A quick search would tell you what you’d wanted to know; that I am NOT a South African expat and have never left my country. So you may be wondering where this all started and why someone like me would create a platform for South Africans abroad when I have never even stamped my passport. Moreover, why would someone who does not fear or hate my country, nor lost faith in it, choose to assist those who don’t share my world view?
My roots: an unconventional upbringing
I was born in Pretoria to a South African dad and Namibian mother who would later part ways due to irreconcilable differences. Although in the hub of South African “mainstream” culture, my life was not as conventional as my friends. In fact, I’d hardly ever felt like I’d belonged anywhere – I still don’t know if I do.
After their divorce, my dad moved to Johannesburg and continued his legal work. He’d served a brief stint under F.W. de Klerk’s administration in the 80’s, but subsequently moved on to represent other factions and mingle with a different crowd to your typical Pretoria Afrikaner.
I didn’t see him often, but on those occasions I went to visit we often met with prominent political figures – usually of other races. He’d also married a British national and I’d gained a step sister and two half brothers in the process. We were a cultural pinata of sorts. As a child born in the 80’s and raised in an Afrikaans community, it was incredibly stressful and confusing at first. My mind could not compute the vast differences between the two worlds I had to face. My community did not have any non-white leaders, home-owners or bosses. The non-white people I knew worked in gardens and cleaned homes and called me “miss” without me ever thinking anything of it. Why would I? No one had told me why society was this way. No one cared to discuss the details of a nation hemorrhaging significance and empathy by the bucketloads. We didn’t see that part of the news. We didn’t know why it was that way. We simply accepted that other races served. They lived in tiny rooms on their own – because their families could not live with them (but, of course, we would not know this until years later). So imagine this silly Afrikaans girl meeting the cultured, well-groomed and well-spoken leaders of other races while visiting her somewhat estranged dad who’d married a British woman. My pretty little white brain could not manage the customs duties due for crossing between the borders of these paradigms. The people I’d met and opinions I’d heard in my one world were light-years from the typical artificial persona of non-whites painted by society and the media – and I was alone. No one in my community understood this, neither were they privy to the actual truth of South African life and history.
But what a blessing this was! To be honest, had I not experienced this contrast I would probably not have understood the divisiveness in South Africa, the naivety or the opposing points of view presented by people of my own race and of other races. I would not grasp how thick the walls constructed around our little factions to keep out the light of truth and otherness.
And this had made me question – from a young age – our social and political discourse; how we incite or defuse situations, how we hate and love and how much of our perception is formed by preconceived notions of right and wrong, good and bad which we do not question.
A yearning for travel…
Despite my dad’s position in the upper classes and political arenas, we functioned under the pressure of your typical “divorcee war” of the times. Living with my mother, we had no car, no house, relied on charity for survival and, to be honest, we were quite an eyesore in your typical middle-to-upperclass Afrikaans neighbourhood. Luckily my imagination had served as a magical form of escapism and innovation and, unlike my siblings, these things we’d lacked had only reinforced my core belief that life is not bound to riches, we are not what we own and that there is possibility under all circumstances.
Needless to say, however, a vivid imagination does not take well to being caged. Although living on a small-holding all my life, there simply was never any money to travel, go on holiday or experience the diversity which I’d already accepted as the thing I loved most about the world.
I had been angry and hurt, on occasion, when my father met with FIFA heads abroad and took my other siblings with. I’d been deeply hurt by seeing my friends on their adventures. I’d been so completely shattered by missing out on experiences others had had.
Of course, becoming a young, single mother had not quite helped the situation – but it HAD given me a drive to become more and create a future for myself without having to rely on those I’d always thought to have neglected, abandoned or disappointed me. I had realised that I was – in line with one of Madiba’s most-loved poems – the master of my own fate.
Skip forward… expat disillusionment
Given my upbringing and beliefs, it was rather strange that I would fall into a position as senior writer and researcher covering expat issues such as finance, travel, culture, administration and politics. And yet it just so happened that this was exactly where I found myself in 2015.
But the reality of immigrant dissent along with the gaping divide in which leavers and stayers poured their fuel from opposite sides of their borders set in real fast. Once more I found myself in the middle of two societies and points of view I could not reconcile.
It seemed the border between people served simply to strengthen animosity, aggression and intolerance. As a silent bystander I would have to follow conversations and debates without interference. I witnessed the ire of South Africans against the deserters who’d left and the brutal disgust returned by those who had lost all hope for their country. Day in and day out I would watch as the apartheid which had ruined my nation recreated itself in modern times amongst people who made different choices.
Sadly, most people aware of marketing tactics would understand that it was exactly this disillusionment and discord which many businesses leverage to sell their story. Fear means sales – and despite my personal objections there were few occasions where I could encourage understanding, eliminate negative commentary or dispel fears.
Luckily and after a grueling, exhausting and humiliating exit from my position I’d finally escaped these conventions and manipulations. I was finally free to do something about the things I’d so long faced as muted bystander.
Living outside the box
Though the idea of a new expat platform had germinated during my stint at the previous company, I realised that I was still passionate about it. Being someone who’s never quite fit any mold or thought inside any kind of doos – it made sense that I – as a South African still residing within country borders – should be the one to build the bridge for others to cross. Whether they feel the need to leave, to stay, or come back – I suddenly had the power to offer everyone that option. I suddenly had the power to say, quite clearly – that no one should feel bad about their personal choices, and that no one should use their own trauma, faith, culture, race or world view to bully anyone into any decision.
No longer would expats be told they have given up, fled or that their decisions made their views on South Africa invalid. No longer would South Africans face the shitstorm of humiliating, bigoted and hurtful commentary from expats.
