I start from diminished expectations.
My first experience with the UK was registering my company and opening business bank accounts. In South Africa, as a local, it takes two months to register the company and another three months to then open the bank accounts.
In the UK, it took 24 hours. And I walked away with a personal credit card, despite having no credit history. This, by the way, after the collapse of the credit industry. Not that I’m complaining.
This vote of confidence allowed me to rent a small apartment just outside the centre of Oxford. I was told that, living alone, I could apply for reduced rates. I’m used to dealing with municipalities. So, I fortified myself with a jug of coffee and a book, and phoned.
An actual human being answered, which was a surprise. I was expecting one of those multiple-guess things.
“Hi, I have just rented an apartment and I live alone. I gather I can have the rates reduced. Who do I speak to?”
I now prepared myself for the inevitable paper-chase. The chap asked for my account number and then followed up with, “Right, and how else can I help you?”
“No, just that,” I said.
“OK, well then, thank you so much for calling and please call again should you need anything else.”
“Wait, wait, wait,” I stammered. “Are we done?”
“Oh, yes,” he said. “All done. I’ll send you a letter just confirming these changes.”
And that is what life in the UK is like. People do their jobs. That is startling. But, I’ll put that in perspective for you in a bit.
My then partner and I struggled with contact. We spoke every day. We were able to see each other on the rare occasions that the broadband connection in South Africa held and we could use Skype. The rest of the time were the daily spoken words. Of love. Of missing someone else beyond the bearing of it. Of hoping and begging the universe that, one day, we will be together.
But it would never be an easy decision for her to leave, for reasons too personal to write about in such a public forum.
In September, she visited, at the tail-end of the English summer. She fell in love, as I knew she would, with the country and the people and the beauty of it all. In a really ugly restaurant that a friend had recommended, with mannequin heads and arms fighting out of the walls, I proposed.
It wasn’t romantic, but it was inevitable.
I returned to South Africa in April to be married.
A year away had changed me. The edge that I had – that protective screen – was gone. I could see, for the first time, how brittle everyone in South Africa is. How you act to protect yourself from others. How close to the surface the violence and rage is.
In the UK, if someone stops you in the street to ask for directions, you’ll probably tell them and chat briefly in friendly conversation. In South Africa, outside of a few obvious tourist spots, you will be pushed away with a look of fury and fear.
I felt like I was suffocating. I hated it. I was scared and worried. I only wanted to get away. To be safe.
My new wife and I would be leaving for the UK together. Starting a new life. But first, we would have to settle the old one.
We queued at the Department of Home Affairs for our official marriage certificate. It took a whole day to move, slowly, through the queues. There were only two people assigned to handling a queue of 70 people. Behind them, papers were piled randomly, yellowing, damp and rotten. Dozens of people sat in the open office and drank tea, oblivious to doing their jobs.
“Your certificate will be ready in six weeks,” we were told.
“When will it really be ready?” I asked.
“In three months.”
I left the documentation with my parents. It is now four months since we put in the application and Home Affairs tells us they have no record of the application (despite receipts, copies of applications, copies of receipts of applications and my father’s regular calls to verify progress) and can we please apply again. I’m thinking it’ll be easier to simply get remarried in the UK.
A few months ago, frustrated beyond measure while waiting for an identity book – without which a South African cannot work, cannot live – a young man walked into a Johannesburg Home Affairs office and held the entire management at gunpoint for several days. It is a mark of the national despair with bureaucracy and inefficiency that he was celebrated and cheered as a hero.
South Africa has a new glass ceiling. It is a limitation on professional work. The country has an appalling skills shortage. But the shortage is not of top analysts, engineers or scientists (which they don’t have either) but of artisans and managers. In summary, the layer of people who are sufficiently skilled to even understand the intense and intellectually-driven computational analysis that I do no longer exist.
I’ve discussed this with colleagues and my business partner. South Africa is still a grand investment destination for capital assets (mining, plant, machinery) but definitely not if you are in the services sector. South Africa’s income inequality is legend. But it is very distorted.
Relative to their efficiency and productivity, both the unionised unskilled and the CEO manager-level are overpaid and underworked. The skilled level of professionals are underpaid relative to any measure you care to name. That is why the bulk of them are emigrating.
Companies in South Africa are conservative and unlikely to try new approaches to risk management (my profession). My only work in the last two years in South Africa was the equivalent of license-plate manufacturing.
In the UK, I travel extensively. I have worked with some of the largest companies in the world where my ideas and opinions are listened to, discussed and frequently employed. It is, professionally, one of the most fulfilling periods of my life.
A month ago, South African newspapers were crowing about the sudden return of many expatriates to the country from the UK. “Life isn’t as good over there,” was the general consensus.
But, again, let’s put that in perspective. A person who graduates with a weak high-school certificate is in the minority in South Africa amongst so many who don’t graduate at all. You are considered “skilled” and in demand in labour-intensive businesses.
The 25% of long-term unemployed South Africans are, in fact, unemployable. They have no skills or abilities that are of any use at all. If the government hadn’t introduced minimum wages and minimum rules of employment, perhaps they could get a job in a Chinese-style sweatshop. That — without debating the merits or concerns of such an approach — isn’t permitted.
So they remain unemployed.
This gives many South Africans a false sense of superiority. Graduates arriving with these qualifications in the UK find that they are not in the middle, they’re at the bottom. For, even in South Africa, these are the absolute minimum requirements to secure work. But here, the majority have these skills.
Young South Africans find themselves competing with Indians and Poles and Australians for the same jobs. Many give up.
Yet the highly skilled, such as myself, are in demand. My wife was employed only a few weeks after starting to look for work here, and is still receiving job offers. An astonishing number of local businesses are owned by South Africans; all doing very well.
Skills are skills, even in an economic downturn.
And the quality of life is outstanding. Certainly, there are issues (and I could spend hours writing about the dismal performance of state-run healthcare) but life is treasured here.
And that is a good thing.
The last year has been difficult, but it has also been rebirth.
Return to Part 1: One year an immigrant: a resolution