Returning ‘home’ — a South African expat’s decision to move abroad

Susan Arthur, the newest member of our team, reflects on her decision to leave South Africa and move to Scotland, in a reversal of the trip taken by her grandparents in the 1940s

To leave or to remain — a question that will dominate political debate in the UK as June 23rd advances. Two years ago I confronted my own version of that question — should I stay or should I go? I left South Africa in October 2014 with little more than two suitcases and my visa in hand for a country that could provide greener (and wetter) pastures.

This choice has confronted many generations of South Africans. But it has never been a simple one. My birthplace is the rainbow nation, a country that welcomes diversity with its eleven official languages and progressive Constitution; graced by a special brand of ‘Madiba magic’. But it is also troubled, plagued by corruption, an unstable economy and a climate of fear — underlined by what government officials often refer to as the ‘triple evils’ of poverty, inequality and unemployment.

Living in Johannesburg, the ‘city of gold’, I was confronted too often with this reality — what artist William Kentridge described as: “a daily, low grade civil war at every stop street”. On any given day you see this poverty as you try to ignore the person at your window begging for money or selling you fake Raybans, handmade wire crafts or dodgy memory cards. You wave to your security guard as you pull in to your walled complex and tip the petrol attendant a few rands extra in an attempt to feel a little better about your privileged position behind the wheel.

My adopted Scottish home feels a million miles away from this. But while I am far from home I am also close to home — in a sense I have returned to my roots. My paternal grandparents escaped post war Scotland in the 1940s in search of a better life, first to what was then Rhodesia and eventually settling in Cape Town.

I now live not far from 115 Aros drive, Glasgow — where my father visited his grandparents as a wee ten year old, scolded to sit still when he was desperate to escape outside and play. He was accompanying his parents on ‘home leave’ — a three month long holiday which allowed families who had left the UK for ‘the colonies’ to visit home.

Britain in many ways now offers young South Africans like me the opportunity for a better quality of life — a similar impulse to what drove my grandparents’ decision to migrate 70 years ago.

But a move in the 1940s cannot have been easy. Their way of communicating was to write a letter — phone calls were reserved for emergencies only. Visits to the UK were restricted to periods of home leave once every few years and it took a month by boat to travel. The Rhodesia of the 1940s was so far removed from post-war Glasgow that my grandmother cried every day for months afterwards.

I know my experience cannot compare but I empathise with my grandmother’s homesickness. Sting sang about being ‘a legal alien’ — an Englishman in New York - I understand this idea of not belonging — I feel like an imposter who sounds different and doesn’t know how to dress for any and every weather eventuality. Although my grandparents are from here, I feel no immediate sense of connection.

Renowned South African writer Johnny Steinberg articulated this desire for a sense of belonging better than I can. In a widely shared essay he wrote about his decision to leave his comfortable life in Oxford and return to Johannesburg. “There is nonetheless something for which I know I ache, and it is only to be found in my native land. When I lock eyes with a stranger on Johannesburg’s streets, there is a flicker, a flash communication, so fast it is invisible, yet so laden that no words might describe it. Whoever he is, he clocks me as I pass, and reads me and my parents and my grandparents; and I, too, conjure, in an instant, the past from which he came. As we brush shoulders the world we share rumbles around us, its echoes resounding through generations. “

Unlike Steinberg I have no immediate wish to return to South Africa for the long term — I have enjoyed the easier lifestyle here and temper bouts of homesickness with calls home and indulging in the occasional biltong feast. I’ve made an uneasy peace with having one foot in each place.