Exodus

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I took advantage of the easing of lockdown restrictions two weeks ago and headed off on holiday. Not that I’d been having such a bad time of lockdown. But wider vistas were in order. I did what many thousands of other Gautengers had decided to do, judging by the lines of 4x4s piled high with the best camping gear on offer, and the butch bush-camp trailers and assorted caravans on the south-bound N3 toll gates at the end of the long weekend.

We are the smallest province geographically, so, when they lock us down, we are confined to a very small neck of the woods with mainly urban options. We were chomping at the bit when release day came. 

It happened to be World Tourism and Rural Development Day when I set off to resuscitate the domestic tourism economy. But I wasn’t responding to the pleas of the Tourism Minister or even Cyril Ramaphosa’s exhortations to do our bit for the economy. I was going because I needed to, I had the means and there were no longer any barriers in my way. O sweet liberty.

As John Kane-Berman noted this week in Daily Friend, ordinary folk tend to ‘pull together and grow South Africa’ every day without the sanctimonious prodding of ministers or presidents.

I took a route to the Kruger National Park through pretty Magoebaskloof, bypassing the hotel where our frustrated finance minister retreats to, in order to recover after every NEC and Cosatu refusal to countenance desperately needed structural economic reforms. I jiggled past potholes and braked for cows and goats on the roads of former homelands.  

There were plenty of other so-called ‘vulnerables’ (in fact, population estimates show us growing to 9,1% of the population) heading the same way as me. We were the lucky ones, with our own transport and disposable income. Not those poor ‘older persons’ government continues to condemn to isolation and imprisonment in ‘residential facilities’ across the country,

Last redoubt of the geriatric gringo

Of course, we were also not the only ones in this exodus to the great beyond. While some in my family refer, with reason, to the Park as the last redoubt of the geriatric gringo, there were plenty of young couples, families and groups of friends, of all shades, who’d chosen it as their post-lockdown destination.

With our flasks of tea, packets of biltong and tots of Amarula, we would go off the grid, braai, bicker over the binoculars and seek out predators who would do us no harm and give us pleasure.

We would listen to bird calls rather than the tedious testimony of wicked and amoral men and women at the Zondo Commission, or the tendentious utterings of political pundits.

But road trips and the long stretches between animal sightings also mean one has plenty of time to ponder.

I don’t know what the others dwelt on, but I pondered immigration and emigration on the straight roads between rest camps and through the first rains of the season.

What makes one stay in a country, what makes one leave it? What keeps you tied to your country, or loosens the bonds?

For the first time, emigration has touched me personally. Close relatives have gone – they went for better prospects for their child, for greater safety and security. Other people I know are putting down four loved pets before leaving. For better work prospects. 

Most of the 259 000 domestic workers who lost their jobs between April and end of June this year were victims of the lockdown. Unable to work from home. Or no longer affordable for people with lockdown-hit businesses. But my neighbourhood WhatsApp messages indicate many were also losing their employers to other countries.

Deep into the new diaspora age

In the restaurant of the upmarket bush lodge between the Levubu and the Limpopo Rivers, where I am staying thanks to an alluring lockdown special 50% discount for domestic tourists, a woman ends her birthday celebration with a Skype call to her children and grandchildren in America. We are deep into the new diaspora age.

There has to be both some push and some pull to lever one out of Africa, with its big skies, its array of people, its famous ‘quality of life’ for the lucky middle class.

Is the push behind all these departures the realisation we may not overcome our troubles? That our economy will not improve in the short term or before it’s too late to escape? Is it the growing threat of expropriation, of prescription? Is it an increasing realization that some of us are not wanted on the voyage to the National Democratic Revolution’s utopian destination?

This year is the 200th anniversary of the arrival of the 1820 settlers from the United Kingdom, whose historic landing in Algoa Bay has received almost no public attention this past Heritage Day.

That’s to be expected, I suppose. Why would government mention the antecedents of many of the frogs it is slowly boiling and depriving of their descendants’ future prospects?

It’s curious, though, that our media did not bother to mention this anniversary when 1820 settler Thomas Pringle is the man whom journalists credit with creating a free press in South Africa, something they’ve been fighting to hold on to despite government predations, and which has enabled them to expose so much of the venality that’s ruined our country’s prospects.

One of those 1820 settlers, in the Howard Party off the vessel, Ocean, was a carpenter from Buckinghamshire and an ancestor of mine. Within two decades, his descendants had left scrubby Salem Hills in the Eastern Cape and were integrating with the Barolong, Korana and other settler groups who were also fleeing famine and war and seeking new prospects in the Caledon River valley.

Lure of land ownership

I presume the push from Buckinghamshire was strong: no work, no prospects. The pull was the lure of land ownership, the chance to build something enduring. Sadly, the land assets never transpired. Still, they stayed.

But, as Bruce Whitfield wrote in Business Insider recently, middle-class families are losing faith in South Africa’s turnaround. Their ties to the country of their birth and in many cases their ancestors are being severely tested.  

The latest Quarterly Labour Report is likely to increase that loss of faith and more will leave.

Still, as the saying goes, the best thing about going away on a trip is coming home.

When I get back to Johannesburg, the Daily Maverick is telling me I should be optimistic because things are finally moving on the clean-up front, with 17 corruption arrests on the Hawks scalp belt and more expected.

The Western Cape’s David Maynier assures me that, despite the usual government-created confusion, the Germans will be coming in to rescue my holiday hosts who are desperately waiting to be saved by foreign tourists with real money to spend.

I’m all ready to be swept along on a little crest of hope.

Then along comes Senekal; nothing looks certain and I’m back to pondering.

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