are deemed to belong to (racial, ethnic, religious, gender identity, etc.). They have left to find or follow loved ones, or in response to a professional or study opportunity offered to them elsewhere. The reasons never to return to the country of birth are also as varied as the reasons to leave. They might get married or involved in permanent relationships to form new families; they might fear persecution and continued discrimination in their countries of origin, where things might have gotten worse since their departure, or they might simply find the burden of uprooting their new lives too onerous to carry; life partners, children, jobs, and a plethora of money, life/health insurance, and other existential commitments.

In the case of post-apartheid South Africa, many people have left for fear of rising crime levels – some having directly or indirectly experienced violent, murderous, attacks following home invasions or attacks outside their homes – loss of livelihoods because of race-discriminatory policies like affirmative action and B-BBEE (Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment), fearing that there would be no opportunities for their children if they do not fit the prescribed race qualification, or for fearing that things are generally getting worse in the way the country is being governed. 

Contrary to popular belief, increasing numbers of those who have left over the past two decades come from all race groups. South Africans who have skills that can be applied in more stable environments will leave if an opportunity presents itself for them to do so, irrespective of their background. Just like other humans from other parts of the world do.

Whereas many people who left ahead of the advent of post-apartheid democracy did so, reportedly, out of fear of what a black-governed South Africa would be like – foreseeing doom and gloom – many of those who left after did so for one or a combination of the reasons mentioned above.

It is only sad that many of the negative predictions by those who left as apartheid was ending have come to be true. Under ANC (mis)governance, doom and gloom have become the order of the day.

The South Africa of 2022 is a broken country led by a broken political party of predatory capitalists who continue to preach Soviet-era slogans that only serve to emotionally keep the pliable masses of poor and uneducated South Africans beholden to them, inexplicably believing the lie that the political elite is working to help them realise economic emancipation and glory. This, despite all evidence to the contrary.

As members of the political elite get richer and fatter – shielded from electric power load shedding, water shortages, violent crime, etc. – the so-called masses of the “poorest of the poor” get occasional crumbs thrown at them to keep them on the political leash. They have been conditioned to believe that things would be worse without the paltry government grants they receive every month and have become dependent on, and that removing the predatory elite from power could lead to the return of apartheid. 

It is laughable, of course, but too many still believe the nonsense that apartheid could return. But only they can free themselves from it, not the abusive elite who, clearly, benefit handsomely from the Stockholm Syndrome afflicting their victims.

South Africans in the diaspora can be enablers of needed healing

Nevertheless, the grown and growing numbers of South Africans living in the vast diaspora should not be counted out as potential enablers of and contributors to needed economic and reputational recovery for their country of birth. Evidence has shown that people who live in counties other than those they were born and grew up in never stop referencing their origins, often with nostalgic fondness, even after many years of having left.

This is, in part, because when leaving, they left behind relatives, friends, and other loved ones with whom they have remained in contact over the years, thanks to digital and social media platforms such as email, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and others. Many continue to regularly listen to and call into their favourite radio talk shows in South Africa and to keep updated by reading other current affairs and news platforms online. They do not do this out of simple curiosity or to justify their having left. They do so looking for signs of recovery and because they love their country of birth, irrespective of the reasons of their departure from it.                    

Such South Africans want to be able to continue boasting about their country of birth. Many even fantasise about a possible return if things improve. Nostalgic, some have already done so. They dream of recommending visits to picturesque South Africa by foreigners who have become part of their post-South Africa lives – partners, children, friends, etc. – even to physically accompany them as guides. No one can deny with a straight face that on a good day – and apart from all the negative stuff we have come to know – South Africa is a scenic Mecca and, arguably, one of the most beautiful countries on earth. All the problems it faces are man-made, products of political arrogance, ineptitude, destructive political deployments that have resulted in the weakening and repurposing of most of the country’s key institutions to benefit a criminal network that continues to be shielded, abetted, and aided by people linked to the ideologically fractured governing ANC, which has benefitted massively from the mayhem they have caused, bringing the country’s developmental potential to its knees.

What South Africans in the diaspora need are signs that South Africa is beginning a positive turn around. To help sustainable recovery, they do not have to return to live in South Africa if the commitments of their new lives render this difficult, but they can call for and facilitate investments and other forms of developmental exchanges with South African institutions.

But none of this will happen while the ANC continues to stand between South Africa and its potential.


Solly Moeng is the founder and convenor of Africa Brand Summit. He publishes a regular LinkedIn newsletter, “I’m so Solly”, click here to follow it.