Emigration 1 – Little Drops of Decision

Maybe you once cared for a drug addict? What led them there, what keeps them there? Not your problem. And you believe in all that “tough love” shit; you know that they must make the decision to come clean and live responsibly.

But you also believe that you can make that journey easier for them by showing them how an addiction-free life can be, and by offering them the advantages that make it worth going cold to achieve.

At some point, though, maybe you get an inkling that the process isn’t working. Maybe it’s after they’ve come out of rehab once too often, only to go on a binge again, that you start thinking that the effort isn’t worth the stress.

Countries are like that too.

A sense of fairness

Out of my high-school class, probably only 20% are still in the country. Probably even fewer from those I graduated with in University. And there have been plenty of reasons to go.

Prior to 1994 it was because of the racist, Apartheid policies of the white-minority government which resulted in sanctions which froze out opportunities for those professionals who lived here. Then it was the violent transition to majority rule during the 1990s.

In 1994, it was because of the uncertainty of black-majority rule. In 1998 it was the transition from Nelson Mandela to Thabo Mbeki, the collapse of the currency and so on.

Right now it is the in-fighting in the ANC, the collapse of critical infrastructure (several hours of power failures every day) and the gradual shift of our politics towards communism.

All good reasons. None of them mine.

I became a communist as a child without knowing what communism was. I supported the liberation of black South Africans who I saw as being enslaved. They were regularly accused of being communists by the government media, and so I became a communist in their support.

For me, it wasn’t about leaving to pursue my own opportunities; it was about ensuring an environment in which all were free to pursue their interests. I knew that I hated slavery; no person should ever be forced to work against their own best interests.

Black South Africans were abused in ways I had no words for, but it cut deep into my sense of fairness.

I believed, and was willing to fight, for universal freedom.

When Nelson Mandela became our president he didn’t just say all the right things, he did them too. He lived tolerance, benevolence and an inclusive form of governance.

His economics were weak, but I had a genuine sense that we were all working on this project called The New South Africa together.

Creating my hopes

I have been involved in community and social development since as long as I can remember. I cut firewood at a township crèche as a 10-year-old boy-scout. I volunteered my time at the Animal Welfare and Aquarium throughout my school years.

In university I tutored township kids through high-school, complimenting the appalling Apartheid education system with all my own learning. This was before 1994. Before majority rule.

I would get ferried into the townships where the majority of South Africans lived. Places barricaded behind barbed wire and military checks. Places that it was nominally illegal for whites to visit but where Apartheid was already falling apart. Everyone knew the end was coming. No-one knew what would come next.

In 1994, before the elections, I already knew that there was an economic problem coming. I had no political affiliations, no knowledge of business or economics, but I could see the patterns. There were teeming masses of unemployed people, and not enough jobs.

I was a scientist and I asked the obvious question. How can the dreams and ambitions of the majority be satisfied if they cannot earn a living? I was smart enough to know that jobs wouldn’t fall from the sky just because we’d had a democratic revolution.

As I shouted at an ANC Youth League cadre who was demanding his rights, “How long are you prepared to wait after freedom comes? You do know that freedom includes the freedom to starve?”

So I started developing business and entrepreneurship training courses. By the time I graduated in 1998, it was my career.

Losing my dreams

Mandela, for all his genius at nation-building, was no economist. The South African business environment was weak and failing. When Thabo Mbeki succeeded him in 1998 I hoped, along with many others, that now we would start working.

But I was troubled. For all Mbeki’s impressive way of speaking, and his seemingly astute political sense, I had an uneasy feeling that something was wrong.

He had a prickly way of dealing with the opposition and disagreement. His rejection of scientific research that declared HIV a threat was astonishing. His refusal to recognise the disaster about to strike Zimbabwe. All that was a mystery.

His championing of Black Economic Empowerment – an exchange of the empowerment of white Afrikaans-speaking men for the empowerment of black men – was a serious confusion.

Looking at the whole of the difficulties of the South African economy he had identified a single cause for poverty and joblessness: being black.

Lack of education or economic growth had, in Mbeki’s eyes, nothing to do with poverty. Only skin colour. He had bought entirely into the vision of his erstwhile oppressors. Instead of punishing people for being black, now it became a symbol of victimhood and charity.

Even so I still had the feeling I could work. I could deliver.

And, largely, I did. My entrepreneurial development projects created thousands of new businesses. I lectured and taught all over the country.

But it was like being on quicksand. As fast as I could start ’em government entitlement programs would undermine them. Cut the legs out from underneath.

The only way to get ahead was through connections, pull and the appropriate high-profile “black” business partner.

Losing my shirt

In 2004 I quit. I wanted to get into the private sector.

But the years of undermining the state, of appointing people based on their race rather than their ability, was starting to have its effects. Massive and crippling power-failures in the Western Cape put paid to my fledgling new business.

I went back into development consulting. I thought I could reverse the collapse by rating the effectiveness of development projects. I uncovered a major fraud within months of beginning.

I was certain that the value of my work would be recognised and appreciated.

It wasn’t.

The only work I have been able to get for two years now is significantly beneath my creativity and ability.

The gradual and continual undermining of the skills base; of exporting our most talented people while promoting only the most contemptible has its conclusion. What good is talent when those who would hire it no longer have the skills to appreciate it?

At the end of 2007 the logical happened. The logical that I had predicted and warned against.

