“So How Long Will You Stay in South Africa?” On Answering the Underlying Question

Even though I have definitely picked up some South African lingo, most locals still hear straight away that I’m not a national (yet). Once that is clear and they understand that I’m not Dutch or German, but Belgian, they ask me how long I’ve been in South Africa (since August 2013). The follow-up question to that is how long Kim and I are planning to stay.

And that’s a very loaded question. Because in that inquiry, a lot of times there is a deeper, unspoken question: “You have a European passport, why on earth would you prefer living here instead of there?” Especially in light of some of the recent political events in South Africa, but also related to crime stats and the economy, I’ve seen and heard a lot of (mostly white upper-class) South Africans looking for an escape plan. It baffles them that someone who has that escape option would willingly and indefinitely move away from Europe.

Because this is my response to the question they ask: “I love living in South Africa and we’re not planning on moving to Europe.”

There are many reasons for that reply, and in light of the so many warnings (again mostly by white upper-class South Africans) about the country being a sinking ship, I would like to share some of the reasons why I love living here and am not planning to move back.

Beauty and Food

South Africa – and, in particular, Cape Town – is the most beautiful place I’ve every been to. I’ve traveled a lot but nowhere have I seen such a great and dense diversity in nature, landscape, and culture. I love that I can be a city slicker and still enjoy gorgeous pieces of nature close-by.

The food and drinks are world class and I love food. I still miss certain Belgian things, but if I’m really honest, Cape Town’s food blows Belgium’s away. The craft beer, the wines and the coffee create an amazing well-rounded pallet. (And I can still find some great Belgian beers in local liquor stores.)

We also have a very practical reason for living here: Kim’s research is focused on South Africa (and developing countries) while my job can be done from anywhere in the world. So it wouldn’t make sense to live somewhere far from Kim’s research field.

Serving the Community

Some of the above reasons are selfish. They are reasons that are convenient for me/us. I, however, hope that I don’t just live somewhere to take and consume (Belgian colonialists have left horrible scars in Congo, Rwanda and Burundi doing just that). One of the things that strikes me in all the discussions about the sinking ship is that in very few instances South Africa’s well-being is concerned. On a surface level maybe it is, but once you dive in the comments, it’s very often about self-protection and self-benefit. The “Zuma is ruining the chances of the poor” actually means “Zuma is destroying the rand and that means my money is worth less”.

While I get those reasons and they are valuable, it would be a pity to only focus on those. Countries aren’t changed for the good by the wealthy and educated elite fleeing. brain drain takes away some of the valuable resources of a country (not to be confused by the elite going to live/study somewhere else to come back after a few years, which is actually beneficial – or a move with close connections to South Africa and striving to improve the country).

I hope that our reason for wanting to live in South Africa is not a purely selfish one. I’d like to think that we partly want to stay here to help build the economy, by bridging between culture, age and income groups. Under Mandela, the beautiful vision of a rainbow nation was depicted as the remedy for the awfulness of Apartheid.

But what a lot of people do not seem to accept, is the fact that this rainbow is not as easily formed as light interacting with water. This type of rainbow is one that requires a joint effort. It’s hard work. I’m not willing to give up on this nation, though. More than ever since I first visited this country, I want to help build it.

With my own skills set, I hope to walk in Jonny Steinberg’s footsteps and find ways to share what I have with South Africa to make this a better place.* I want to follow Nic Haralambous’ example and engage with the influencers instead of just protesting against them. If I ever move away, I hope it is temporarily and with similar intentions as Nic Spaull: to recharge and get new perspectives, but with the intention of re-inserting my skills back into the country.

I want to help improve South Africa. Not because that will benefit me (although it will), but because I love this country and the people in it. I hope to do that through my professional (helping to build the economy), personal (decisions and NGO engagement), and church life (renewing Cape Town through the Gospel).

So how long will I stay in South Africa? I don’t know, but I have no plans for leaving. Through the frustrations, I see the beauty and it’s gorgeous potential, and I want to contribute to realising it. I hope that those who are pondering abandoning ship would join me and reconsider. If a Belgian with an easy exit voluntarily lives here …


* I here refer to Steinberg’s article, not to him leaving South Africa again very shortly after his move.