These places DO exist, of course. You are not likely to find a group or forum discussing emigration or immigration which is not riddled with political poop, false statistics or entitled egotism. But why should the norm be the aim? Why should I subscribe to an existing concept?
The idea grows…
As my previous job had cut me loose without the hazards of red tape or competitor restrictions, I’d first contacted one of their competitors. Sitting with such a bulk of knowledge and ideas, it simply made sense to offer this to a place which, from what I’d gauged, was NOT like my previous employers.
This paid off – not only had it been the most warming and positive welcome ever extended to me – but this company did not want to prescribe what I could say or do.
With a retainer in place, I now had a bit of freedom to spend time on my baby – SAFFA abroad. Every part of the site was built by yours truly. Every fact and design was curated by yours truly. But don’t get me wrong; this is no narcissistic power trip – I merely mean to reiterate that this project was created out of love and with no financial gain to assist all South Africans with their unique journeys throughout this wonderful place we call earth.
New rules for a new message
In line with a view of a new online, global and social platform for South African expats, the old rules also fly out the door.
This new space is neither a platform for liberal-minded people to rebuke more conservative thinkers, nor a space free of empathy. In fact – our greatest gift is in extending empathy to those who may not share our views, understand our lives or believe what we believe. SAFFA abroad is a space where we would like to remind each other that borders are, at the heart of it, mere mental constructs and that we could each make the world better and make someone’s life easier by focusing on the good, assisting and offering positive advice which is untainted by our personal bias.
Spreading the love
Since sharing the idea with friends, family and individuals I’d encountered a shitload of confused grunts, cynical brow lifts and awkward silence. Many people cannot reconcile the cast-in-stone perception of what an expat is, what South Africa is and what emigration means.
But, quite surprisingly, the flood of support and interest from friends, family and people I’d never met in person has been indescribable and still is. I have been inundated with support and eagerness to participate by those voices so often forgotten in the soundproof immigration chamber – those voices who have never cared for being heard or dividing races or humiliating others. I have been inspired by the positive stories of new adventures, new homes, rediscovery and acceptance from South Africans globally.
The world is filled with individuals migrating across borders to seek out adventure, renewal or belonging – and those people want to share the joy. And these individuals are the silver lining to a “segment” of South African life which has been left to its own devices, given a permanent label and archived.
We cannot allow divisions, hatreds and hurts of the past to impact the possibilities for our futures. We each belong, wherever we are. And we would be wise to consider how we empower others to belong, irrespective of our own opinions.
Sad affirmations through loss
Dad passed away last year. It was sudden. It was heartbreaking. And I’d not been able to share my ideas with him. I’d not had much contact with him throughout the years, which made his death, funeral(s) and the aftermath of his passing quite meaningful.
Even among my own “kind” – as it is quite impossible not to label one’s self in a South African context – I’d always been unconventional. I’d always rebelled against authority. I’d always brushed aside social, aesthetic or cultural conventions to simply be who I am. This had been met with quite a bit of controversy over the years in a professional capacity. I’d simply never understood the importance of things like shoes or combing one’s hair in discussing work or matters of importance. I’d never cared for the paint, holes or other miscellaneous signs of abandon evident on my clothes. Attending dad’s funeral among prominent statesmen and politicians, including representatives from the houses Dlamini, Mandela, Sekukhune and others had been frightening to me. I was the only one of my siblings who refrained from speaking at the funeral. I felt intimidated and lost. Once more – I felt homeless.
My attire and inadequacy was simply not suited to such an audience. I’d felt so out of my depth. I could not discern the ranks of people or the proper way of addressing anyone without throwing a “fuck” in there – and once more I was incapacitated by those social and cultural constructs ruling the minds and communities of my country.
Dad’s subsequent burial two weeks later was far more comforting to me – perhaps because I felt less judged as person and more judged by my race. He was buried on the homestead of Chief Sithole under a fig tree. The burial was unconventional for many reasons. For one – dad was buried in Viking armour made by his eldest son. Secondly, the dead is usually not buried next to a chieftain’s home. Thirdly, in Zulu culture it was unconventional for my sister, a concrete artist, to build, construct and supervise the building of a boma over dad’s grave on a Zulu homestead.
But oh the love! Oh the light! Oh the realisation that our opinions and biases are so tainted and fragile. My unconventional upbringing in an unconventional family had served to give me an understanding of the silliness of convention in general. I do not love this or that person for any particular reason. In general I don’t mingle much. Many people will say that I am a huge asshole, and they’d be quite right. But I have a certain love for my people and the people across the world which needs to be shared, cultivated and encouraged.
From what I’ve seen love is far more prevalent and powerful than most of the world claims. And hatred has a big enough podium and platform to spew from. It’s time for a change.
The road ahead – WE NEED YOU!
SAFFA abroad is far from complete – as a one-armed bandit or sorts, I’ve not quite managed to dedicate the hours, effort and time to this “neglected” lovechild of mine as I’d hoped to. It takes effort, diligence, and a level of social coherence which goes against the grain of conventional saffa forums to build this thing. It is requires cognisance of the desires, fears, bias and cultures of a global citizenship.
I have therefore refrained from asking aid or requesting assistance from any group, business or forum which might aim to sway, convert or taint the wholesome and cohesive nature of SAFFA abroad. From a paying position where I’d been compelled to sway the reasoning of my fellow saffas in faroff corners in the world, I’ve moved to one without monetary gain purely to create a better, more positive and cohesive space for expats globally.
Nevertheless, any input, ideas or collaborations would be greatly appreciated and considered and SAFFA abroad would be grateful for input from our sapien kin across the world. NO idea, thought or concern would be considered trivial.
If you wish to contribute, have any thoughts on how we can grow this positive network or want to become a voice for positive South African vibes which sees no borders – feel free to drop me a mail on firstname.lastname@example.org.
ALL THE SAFFA LOVE