Losing the light

The government claims to have been caught by surprise by the major power failures that struck South Africa in late 2007. The government’s own analysts presented a report in 1998 declaring that we’d run out of power by 2007. Most of those people were white males. They have been “empowered” by being fired and replaced by black people.

It’s very easy to be surprised when you refuse to acknowledge that there may be a downside to firing skilled people because of their race and hiring others based on their political affiliations and connections.

South Africa, far from being a non-racial society, has become entirely defined by race. It is the number one question when I apply to work. It is the only thing to bring to the table.

Thabo Mbeki was displaced by Jacob Zuma. The political party that had given us Albert Luthuli, Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela would now throw up a verminous louse of a man. A serially corrupt and abusive man who is so stupid that he thinks that a shower is sufficient to wipe off the HIV he covered himself with when raping a house-guest.

A man promoted to power by communists and unionists who believe that, once they’re in power, they can nationalise the productive parts of the economy and redistribute this money to the power. Like Cuba, but without the Latin beat.

Fergal Keane, a BBC journalist, interviewed Zuma for his documentary, “No more Mandela’s”. It is an epic and seminal piece of journalism. Here’s a brief transcript from his interview with Zuma:

KEANE: Is it not extraordinary hypocrisy for Jacob Zuma to lecture anybody about HIV and AIDS when you’re the man who stood up in a courtroom and acknowledged having unprotected sex with somebody you knew was HIV positive, and then you come out and say: “Well I took a shower and therefore thought I’d be okay.”

ZUMA: The story of the shower makes big news.

KEANE: Did you really think that would get rid of HIV, having a shower?

ZUMA: No. Did I think so? No. It’s your guys, the media who says so, who say I believed it will take out AIDS. How could I believe that?

KEANE: But do you not think that whole episode casts grave doubt on your fitness for any kind of office, let alone the presidency of South Africa?

ZUMA: No, it can’t be.. it can’t be. What happened, that case, was what happen to people. People make mistakes in their lives, and for that mistake I apologised to the people of South Africa.

KEANE: Ethically and morally are you fit to lead this country?

ZUMA: Absolutely fit. Absolutely fit. I have been fit to fight for the freedom of this country. I have been fit to be in the ANC leadership as that thing happened when I’m already in the ANC leadership and I’m still fit, and I’ve got a better lesson to tell people, don’t commit the same mistake.

KEANE: But this is still a country where the powerful can be held to account. In 2005 Zuma’s financial advisor went to jail for his role in a corrupt arms deal with a foreign company. Now Zuma has been charged with corruption.

A lot of people think you’re a crook.

ZUMA: Is that so? (laugh) Ah huh, I want to see those people and government tell me why they think I’m a crook.

KEANE: Well there’s a whole army of prosecutors clearly think it.

ZUMA: Ah huh, is that so? Oh! Serious.

KEANE: Are you a crook?

ZUMA: Me?! What? I don’t know, unless I must go to the dictionary and learn what a crook is. I’ve never been a crook.

KEANE: Somebody who takes money from other people for corrupt purposes.

ZUMA: Have I ever done so?

KEANE: I’m asking you.

ZUMA: No. I think that’s a mistake you guys make, and I’ve said I currently have two trials, a trial by the media and then trial by court. I’m saying I’m not a crook, I have never been a crook. I will never be a crook.

Government officials – especially the ANC hierarchy – are used to being treated with slavish adulation by the local press, so this was especially shocking. And Zuma looked shocked.

It is no wonder that a week later Zuma was keen to speak at a black’s-only function. Barely 14 years into democratic rule and we have a deliberately racially exclusive function. How little things change.

“I saw nothing wrong,” said ANC president Jacob Zuma when asked whether he approved of the exclusion of white journalists from an address at the Forum of Black Journalists.

I am not a slave

The truth is that I am not here out of any sense of guilt or duty. I am here to test my abilities. To see what I can achieve.

However, that comes with a rider. I can only achieve in an environment that respects my independence and desires what I can do.

South Africa is becoming a place that does neither.

I could accept the situation when we really were a dictatorship. I could even accept the situation when the ANC was still learning the ropes.

But I can accept it no longer.

I am not prepared for my talents, and the value that I generate through those talents, to be used in the service of a new dictatorship.

From 1 May 2008 I will be in the UK. I will have gone into exile from my home, joining millions of other Africans who have chosen life over brutality.

I am not a slave.

14 replies »

  1. What an amazing piece of work this is. Thank you.

    I wonder if it’s universal that repressive regimes that hold a substantial part of their population in abject ignorance, misery, and poverty, will always, in the end, produce a backlash, and that this backlash will amost always put those same ignorant, miserable, angry, and poor people into roles they are not able to assume competently.

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  4. JS: You encapsulate the human experience of the chaos of political transition rather well.

    The only two I can think of, as examples to counterpoint your conclusion, are Germany and Japan after WWII. However, there a foreign administration ran the government while a foreign occupation army ran security for almost a decade after the war. Both countries still house massive US military bases.

    Iraq provides an example of why it is necessary to do both. Clearly, it was politically infeasible to keep an occupation administration in, but being the military lacky of a corrupt government doesn’t work particularly well.

    The only example from Africa is that of Liberia where the largest UN mission in history has become the entire economy of that tiny nation. They have only just – after around five years of occupation – had their first elections and the country is still under UN rule. Perhaps this will work?

  5. You should consider trying to get a contract to write a book about you and South Africa.