Action will tie young whites – and blacks – to Cyril’s tree
Leaving SA is no longer a race issue - South Africans of all hues are escaping the harsh realities of post-apartheid SA
When my son and his family decided to leave SA for a teaching assignment in New Zealand, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, this is the reality of work in a global economy; young people are much more likely than their parents to work for firms in other parts of the world. Nor is it a bad thing for youth to travel and experience other cultures and learn in other contexts. On the other hand, more and more of our most talented young professionals are leaving to escape some of the harsh realities of post-apartheid SA and we need to talk about that.
Of course, I am biased as a father, but my son is an exceptional educational psychologist who in his short working life has been devoted to serving children with learning disabilities. His wife is one of the most creative and talented teachers of young children, bringing as she does expertise from the arts to foundation-phase classrooms. They share degrees from leading SA universities, a major investment of public and personal funds in their training. And now, for two years at least, they will be working with children in rural communities north of Auckland.
The truth is, you will find more and more SA professionals living and working abroad to escape crime; many of them have personal horror stories of encounters with criminals. Some of them leave out of fear for their children’s safety and security. Young families depart because of concerns about the quality of education their offspring will receive. Then there is the nagging uncertainty about the economy and the increasingly sharp edge of racial politics. Like it or not, when white youth listen to threats about the seizure of private property and tell stories among themselves about being overlooked for jobs because of the colour of their skin, they not only feel hopeless but unwanted too.
The opportunities for young South Africans are endless. I lost count of how many of my former students, white and black, now teach in Dubai. A growing number of relatives and friends now teach English in the UK or Vietnam or any number of Asian countries. For many young professionals, these are exciting adventures into the unknown such as told in one of my favourite new books, There goes English teacher: life lessons from a globe-trotting educator by Karin Cronje; hers is a funny, eye-opening memoir about teaching in a small Korean village.
President Ramaphosa, on a recent election stomp through my new home town of Stellenbosch, reportedly said: “I don’t want white, young South Africans to leave the country. And if I could, I would tie them down to a tree and say don’t leave, I want you here in this country. So, I want all the skills.” This, I thought, was an important statement, but the elections were hardly over when the secretary-general of his party said this in a prepared speech honouring the great Walter Sisulu: “The control of the resources of our country is still primarily in the hands of white people, who are the descendants of colonists who stole our wealth and land in the first place.” When young white South Africans hear such doublespeak, they head for the airport.
Make no mistake, leaving the country is no longer a race issue; in fact, one survey suggests more young black professionals are leaving than whites. And it is not unskilled, poorly educated young people leaving; it is, in fact, our most talented youth who are being snapped up to work as engineers, IT professionals, management consultants and accountants around the world. With a school system that remains seriously dysfunctional for 80% of our children, the last thing we can afford is to lose talented teachers. Which raises the question: what can be done?
First of all, government needs to get its message consistent – we need talented professionals to stay and for those who leave, to come back at some stage to help rebuild the economy. Our leaders must sell this proposition as a win-win situation for individuals and society; I have never believed that we need to trade off white talent for black opportunity. There is more than enough productive work for skilled professionals across the board. Then, the government has to demonstrate that it is dealing with corruption, crime and the quality of education. Ultimately, what will keep talented youth here or bring them back is action, not words. And, of course, I then get to see my granddaughter more often!